A Dispatch from the Field: Magnetic North Theatre Festival and Canadian Theatre
It’s Canada Day and I’m currently wrapping up my last week of an Artistic Directorship residency with The Magnetic North Theatre Festival. This is last leg of a personal mandate to study with three AD’s from Three Regions, Three Companies, and Three Mandates. Additionally, since doing the Shaw Festival Neil Munroe project in 2009, I have been exploring new techniques and art forms (new to me at any rate) in a journey that has included The Canadian Opera Company and Canadian Stage in Toronto, Imago Theatre, The Centaur and Playwrights’ Workshop Montreal in (you guessed it!) Montreal and Theatre Conspiracy in Vancouver. It seems fitting that this particular chapter in my life wraps up at a national festival that celebrates the diversity of Canadian Theatre practices and strives for cross pollination.
Aside from the personal pleasures of roaming the hallways of ancient black and white headshots and standing in line behind dancers of the Bolshoi Ballet to get a cup of coffee at the National Arts Centre or Calgary Poet Laureate Kris Demeanor jamming out on a guitar and discovering the existence of Punk Rock Bingo, this residency has allowed a brief exciting look into not only the Ottawa and Calgary theatre communities, but that of the nation.
The simple truth is it very difficult to make any claims about Canadian Theatre. Those two words “Canadian” and “Theatre” are at the best of times hard to define. What does that mean to be Canadian? We are a country in constant transition, a country at odds with its government and country made up of many different rich cultures, histories and ideas. We cannot be simply defined by French, English and First Nations or Left and Right Wing or Hockey. We are so much more than that. Ride a subway, trolley bus or skytrain anywhere and you will be surrounded by languages, stories and textures some foreign to your own personal background but obviously not to Canada itself. Each region, city, town and community is distinctive in its makeup.
Then how do we define “Theatre” when the work is so diverse? For any statement made about Canadian theatre in Ontario, the reverse is bound to be true in British Columbia and visa versa. Is “Theatre” referring to a venue, or can it exist in window displays, on rooftops and fire escapes. Is it defined by a script and an actor, or is it a grab bag dance, song, poetry and movement? Where do the visual and media arts come into play? Is it a result of collective creation or traditional text work or all of the above? Some of the first theatre performed in British Columbia was travelling troops performing on large tree stumps; Newfoundland has a long history of collectives.
While volunteering at The Theatre Centre in Toronto for a festival a few years ago, I was able to listen to several performance artists and modern dance makers discuss there work. The remarkable thing was discovering the same ideals and, in many case, practices that were being discussed where used in my own work with classical texts like Titus Andronicus and The Women of Troy.
Even what defines professional is in questions. The Fringe Festivals across the country are no longer simply a place of experimentation, exploration and development but a place where established artists make their livings. The major institutions are no longer simply places of traditional presentation and hiring but places that desire to expand the craft they practice. Although very different projects, Judith Thompson’s The Grace Project: SICK at Next Stage and The Shaw Festival’s The Cherry Orchard shared the same daring and exhilaration in their risk taking. In short, there is just as much fantastic quality work at the Edmonton Fringe as there is at The Stratford Festival.
The joy of having worked consistently in three diverse regions (Ontario, Quebec and, my home province, BC) over the last 3 years is I have been able to participate in and discover what is going in both the man stages, the independent theatres and emerging artists in these different areas. It is fascinating how each region has a different set of ideals, esthetics and theatrical priorities developed due to the needs and resources (or lack of resources) surrounding the artistic communities, each with its own set of strengths and challenges.
Where the west coast has rich tradition of collective creation, site specific and experimentation (perhaps developed out of a lack of venue and money) and Ontario has a strong tradition of text driven pieces and drive towards certain perfection. Quebec has its own fascinating mix as the Francophone artists have embraced the more poetic and expressionistic theatrical forms more common in Europe in their theatre that is also inspiring the Quebecois Anglophone theatre community on both the main stages and the independent companies.
Having the opportunity to witness the work and talk to artists from across the country at one time was invigorating. And again, the diversity of Canadian work was evident, ranging from Artistic Fraud (St. John’s) and their visually and musically rich Oil and Water to Cahoots Theatre’s (Toronto) elegant Paper Series. Calgary’s The Old Trout Puppet Workshop’s Ignorance and Human Cargo’s Inuktitut and English Night had very different reasons for being, yet there they were under the same roof. Even the solo shows, BC’s Carmen Aguirre’s Blue Box, Quebec’s Mani Soleymanlou ONE/UN, Ontario’s Raoul Bhaneja and Robert Ross Parker’s Hamlet (Solo) and a multitude of companies from Berlin to Toronto’s production of Nassim Soleimanpour’s White Rabbit, Red Rabbit all embraced vastly different styles, esthetics and presentation priorities.
From the deeply personal one person shows or 4 actors and nothing else on 6 by 4 riser (In the Wake, Downstage) to the large cast musicals, from the highly stylized or technical to the low budget gritty passion project, from the text based to the movement based, from traditional narrative to the media creation project, from the political cry to the educational, from new work to classical adaption or translation and from the large red seat theatre to the Hives, Subdivisions, Motel Rooms and Freestanding Spaces, it seems as if Canadian Theatre embraces everything from venue to discipline to style to story. And that, perhaps, is what makes us unique.