Puppets, clowns and hobbits sneak into ATP

By Nicole Kobie

Bob White has a lot to live up to this season.

Alberta Theatre Projects–the company White is Artistic Director for–had a stellar 2000 run, with critically-acclaimed and award-winning productions such as The Drawer Boy, Perfect Pie, The Shape of a Girl, Respectable, 24 Exposures… well, you get the picture. In fact, at the Betty Mitchell Awards–the Oscars for theatre in Calgary–those very plays won ATP 10 of the 15 awards presented.

This season, however, has the potential to be even better. The first play out of the gate is Happy, the latest marionette masterpiece from local puppeteer Ronnie Burkett.

"Ronnie [Burkett] is sort of a Calgary treasure in many ways," begins White. "It’s not a phrase that I like to use much, but he’s world class."

And with the growing enthusiasm for puppetry in this city, the more seats, the better.

The show, "a celebration of the joy of being alive," will, according to White, please old fans and excite new ones.

"The work is so powerful, that often 20 minutes into one of Ronnie’s shows, I sort of forget they’re puppets, just because the work is so mesmerizing."

Burkett is a tough act to follow, but Michel Tremblay is certainly up to the challenge. The Quebec playwright, one of the most frequently produced in Canada, has written since the ’60s. Strangely, his work is rarely seen in Calgary–with the exception of this season. Not only is ATP staging his recent work For the Pleasure of Seeing her Again–a moving tribute from a son to his mother–but the University of Calgary Drama department is also producing Les Belles-Soeurs, one of his earlier works.

"Calgary’s going to have a chance to catch up a bit, if you will, with what I think is one of our most important writers," says White. "I think there is a sense… Calgary audiences are not going to relate to it… we’ve probably been guilty of underestimating peoples’ attention and their intelligence."

The third instalment in ATP’s season takes advantage of a current trend in pop culture–children’s fantasy stories turned movies. With the November and mid-December releases of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone and the first instalment of the Lord of the Rings trilogy sure to make a massive splash at the box office, ATP has made the wise decision to feature the adaptation of The Hobbit for their yearly holiday family presentation.

"It’s a tidal wave out there," explains White. "We’re being quite crass; we are hanging on to the coattails of all of that hype for the Lord of the Rings movies."

One of the few adaptations authorized by the Tolkein estate, this production first premiered in Banff, and was staged by Shakespeare in the Park two summers ago. However, staging this story is not as simple as it sounds.

"When you sign a license with the Tolkein estate, you have to agree that you’re not going to do anything outside the spirit of the book, however you define that," explains White about the process. "They have a very tight control on how the images from the trilogy and The Hobbit are presented."

The next event for ATP is the ever-popular PanCanadian PlayRites Festival, held annually in January. Four plays are currently on the bill: Midlife, by ATP’s writer-in-residence Eugene Stickland; Mary’s Wedding, by Theatre Calgary’s writer-in-residence, local playwrite Stephen Massicotte; Moliere, by Sabina Berman; and For Love and Money, by Rachel Wyatt.

Both Midlife and For Love and Money take a sharp look at the dark side of the Oil Patch, something that should hit home for many corporate Calgarians. Mary’s Wedding examines a couple’s relationship before, during and after the First World War, and Moliere is a clever comedy exploring 17th century French

"Moliere is just incredible," says White. "It’s an examination of Moliere a la Amadeus."

Currently in workshops with the four PlayRites writers in Banff, White notices some differences in the Calgary-based artists versus the out-of-towners.

"In general, Calgary-based artists tend to be a bit more open, quite frankly, than Toronto-based or Vancouver-based theatre artists. There’s a stronger sense of community here, maybe because they’re working on home turf."

If that isn’t enough for you, check out the clowns in hell. That’s right; Mump and Smoot–the self-described clowns from hell–are making their triumphant return, for nine shows only and for the last time ever. Micheal Kennard and John Turner, the brains behind the crazy clowns, are retiring soon.

"The boys are starting to get into their mid 40s and to do that sort of stuff on a regular basis is tough because it’s so physical," laments White. "They’ll be hanging up their red noses fairly soon."

"They were a bit of a risk last time [spring 2000], because no one in Calgary really knew who they were," remembers White. "There was a kind of, ‘oh my god, who are these people?’ but it just sold by the time the second and third performances… the rest of the run was sold out."

Once Mump and Smoot make their grand final exit, the stage will be privy to recent hits. These two international plays have been successful in London, New York, and around the world–consider them the interational requirements for the season.

The first is Martin McDonagh’s The Beauty Queen of Leenane, a combination horror, melodrama and love story, set in rural Ireland. Since its premiere when Martin was 23, Beauty Queen’s success has made its writer a worldwide sensation.

The second international play, Art, ends the season for ATP. On the surface, it’s the story of one man’s purchase of a white painting, and his friends’ arguments that it isn’t art. On a deeper level, it’s a strange tale of male bonding that asks, "what makes a friendship?"

While it may sound from the variety in this list that ATP might cover all your theatre needs, don’t forget the other theatres, including some more off-the-wall productions.

"There’s an awful lot of interesting work being done outside the mainstream on any given night during the season you can see just about any kind of theatre. The great thing about that is you can really develop the sophistication of the audience."

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