Exploring the range of new Canadian theatre

By Sean Sullivan

The four plays presented by Alberta Theatre Projects at the 27th Annual Enbridge playRites Festival of New Canadian Plays demonstrate the ways playwrights are examining contemporary society.

“One of the things that I think Canadian playwrights are wonderful at is asking questions,” says Vicki Stroich, interim artistic director for Alberta Theatre Projects. “Not necessarily providing answers, not telling you how to live your life, but asking questions, presenting something that’s very human, that explores something that they see around them, that they’re curious about.”

The festival showcases new plays written by Canadian playwrights, and this year will be featuring The Valley, Dust, The Apology and The God That Comes. The festival will run from March 6–April 7.

The Valley by Joan MacLeod:

Siminovitch Prize winning playwright Joan MacLeod’s new play The Valley is about an 18-year-old man who drops out of the University of Calgary. The man, played by recent U of C department of drama graduate Zachary Dugan, suffers a psychotic breakdown on the Vancouver SkyTrain and an altercation with a Vancouver police officer.

“At its heart, the play is probably about depression more than anything,” MacLeod says. “I’m interested also in the way police have become the front-line workers with the mentally ill, how that’s changed in the last 20 or 30 years.”

The Valley also addresses the harmful stigma associated with mental illness.

“I sort of wanted to take away the us and them [mentality] with mental illness,” MacLeod says. “I think a lot of the time, especially with depression, it can be right there in your own family and you don’t understand what it is.” 

MacLeod, known for two other ATP plays, The Shape of a Girl in 2001 and Another Home Invasion in 2009, says her writing often begins from real incidents in the news. MacLeod was inspired to write The Valley about Robert Dziekanski, who died at Vancouver International Airport in 2007 after being tasered by the RCMP, but the story developed into something else entirely.

“I thought I had it all figured out when I started looking at it, and the more and more I looked at it, the more I thought, ‘Man, the police are in a really difficult situation a lot of the time,’ ” she says.

Dust by Jonathan Garfinkel and Christopher Morris

In order to write Dust, a play about about conflict and loss during the war in 
Afghanistan, Christopher Morris, who won a John Hirsch Prize in 2012 for emerging director, and Jonathan Garfinkel travelled to the Canadian Forces Base Petawawa in Ontario as well as Pakistan and Afghanistan to talk to the families of soldiers.

“There’s three different stories,” Stroich says, “about three different women, in three different families, who lose somebody, and the communities around them.”

Morris and Garfinkel collected interviews in Pakistan and Afghanistan to build their story. After a workshop run at Queen’s University in 2011 with a cast of more than 20 actors, and further work at the Banff Playwrights Colony, ATP supported them on another trip to Pakistan to re-examine the cultural context of their story. Stroich went with them as part of a creative team in September.

While the story is certainly politically charged, Stroich explains that when the play is seen through the lens of family it becomes a very human exploration.

The Apology by Darrah Teitel

It began with a novelty coffee mug.

Playwright Darrah Teitel’s says the inspiration behind her new play The Apology, about the lives of Mary and Percy Shelley, Lord Byron and Claire Clairemont, came to her while browsing a souvenir shop in Stratford, Ontario with a friend. As Teitel explains, the souvenir shop sold novelty mugs with caricatures of different famous writers: five mugs with men, one mug with women. The women’s mug contained Charlotte Bronte, Emily Bronte, Jane Austen, Sylvia Plath and Mary Shelley.

“I was looking at all these dim famous female writers,” Teitel says, “and was like, ‘Jeesh, they were all miserable.’ Every last one of them had a horrible life in reality.”

Teitel says her friend corrected her, pointing out that Shelley actually had a wonderful marriage. Teitel was then 
inspired to start digging into the writer’s life.

Teitel’s play centres around a utopian, communal, polyamorous “free-love” experiment that the Shelleys, Byron and Clairemont attempted during a trip to Switzerland. Teitel says that even though romantic poets are viewed as solitary, artistic and aesthetic geniuses, “their project was political as well, it was contextual, it wasn’t just aesthetic.”

But the play isn’t only set in the 1800s — the second act is set in the contemporary world.

“I am trying to make the point that we are continuously falling off the same log when it comes to women’s liberation and sexual politics,” Teitel says.

The God Who Comes, music and performance by Hawksley Workman, created by Christian Barry and Hawksley Workman

With The God That Comes, director Christian Barry and musician Hawksley Workman re-imagine the story of the Greek god Dionysus and the Theban king Pentheus as a one-man cabaret “where Hawksley plays all the characters and all the instruments,” says Barry.

Barry says he can’t figure out whether he brought rock and roll into theatre or the theatre to rock and roll.

“I think it probably resembles a rock concert more than it does a play,” he says.

Through various instruments, including drums, guitar, a ukelele and a small organ, combined with looping technology, Workman breathes the story to life.

“The story is mostly told through song, and characters will be revealed through song,” Barry says.

He explains it was “a natural marriage” to combine Workman and the ancient Greek tragedy The Bacchae, because going to his concerts was always a Bacchanalian experience.

“He’s a force of nature as an artist,” Barry says. “He’s got boundless creative energy, and he’s a ferocious performer.”

One of the central themes of the play, the importance of catharsis, is still very relevant in modern society, Barry explains.

“My experience of rock and roll music in particular is that it is quite a cathartic experience,” Barry says. “If you repress some of those very human, very animal, very carnal instincts, it seems to me that dangerous things can happen, whether that be something that happens in a repressed society at large or whether it happens on a more individual level. Just that notion of release, of abandon, of giving over to the music and a glass of wine is a really valuable thing.”


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