Entertainment

40 years of Alberta Theatre Projects

A look back at the growth of one of Calgary’s theatre companies

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Alberta Theatre Projects recently celebrated its 40th year on May 28, with an evening of staged readings and festivities at their home in the Martha Cohen Theatre in the Epcor Centre for the Performing Arts — a theatre that was designed for ATP when the Centre for the Performing Arts was constructed in 1985. The Martha Cohen Theatre is a big move from where the company began 40 years ago at the Canmore Opera House in Heritage Park, the log cabin that seated an audience of 198 people.


“We started as a scrappy little theatre company that did shows for young audiences about Alberta’s history,” Vicki Stroich says, interim artistic director at ATP.


Stroich, who has been with the company since 2001 and interned with them in 1999, says ATP is a flexible and forward-thinking institution that always needs to grow, change and take risks, but Stroich warns that ATP is very cautious and careful about strategizing the right time to take those risks. The company has learned in the past 40 years when it’s the right time to take a risk, having enjoyed immense success and having almost closed down in 2000.


“There’s always an ebb and flow in terms of the life of a theatre company,” Stroich says. “There are moments where there’s great excitement and energy, when the economy is aligning with what you want to do. And then there are always moments when it’s less so. When one is as bold and brave as ATP you take some risks and those risks put you in an interesting position.”


The company has been constantly changing since it began in 1972 in the Canmore Opera House where they presented plays about Alberta’s history to children. Few plays existed about Albertan history at the time so the company had to begin producing them. Over the next 13 years, before moving to the Epcor Centre, ATP began introducing more and more adult contemporary plays. Their fostering of Canadian talent continues today with the Enbridge playRites Festival of New Canadian Plays. 


“Premieres of new work have always been a part of our history all the way back,” Stroich says. “There’s always been a real sense of developing and nurturing artists who are creating new plays since the very beginning.”


Much of the attitude and feel of the old Canmore Opera House continues today in the Martha Cohen Theatre. The theatre was designed with the opera house in mind.


ATP producer Dianne Goodman, who has been with the company since 1983, says the architects designing the Martha Cohen Theatre were charged with recreating the warm atmosphere and the close relationship of the audience with the stage. The back row of the Canmore Opera House was 50 feet from the stage, and no seat in the Martha Cohen Theatre is further than 50 feet from the stage.


“I think they did that quite beautifully with the Georgian courtyard design — the horseshoe shape,” Goodman says.


In 1987, the artistic director at the time initiated what is now the Enbridge playRites Festival. Two years later they premiered Brad Fraser’s Unidentified Human Remains and the True Nature of Love — one of the most infamous productions from ATP — a play about young people in Edmonton fighting, having sex, and trying to survive and live together.


“It was a pretty bold piece of theatre and the audiences responded very strongly,” Stroich says.


Goodman said that sometimes Canadian theatre companies underestimate their audience and what their risk factor is.


“The word of mouth got out like a shot,” Goodman says. ATP had put up a sign warning about the play’s content, a sign which Goodman says became a part of the hype.


However the company’s embracing of change and risk took its toll during the 1999–2000 season when the company faced dire financial challenges. ATP changed its fall and spring lineup to a repertory format with their plays playing over the same period of time rather than consecutively.


“We thought that it would give [our audience] more choice and flexibility in when they could see the shows,” Goodman says, “but, in fact, what happened was they told us clearly, by not coming through our doors, that it was too much of a change.”


Goodman says they lost ground over a couple seasons until, by the end of the 1999–2000 season, they realized they were in trouble.


The artistic director at the time, Bob White, started the Million for the Millennium fundraising campaign to dig the company out of their financial shortfall, hoping to raise $1 million for their 2000–2001 season.


As with most fundraisers, there were different levels of donations and they were named after angels, representing one of ATP’s largest and boldest productions: Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes — a play which also includes nudity.


Angels in America was a huge part of our history and certainly our recent history,” Stroich says.


Stroich says that Tony Kushner’s play was a huge turning point for the company during its 1996–1997 season.


“It was a huge undertaking,” Stroich says. “And to me a great example of this company’s boldness, our ability to take on huge risks — the size, scale and content of that show was a bold statement to make and a lot for a theatre company to take on.”


“We wanted to honour that in the Million for the Millennium campaign with those names,” Stroich says. “And also because we needed some divine intervention at that moment.”


Supporters rallied, with money being donated from subscribers, old board members and theatre companies across Canada.


And ATP quickly reverted to a non-repertory season.


“When I talk about learning something from that period,” Stroich says, “it’s recognizing that the world evolves. Theatre has changed, the theatre ecology we live in currently is much different than it was 40 years ago in 1972.”


Looking ahead, one of Goodman’s passions is mentoring youth interested in becoming actors, directors, producers and stage crews.


ATP has a university internship program, which is how Stroich began at ATP in 1999, and a junior apprenticeship program that takes two students out of high school to work for a season with the company.


But Stroich admits options for young interns and junior apprentices are diminishing in light of recent cut backs in the province.


“How we contribute to making [this career] seem like a possibility in someone’s life, that’s something we’re going to have to certainly think a lot about,” Stroich says.

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