Playwright’s Notebook: Alberta Theatre Projects’ playRites Festival Considered   4 comments

The way we were: cast and crew of Sitting on Paradise, playRites '96/ Photo by Trudi Lee (I think).

The way we were: cast and crew of Sitting on Paradise, playRites ’96/ Photo by Trudi Lee (I think).

There’s word in Canada’s national newspaper, The Globe & Mail, that Alberta Theatre Projects’ playRites Festival will end after this season’s installment.

The reputation I made for myself in the theatre and the body of work I’ve been able to create can largely be attributed to Alberta Theatre Projects and the playRites Festival.

Back in 1993 when I arrived on the scene, the Festival (which began in 1987) was really gathering momentum. The model at the time was to offer main stage productions, in rep, of four new plays, with full production values, which was and probably still is unheard of, even unthinkable.  At the same time there were three or four plays in development that were workshopped and then given readings in the rehearsal hall, known as Platform Plays. This is where I, and my play “No Moving Parts,” could be found at playRites ’93.

Other ancillary events included Brief New Works, which consisted of readings of short plays throughout the community; Celebrity Hors d’Oeuvres; TheatreBlitz!, a mini festival for high school students; the announcement of the Harry and Martha Cohen Award; Blitz Weekend, for theatre artists and journalists from out of town to come and check out the work; the 24 hour playwriting competition; later, Plays on the Plaza in the Shackter Theatre (holding an audience of ten) on Olympic Plaza, etc. etc. etc. It really was a festival in the true sense of the word.

In 1993, before the advent of the Auburn Saloon (which closed its doors earlier this year, alas), there was even an after-show bar in the lobby of the theatre called Martha’s Bar. In 1993, I read a piece at a literary event there hosted by Brad Fraser, whose play Unidentified Human Remains had received its first production at playRites a few years earlier and gone on to tour the world.

They called it at the time “The hottest six weeks in winter,” and that was an apt description. Masterminded by then Artistic Director Michael Dobbin and run by the indefatigable and exacting Bob White, it was an event unlike any other we are likely to see in this lifetime. It was also tremendously expensive and to pay for it, Dobbin had the moxie to prize some big bucks out of the not-always-so-supportive-of-the-art-thing oil companies. In fact, early on in my tenure there, Michael told me, confidentially, even conspiringly, that if oil ever reached 20 bucks a barrel, we’d all be dancing in the streets.

It did; we’re not. End of story.

At the same time, Bob White had the respect of playwrights from across the country, bringing the best available new work to the stage – in Calgary, no less.  This included not only original plays written in English, but works from Quebec and even Mexico in translation which seemed quite daring at the time. Bob was (and still is, now at the Stratford Festival) a very intelligent and sensitive, at times ruthless, dramaturg, and in my experience, one of the country’s best directors. With him running the show, artistically, you could rest assured that the quality of the work was as good as it could possibly be.

It’s hard to explain just what a magical event it was at that time. You almost had to have been there to know how exciting playRites was in its day.

That first year I was there for my platform play reading, one evening after our rehearsal I sat in the Martha Cohen Theatre and watched one of the main stage plays. Actually, it didn’t matter that the play wasn’t so great (notice I’m kind enough not to name it), because I was blown away by the beauty of the theatre, the physical space, and offered up one of those silent prayers we all offer up from time to time, bargaining to sell my soul to god or the devil or whomever if I could just have my work produced in that theatre once. Just once!

1993, following playRites, I went back to my home town of Regina. It was a tense year for me, waiting to hear whether my little play, which I had since renamed “Some Assembly Required,” would be produced on the main stage at playRites ’94, or if I would sink back into relative obscurity, the beautiful dream over before it had really begun.

As it turns out, they did have me back. My play did well enough for me to become playwright in residence for ATP (a one year contract that went on for ten years). I wrote five more plays for the company, all of them premiering at the playRites Festival. Three of them received second productions in subsequent seasons at ATP, and so I ended up having nine productions in total in the elegant Martha Cohen Theatre. (I think my soul is still intact, although that may be up for debate.)

Some of these plays have gone on to having many other productions in other cities and countries, but there was something about the playRites production that was, for lack of a better word, magical. And that didn’t just happen, magically, it was the result of a lot of hard work. I was fortunate enough to have Bob White directing my work. The plays were cast with some of the finest actors in the country, with great designers (including now Calgary City Councilor Brian Pincott) and with Diane Goodman and the big ATP machine steadily behind it all.

I was really very fortunate to have been there at that time, and obviously I have very fond memories of the Festival. Because of all that ancillary programming, there was so much work for the theatre staff during those hot six weeks that it almost killed us, though I guess we tend to remember the good more than the bad. But make no mistake, it was hard, and relentless. There was pressure to be not just good but amazing. It was a great place to open a play, but it was hard on the nerves, not for the faint of heart.

For playwrights, the Festival was important for a number of reasons. It offered sensible and intelligent dramaturgy (or play development, if you like), so the work produced would be as complete, as good, as the playwright et al could possibly make it. It offered the best production values a play, new or otherwise, is likely to see, anywhere. It provided an audience, a big one in fact, as the Martha Cohen Theatre holds around 400 people. Finally, it brought the work exposure in the media (remember the media?) and to artistic directors from all over, making second (and beyond) productions of playRites-premiered plays commonplace.

And now it’s gone. I find it hard even to try to put a good spin on that. I’m sure it’s been a very difficult decision for the current staff. It will certainly leave a gigantic hole in the Calgary theatre season, and in the Canadian theatre scene as well. It’s a tough loss not only for playwrights but for actors and others for whom it represented at one time one of the best and longest gigs in the country.

And yet, the playRites Festival as I have described it here, the way it was 20 years ago or so, has been gone for some time and for the last few years, there just didn’t seem to be the same buzz, the same excitement about it. It felt like the magic was gone, like a little of the air had seeped out of the balloon. I wondered if maybe this was just my own personal perception, as I’m not involved anymore, with nothing at stake. But it would seem, clearly, that wasn’t just my own perception. And now, the great idea, the noble initiative, has run its course, and it’s time for the company to move on.

Move on to what? That’s not for me to answer. I’m sad to see playRites end, it will be sorely missed in Calgary by many. (By people like Joyce Doolittle, for example, who has seen each and every main stage play at the Festival, well over 100.) But I hope something new and wonderful will emerge from this resilient and important theatre company.

Thanks for reading.

Here’s the curtain call music Bob White chose for the playRites production of my play Sitting on Paradise in 1996.

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4 responses to “Playwright’s Notebook: Alberta Theatre Projects’ playRites Festival Considered

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  1. Sad to read this blog. It was obviously a great vehicle for you and fellow artists… not so much for up and coming youth though.

    My recollection is that Calgary was a shining light for artists of any “genre and gender” (giggle giggle).
    Is the general downturn in Canada’s economy responsible for the lack of interest because it is more difficult to fundraise (i.e. your oil price story)?

    Please keep me blogosted (my new word – posting update on a blog… lol) as to what emerges in replacement…

    I learn much from your blogs, love your sense of humour, and I thank you for them, Eugene.

  2. Wow that picture brings back memories… Look how young we all are.

    I cut my teeth on that festival, won my first award, and learned an awful lot from that festival… I will always remember it as a crazy time of passionate energy and I missed it a lot in my first years at MTC in Winnipeg.

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