Archive for the ‘Alberta Theatre Projects’ Tag

Dissolve the Society 2   13 comments

Malfunction at the Junction


Last week, I wrote Dissolve the Society as a personal reaction to a number of situations in the Calgary performing arts world. As you will know if you read it (and if you didn’t, scroll down and there it will surely be), I was angered and appalled and dismayed by the goings on at some of our major performing arts organizations: the ending of the Children’s Festival, the yanking of Michaela Jeffery’s play at ATP, and the ongoing saga of the train wreck that is known as Theatre Junction.

A few things happened as a result of my post. The first, known only to me initially, is that it was read by thousands of people, probably about ten times the number of people who usually read one of my posts on here. Clearly there is a lot of interest and concern in the community and beyond. And rightfully so.

Of the reaction I received through comments, emails, personal encounters, texts and a discussion that arose on my Facebook wall, very little was said about ATP. One of my younger friends who sits on the board of another theatre told me it’s because no one really cares anymore about ATP. This for a number of reasons, I suppose. I was sad to hear that – it was a very special place for me for many years.

One woman who had not heard about the cancellation of the Children’s Festival contacted me, incredulous and distraught. She couldn’t believe that it was true. I assured her it was true, that I’d read the press release. She said she cried when she read about it. And good for her. We should all be crying.

Almost all of the reaction to my piece concerned Theatre Junction. I was frankly amazed at the anger and vitriol aimed at this company, its artistic director Mark Lawes and in particular the board of directors, who seem to have signed on so they could wear their new outfits to the openings as opposed to engaging in any meaningful governance of the place. Typical board concerns such as transparency and accountability are nowhere to be found at the Grand Theatre.

I heard story upon story describing a real nightmare of a situation that has been allowed to continue year after year. How under the watchful eyes of those sage directors a work place so toxic that it actually sounds acidic was allowed not only to exist but to become the order of the day. Repeated attempts by staff to meet with the board to air their grievances about the shit and abuse they had to endure day in day out were ignored or dismissed. An investigation of sorts was launched at the cost of many thousands of dollars, conveniently paid to the spouse of one of the board members. The findings were never shared, let alone acted upon. Nothing changed.

I heard that some of the people who work or worked there cried at the thought of going to work, cried while at work because it was so Dickenseanly shitty, and cried when they got back home again, having endured another day of “shame and blame” and altercations with Mr. Lawes which the staff refer to as “drive-by shootings.”

We in the arts like to think we are kinder and gentler than people in business (the real world, if you will) but it’s not true. In some cases we can be worse, much worse.

In a truly ambitious program of enlightened self-interest, through a number of imaginative initiatives including skimming off a percentage of donations before they ever hit the Theatre Junction books – with the board’s approval and blessing – Mr. Lawes would seem to have accumulated a small fortune by most of our standards, all the while presenting some of the most tepid and self-indulgent theatre this city or country has ever seen, pawning it off as high art. Oh yes. There is a lot of anger in the community aimed directly at that man, and deservedly so.

People who have worked there are so fed up (and demoralized and confused and miserable and bullied) that they are coming forth and telling their stories. I have only heard a few of them, but let me let you, friends, this is a fucked up mess.

One such person who commented on my blog is Tonya Lailey. I asked her if she would share her comments in a more public manner like this and she replied, “Go for it. I say nothing that is not true and ask some simple questions. I am happy to have my name attached . . . this is not even the half of it.”

These are Tonya’s comments on last week’s post:

Thank you, Eugene, for speaking publicly about the unfortunate state of some of Calgary’s public arts institutions.

I worked in fund development at Theatre Junction Grand for four years. I resigned in July because working there had become absurd.

You use the words “mysterious and bewildering” to describe your sense of the goings on from the outside. It was not much different from the inside.

The board’s behaviour is, was and had been incomprehensible. For two years we, the administrative staff, challenged the board in person, by email, by phone, relentlessly, to address the following:

Why so little has been done about the fact that dozens of people had left Theatre Junction’s employ deeply disturbed by their experience working under Mark Lawes (22 people during my four year tenure alone).

Why the investigation into Mark Lawes’ behaviour, conducted by a spouse of a board member, did not result in a report that was shared, not even with the then executive director.

Why Theatre Junction has had such a devastatingly small patron base and yet the artistic programming remained extremely limited.

Why no one on the board seemed willing to make the connection between the toxic workplace experiences of past employees and the small patron base.

Why so many resources were dedicated to Mark Lawes and his artistic associate and partner Raphaele Thiriet and so few directed to local artistic development.

Why a new executive director Guy de Carteret (hired in 2016) who transformed the workplace culture to be positive, who encouraged independent thinking and creativity and who had a novel and outward-facing, community-driven vision, was fired in May.

Why the board insisted that Guy de Carteret and Mark Lawes “get along” despite the fact that no prior executive officer had been able to “get along” with Mark Lawes.

Why almost none of the people who committed major funds to the capital campaign to renovate the Grand has had an enduring presence in the organization.

Why the main theatre’s namesake, Jackie Flanagan, is not a patron.

Why Workshop restaurant’s lease is so favourable to Workshop that it costs Theatre Junction money to have them in the building, putting the non-profit in the position of subsidizing a business.

This is but a peek into the “mystery and bewilderment” we had hoped to help to unravel, to air and to overcome.

Arts organizations are most often brilliantly resourceful. I have seen us turn scraps into feasts again and again. The issue is not money. The issue is one of values and leadership.

Sadly, when past staff had the opportunity to speak with the CBC this summer, the story became about money.

The context needs to be understood and grievances aired if the Grand were ever to have the chance to become the culture house it has claimed to be since 2006. It could be wonderful.


Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? Who will watch the watchdogs? Who will guard the guards? Whom do you turn to when the people who are in a position to do something do nothing? The people I spoke to at Theatre Junction turned to me and I felt an obligation to share this sad saga with all of you. If, as a community, we demand that something happen, maybe the board of directors will finally start acting responsibly and things will change. Otherwise, that block of 1st Street that once seemed so full of promise will continue to be a lonely wind-swept stretch of road.

In my opinion, under a full moon at a lonely crossroads at midnight, someone should drive a wooden stake through the heart of the rotten venture. Get rid of the whole lot of them. Then bring in an elder and smudge the place and start over.

Maybe then we’ll start seeing some meaningful theatre in downtown Calgary again.

Thanks for reading.

Dissolve the Society   13 comments


It has been a devastating summer for Calgary’s theatre world. The smoke in the air is likely from the fires in BC, but it may well be emanating from the embers of two theatre ventures that have gone up in flames, with a third smoldering and about to consume itself in a maelstrom, if it hasn’t already.

Saddest of these in my mind is the loss of the Calgary International Children’s Festival. Poof! It’s gone, just like that. Not with a bang but a whimper. Actually, not even a whimper. Just this: “The Board of Directors has made the difficult decision to cancel the 2019 Festival and begin work to dissolve the Society.” Cold, corporate legalese that in this context sounds like something Roald Dahl might have written. Dissolve the society, indeed.

No more the excited squeals and cries of happy children slogging through the ubiquitous late season snow storm (which never bothered the children at all), no more the pitter patter of joyous applause, no more the smiling painted faces – well, you get the idea. Dissolve the Society.

The problem with losing something like this is that once it’s gone, it may never come back. But it’s ok, I guess. It’ll be all right. There are countless games and apps for children to distract them from now till the end of time. Who needs live performances, anyway?

Meanwhile, over at The Grand Theatre, if things weren’t weird before, they just got a whole lot weirder. OK. I’ll say it if no one else will. Since Theatre Junction began its new incarnation of what had once been a theatre company – and since their artistic director est tombé et se cogna la tête en Paris – the company has been a rather mysterious and bewildering disappointment.

Is it a case of the emperor’s new clothes, I wonder, but for all the whispering about the place on darkened street corners (or whatever) very little has been said publicly about this company. What it seemed to me was a really, really, REALLY beautiful space with some very uneven and esoteric (to put it nicely) work “happening” on the stage – shades of the mystical Mr. Grotowski et al.(Do you ever feel that you’ve seen it all before? I certainly do.)

I innocently asked this question on Facebook the other day: Has Mark Lawes ever been found to talk about the state of affairs at Theatre Junction? There were many comments, some of them quite witty, from “I hear he is in a witness protection program” to “I hear he is Darcy Evans” to reports of gag orders on the Board (“The Board of Governors has made the difficult decision . . . “) to reports that the organization tried to declare bankruptcy but their asset (ie, The Grand Theatre) is worth too much money.

It goes on and on and on. Call me old-fashioned, call me naïve, but I think that at least by now, Mr. Lawes ought to have addressed this situation publicly. Maybe he still will. Or maybe il est en train de manger un petit gateau a Paris. All we can do is scratch our heads in wonder at what a perfect shit show the whole thing has been from the git go.

And then there is that other fine company down the street and up the avenue, that bastion of new work in all of Canada, and my old company, Alberta Theatre Projects. They took a bad situation, and a really bad decision, and made it worse by lying about it. Now I’m afraid they have a real mess on their hands, made worse by the fact that it is a mess of their own making.

If I could pinpoint one resounding impression I had of ATP from my ten years there as their playwright in residence, it would be the profound respect paid to the playwright. During the years of their playRites Festival, which birthed over 100 Canadian plays (including six of my own), the playwright was treated like a king or queen – verging on how playwrights are treated almost anywhere else in the world outside of English Canada. We were thought to be important. Special, even. We don’t always feel that way in this culture. How many times have I been asked, with great suspicion verging on derision, “You’re a playwriter? What even is that? You write screenplays like for TV or something? But what do you really do? Like for a living?”

Twenty-five years since I first darkened their doorway, it would seem that the status of the playwright over there has diminished somewhat. I don’t often comment about what’s going on at the Projects – they were good to me and gave me a golden opportunity to launch my career. But in this case there’s a personal connection and I am not taking this situation lightly.

One of my duties as playwright in residence at ATP was to teach the high school writing program on Saturday mornings. This was one of my favourite and most rewarding teaching situations ever, and some of my former students have become prominent members of the Calgary theatre community – and beyond.

I allowed Michaela Jeffery to enter my program a year early, while she was still in junior high. It was a no-brainer, as I was (and am) a friend of her father, Dave Jeffery. Theatre royalty in Calgary. Dave was a legendary drama teacher at Western Canada High School who for years inspired a new generation of theatre artists. I figured Dave’s daughter would know more about theatre, and have seen more shows, at thirteen than I ever would. I wasn’t wrong about that. The theatre is in her blood.

I have followed Michaela’s career ever since those days, and felt an almost parental sense of pride when she was first admitted to, and then graduated from, the prestigious playwriting program at the National Theatre School in Montreal.

I worked with her the last two summers at Dave and Karen Jeffrey’s Sunset Theatre in Wells, BC. (I feel pretty much part of the family after those two summers.) What a great honour to dramaturge the play of a former student!

To see that Michaela’s play WROL (Without Rule of Law) was going to be produced at ATP – well, I was elated. As was she! I felt that this was the perfect culmination of a journey that started so long ago, some twenty years or so.

But then we learned it was not to be. Rather, offered in its place, the latest “laugh-out-loud comedy” by Toronto (or Stratford, perhaps) playwright Mark Crawford.

Well, isn’t this a pretty kettle of fish?! I certainly place no blame for this with Mr. Crawford – in fact, he is in an unenviable position of having his play be the one many Calgarians will be itching to hate, if they bother to see it at all.

The optics of replacing the work of a local female playwright with that of a male playwright from Ontario are really so rotten you can likely smell them from the top of the CN Tower, or the Calgary Tower, wherever you happen to be. (Oh, right! We’re in Calgary. I almost forgot.) Clearly, the company blundered, and in these dangerous times we are living in, let us hope they can somehow turn things around from this low point for next season.

Meanwhile Michaela’s cast and friends of the production-that-did-not-happen (and there are many) will be rallying in support on Monday, September 17 at a to-be-determined location. A recent campaign raised several thousand dollars in support of what is truly a legitimate cause. Maybe there is hope, after all.

Yes, something is in the air all right and it doesn’t smell good. Let’s hope that the people involved, from board members to directors artistic to artists to government funders to our corporations who haven’t so much stopped making money as they’ve stopped sharing it – let’s hope they do the work and fight the good fight and that things will change and change soon.

Otherwise, you might as well go ahead and dissolve the society.

Thanks for reading.


Some Thoughts on Mentoring   1 comment


Aaron Coates

Aaron Coates

Last year I wrote a couple of posts about mentors of mine who helped me along the way, not simply in terms of teaching cold hard facts but more in espousing an attitude towards a life dedicated to the production and appreciation of art. Today, I am switching the focus on the other side of things, and looking at some of my own mentoring activities.

This examination was prompted by an unexpected invitation from a former student, Aaron Coates, to go for lunch recently so he could pick my brain before directing a workshop of a new play.

I’ve known Aaron since he was a student at Winston Churchill High School some 20 years ago now. He came into my student writers group at Alberta Theatre Projects when he was 16 or so, but that was just the beginning. When he was a little older, I became the Canadian Delegate to World Interplay, an international festival for young playwrights. Aaron attended the festival with me one year and acquitted himself very well, making international contacts in the theatre world that he maintains to this day.

Our time together in Australia led to one of the greatest lines in Canadian history, as far as I’m concerned. One evening we were taken to a billabong wildlife sanctuary that had all manner of creeping and crawling things in it, from crocodiles to pythons to – well, to a wombat, which is a kind of  big furry rodent (marsupial, probably) that’s kind of cute, but not as cute as a koala bear, say.

We all got a chance to hold the wombat and have our photo taken with it. True to our nature, we Canadians were at the very back of the line, and it’s probably fair to say that by the time the wombat got to us, its patience had worn thin. I had my picture taken with it, then I handed it off to Aaron. From where I was standing, I could clearly see the wombat open its mouth and slowly turn its head and then clamp down hard on Aaron in the area of his right nipple.

Wincing in pain, Aaron turned to our Ranger Rick tour guide and handed him back the animal, saying, “I’m sorry. Your wombat bit me.”

Following the Australia trip, I helped Aaron get a commission from the Alberta Legal Society to write his play, The End of the Rope, which is about the last execution to take place in Alberta. The play had many productions in and around the province and is of great interest to anyone interested in Alberta’s history. (If you’re interested in reading it, or even arranging for a production, let me know and I’ll put you in touch with Aaron.)

Over the last decade or so, Aaron’s career has taken many interesting twists and turns. He teaches now at Company of Rogues Studio in Calgary. He is, along with Karen Johnson-Diamond, the co-artistic director of Dirty Laundry, Calgary’s amazing improv theatre company.

And just to show how what goes around comes around, Aaron and KJD have now started a program called Dirty Laundry: The Next Generation, aimed at training and supporting the next generation of improvisers. And so the wheels keep turning from generation to generation.

That he still comes around looking for advice from time to time in immensely gratifying, as I’m sure you can appreciate.

One of the holy writs: it applies to playwriting as well as poetry.

One of the holy writs: it applies to playwriting as well as poetry.

There have been so many others whom I have had the pleasure of teaching and guiding for at least part of their journey, in so many different settings, including ATP, Mount Royal University, Saint Mary’s University College, the National Theatre School, World Interplay, and many other one-offs and one night stands at various universities. And others I am forgetting now.

Another student who comes to mind is Michaela Jeffrey, who is now studying playwriting at the National Theatre School in Montreal.

Michaela recently reminded me of her first day in the student writer’s group at ATP. I had agreed that she could take part in the group a year earlier than usual, in her last year of Junior High. She was anxious to impress, and so put her heart and soul into writing a monologue to deliver at our Saturday morning workshop.

And this she did. She delivered the mother of all teen angst monologues, and she put everything she had into it. (There may have actually been real tears. I’m sure there probably were.) And then. she reminded me, when she was done there was a pause, as I sat eating my M and M’s, regarding her coolly, and then finally I said, “No one cares, Michaela. No one cares.”

I could say that to her because she was bright, and even at that young age was clearly a person of the theatre. A little tough love, perhaps, but she’s still at in, and as is the case with Aaron, I am so proud of my small contribution to what seems to be a very promising career.

Just yesterday as I was thinking of writing this piece, I ran into another former student on the street and so we stopped and chatted for a bit. I asked her what she was doing these days and she said, almost sheepishly, “Well, I have a job at a florists.” Then she got a look of true panic in her eyes and continued: “Oh, but that’s just a job I had to take because I needed some money. What I’m really doing is an animation project.” And then she really came to life when she told me about the thing that she is doing that is the thing that matters to her most, the art.

Again, I couldn’t be prouder that she was still at it. That’s all I’ve ever cared about with my students, is that they keep at it, and not give up on their dreams of being an artist. (I once had a former student contact me and tell me that he’d been admitted to law school. “You’re dead to me,” I said, and we never talked again. True story. Perhaps a tad harsh, but sometimes you have to make a stand.)

I could go on and on, I have had the opportunity to teach so many beautiful and talented people over the years, young and old. But I would just finish by saying this, which anyone who has ever taught will know to be true, that I have learned so much more than I have ever taught anyone,and taken so much more than I have given.

And so here’s to the next generation!

Thanks for reading.

Here’s a musical offering that I couldn’t resist . . . .


Remembering Phil   5 comments

It’s not heaven, it’s the old Met Grill. I like the colour of the lights

Ask any writer and he’ll tell you, or she’ll tell you, that beginnings are easy but endings can be brutally difficult. I was thinking of this last week in regards to the final scene of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s life. I don’t know if it was tragic, exactly. I suppose there can be tragic accidents. Certainly it was messy and far from elegant. And so very sad. Not at all the kind of ending anyone would want for their worst enemy, let alone an artist who touched so many lives during his wonderful career.

17 years ago or so, Phil, as I knew him, and I both ended up at a play-reading marathon sponsored by the Manhattan Class Company, which took place at an old monastery on the far end of Long Island. (That I got a ride out there with the amazing Kathleen Chalfant is another story entirely. What a truly beautiful woman she is. That was a brush with greatness like no other.)

At that time, Phil and I were near, at least, the beginnings of our careers. I had had a couple of hits in Calgary, and those plays were being done in other theatres across the land. I thought I had done well to get the attention of a New York theatre and an invitation to such an event. I was there with my play A Guide to Mourning. Phil, who was certainly in the ascendancy of his career, was cast as Rex in my play, a down-on-his-luck-but-loveable-loser-of-no-fixed-address character who comes back to the family home on the occasion of his father’s death. (The play is published in Two Plays by Eugene Stickland by Red Deer College Press.)

Well, if you know his work, you would know such a role wasn’t too big a stretch for Phil. He actually looked the part. He gave a wonderful reading, and genuinely seemed to like the play. I always hoped that the company would produce it and get Phil to play the part, but for a number of reasons (which I never really understood), that never came to be.

Over the course of that weekend, we heard a number of plays read. We lived rather communally in the monastery, taking our meals together and generally getting to know one another. It was really a magical event in my life.

(Isn’t it strange to think how in only ten years, Facebook has changed our ability to stay in touch with one another after such events have ended. “I’ll add you on Facebook,” we say, and we do. But back then, people didn’t really expect to stay in touch, and we didn’t.  I only retained one friend from that weekend, a director from New York. We still stay in touch, but not on Facebook, by email. Oh, and I once emailed Kathleen, and she even remembered me and wrote back.)

On any account, back on Long Island, in the evenings, we would haul a big metal tub full of ice and beer down to the water’s edge and there we would congregate around a bonfire as the sun went down and the waves of the Atlantic Ocean washed up on shore.

Well, I’m not the kind of person to leave when there is still beer in the tub, so to speak, and neither was Phil. For at least two nights, we were the last two standing, or sitting, probably, enjoying a few beers and some conversation under the canopy of stars after all the others had gone off to bed.

It was just the way it would be between two guys, a writer and an actor, say, just hanging out. He was hardly famous at the time, although soon to be so. And I was just a playwright from a city in Canada that some of those New Yorkers had never even heard of. We weren’t out to impress each other. We were just chillin’, in the best sense of the word. I’m not saying he was my best friend, just that for that brief period of time we got to hang out together, I genuinely liked him. He was a good guy. His death saddened and somehow diminished me. I know so many people who feel the same.

Sometime after I got home, back in the day when I was still married, my wife, Carrie, was watching a movie on tv. I walked through the room and wasn’t I surprised to see Phil on the screen? And so I said, “Hey, that’s Phil!”

She looked at me rather coldly and said, “Phil? That’s not Phil. That’s Philip Seymour Hoffman.” I had never known his full name, or if I had, I had forgotten it. So I said, “Whatever you want to call him, he and I drank a mess of beers on Long Island last year.”

End of conversation.

So it seemed that Phil had gone his way, obviously right to the top. I returned to Canada and we produced A Guide to Mourning at Alberta Theatre Projects with Dennis Fitzgerald playing the part of Rex. Dennis was every bit as good as Phil had been in the role.  And come to think of it, Dennis and I drank a whole mess of beers together, too! Our production even won some awards and the play went on to be produced a number of times, mostly in Canada, but never in New York.

Throughout the intervening years, I saw so many examples of Phil’s escalating fame, and I was so happy for him. While he was becoming a household name and a true celebrity, my life didn’t really change that much. I was a father, still am. (A good father, not such a great husband.) I taught. I kept writing plays. I wrote for a newspaper for five years.  Now I’m waiting for another new play to get produced (it will be my 19th) and have started work on a new new play. I’m writing a novel. I’m writing this blog. But I don’t really expect any of these things to change my life or lead to the kind of fame that Phil had.

Admittedly, over the years, when I struggled to pay my rent, there were times when I must have envied Phil and his flirtation with what Tennessee William called “the bitch-goddess, success.” But now I just feel bad for the ending that he had and I realize that I don’t have it so bad myself. It reminds me of the old saying, “Be careful what you wish for, it might come true.”

And so, bereft of fame and fortune which so far have eluded me (especially fortune), I will soldier on, towards what ever end awaits me. I don’t mind if it doesn’t come anytime soon, as I feel I still have much work to do. But whenever it comes, I will hope for a better ending than Phil got for himself.

Thanks for reading . . .

Here’s the best song there is about it.




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.

Object 8: Fish Sculpture, circa 2000.   2 comments

Not everyone has one of these.

Not everyone has one of these.

This rare object hangs in my living room. It is about 12 inches long, predominantly orange with green flashings along the tale and just behind the head, and with subtle mauve design work along the sides.

It was created by the artist Johanna Stickland when she was a predominant member of the so-called Hillhurst School. For the artist, it represented a triumphant emergence from her turbulent plasticine era, shortly before she went on to master other forms such as pencil crayons and oil pastels.

I think Hanna was about 8 when she brought this home from school one day. I’m sure that she reinvented the physiology of the fish as we know it with the various fins that seem to be in the wrong places.

The markings behind the head look like crude stitches and give it the feel of Frankenstein’s monster, like the head of one fish had been stitched onto the body of another. When she brought it home, we laughed at just what a crazy fish it is, really, and then I hung it up anyway, because after all my daughter had created it and that was good enough for me.

It’s hung in the various places we’ve lived in ever since. Of course, great art endures and stands the test of time.

I don’t know that there is one single object in my place that I would grab if there was an all-consuming fire. Hell, I’d be a fool not to grab my laptop. But I know for sure there is no object in my place that means more to me than this one.

There are many things about my daughter that make me very proud, but her approach to her life, her artistic sensibility and her great humility always fill me with wonder. Seeing her grow into an adult and the way she is living her life makes me feel that my part in her development is the one worth-while thing I have ever done in my own life.

While I’m talking about her, let me share one story that in mind sums up her character.

Around the time she created this wonderful fish, I was the playwright in residence at Alberta Theatre Projects. Over the course of her young life, Hanna had spent a lot of time at ATP and was certainly known and loved by my colleagues at the theatre. In 2000, when Hanna was 8, the company was preparing for a production of a play called Red Lips by Connie Gault for the playRites 2001 Festival.

They needed an 8 or 9 year old girl to play one of the parts, and as Hanna was a known quantity, at least socially, I was asked one day if she would be interested in the role. It was quite an opportunity, and while she had never really acted, I thought it would be an amazing experience for her.

When I got home that night, I said, “Guess what, Hanna. They’d like you to play a role in one of the playRites plays this year. Isn’t that amazing?!?!?!”

Hanna looked at me skeptically and said, rather coldly, “Do you have the script?” I told her I didn’t. And then she said to me, patiently, like I was the novice and she was the seasoned pro, “Well, I’d have to read it first.”


The next day at the theatre, when asked what Hanna’s decision was, I rather sheepishly reported that she would need to read the script (Duhhh) and got a copy and took it home.

This was not a kid’s play, it just happened to have a kid in it. This was an adult play, a Connie Gault play, and Connie is a sophisticated and complex writer and Hanna was, after all, only 8 years old. I got home and gave Hanna the script. She took it and went into her room and about an hour later emerged and said to me, “I’ll do it.”

That’s how she was at 8!

She did the play and acquitted herself very well. I have never been as nervous in my whole life as when she came on stage, but she did a wonderful job. And you might think that would have led to a desire to do more acting, but it didn’t really. She enjoyed the experience, learned from it, and then moved on.

I think it was much like that with her modeling career. She did it for a few years, she did extremely well, she became quite famous, but then it seemed time for her to move on again. After a hiatus during which time she returned to Calgary and completed high school, she is back at it, but now on the other side of the camera.

In this way, her life continues to be an unfolding and beautiful exploration of the nature of art. She is a graceful, gentle, intelligent girl, beautiful inside and out.

And that sense of Hanna the girl, Hanna the artist, I suppose must be what goes through my mind when I see this fish, although I don’t always say it. But I surely feel it. Even in looking at this crazy fish.

Looking around for a musical offering for this post, I looked at the hits of 1992. There were some very good songs that year (November Rain) and some very bad ones (remember Criss Cross?!).

This one is neither good nor bad, it’s just silly, but it’s awesome in its silliness and it seemed appropriate.

Thanks for reading!

The Arts and Artists Under Attack   5 comments

I am preparing for a performance this evening with Calgary Poet Laureate Chris Demeanor at the ironically named Oilman’s Review (volume 5). I mentioned this event in my last post. It’s taking place in the now defunct Indigo Store in Mount Royal Village which I wrote a post on about a month or so ago.

This promises to be a wonderful event, featuring local (one would be tempted to say “neighbourhood”) painters and songwriters and poets and other artists who have joined together in a celebration of the arts and art making in its various forms. I know that many of my friends and associates from elsewhere in Canada and further afield would be amazed at the activity that goes on and the support for it here.

I spent a number of years as playwright in residence at Alberta Theatre Projects, a company that must be responsible for birthing more new Canadian plays than any other in the entire country. Other companies such as One Yellow Rabbit, Lunchbox, Downstage, Sage, Ground Zero and others I’m forgetting (sorry) have all made a tremendous commitment and contribution to the development and production of new Canadian plays.

At the same time, there is great energy and vitality in terms of original creation in other art forms as well. Alberta Ballet, for example, is currently remounting its original work “Love Lies Bleeding,” a fortunate collaboration between artistic director Jean Grande Maitre and Sir Elton John. Earlier this season, Calgary Opera premiered a new opera, Moby Dick, the latest in a series of new operas created under the their inspired artistic director, Bob McPhee.

I became involved in the Spoken Word Movement here over the last few years, as my writing focus shifted somewhat from playwriting to poetry. There is a very strong core of Spoken Word and Poetry Slam artists at work here in Calgary. For anyone interested in this, I highly recommend The Spoken Word Workbook edited by Calgary’s own Sheri-D Wilson, published by the Banff Centre Press.

Having run a jazz night at a local bar for a few years, I can personally vouch for an amazing pool of talent in that field. But it’s not just jazz — blues, rhythm and blues, rock, folk, country, you name it, all are alive and vibrant in Calgary at a surprisingly high level.

And then there’s painting and sculpture and drawing and photography and all those other art forms that flourish here. it’s beyond the scope of this post to do them all justice.

Anyone who continues to think of this city as a prairie backwater filled with rednecks is really so out of touch as to be laughable. If you don’t believe me, hop on a plane and come on down. I’ll show you around myself.

But that’s not really why I am writing all this, at a time I should be reading over my poems and getting nervous about the reading I’m about to give. I am writing about some sad news from north in our province. the much beleaguered and maligned Fort McMurray, home of the famous or infamous oil sands, or as they might better be known as, by their old name, tar sands.

I read this bit of distressing news from artist and blogger Michelle Boyd today on her blog (As the Whorl Spins):

At 11:30 this morning, the faculty of the Visual and Performing Arts programs at our local college (Keyano College) were rounded up and given 15 minutes to clear their offices, then escorted from the premises by security.   They were not met with by the administration and gently informed that their programs and jobs had been cut.  They were not given pink slips.  They were not even notified by email that this was their last day at work.  They were escorted out.  By security.  Like common criminals.

These people had done nothing wrong.  The plain and simple truth is that the Board of Governors and the new president of the college crunched the numbers and the arts lost out to in-house training provided for the oilsands industry.  Plain and simple. Money talks, and the arts walk.  Every. Fucking. Time.

We artists in Alberta have a rather uneasy relationship with the oil and gas industry, I’m sure if  asked, most of us would admit to a great uneasiness about the entire industry, especially when we try to wrap our heads around the environmental carnage that goes on in the tar pits in the Fort McMurray area, where Keyano College is located.

And yet, many of these companies are at least in part responsible for the fact that we have such a vibrant arts scene in the province. They write the cheques, and many of the cheques have a lot of zeros on them.I myself have been the beneficiary of the corporate generosity that we see coming from the oil patch.

And then we read something like this, and the relationship becomes a little more uneasy. These days, it’s hard not to think that the arts are coming under attack, more and more. Those of us who work in the arts tend to feel vulnerable at the best of times, and events such as this one at Keyano College don’t help. Many of us supplement our incomes with teaching and every program like this that closes makes it all the more difficult.

So, where are we headed, exactly? You tell me. I honestly don’t know anymore . . .

Thanks for reading

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