Archive for the ‘theatre’ Tag

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.

The Ball’s Coming In   3 comments


A few months ago, I was sitting at home, as usual minding my own business, when I received an interesting email from Peter van Gestel inquiring about a monologue from a very early play of mine, the title stolen from one of my favourite albums of all time, Bruce Springstein’s darkness on the edge of town. 

Dear god, where does the time go? I wrote that play 30 years ago. 30!! Somehow, Peter found a monologue from that play and used it as an audition piece. (A great compliment to playwrights, when actors use us in this manner.)

Peter veered and delved into academia and Shakespeare mostly as a director, but then he got the itch and wanted to act again but damned if he hadn’t gone and lost the monologue.

And so he came sucking up to me on Facebook asking if I could possibly send it to him. In so asking, he explained that he feels the monologue allows him to explore both his love of theatre and of football.

You know, gentle blog reader, I had almost forgotten that this piece does exactly the same for me. I hadn’t read it for years, and I have to admit I kinda like it.

So without further ado, in honour of the about to be played Super Bowl, here’s Tom’s monologue from my play darkness on the edge of town. With thanks to Peter for bringing it back for me.


TOM: (Takes off his hat and prepares himself.]

OK, Jason.  It’s the last game of the regular season. You need to win to get into the play-offs.  Your team is down by four points with two minutes left.  You need a touchdown.  Bad.  Don’t panic.  There’s plenty of time.

There’s not a lot of time, but there’s enough time.

Now.  The fans are sitting in the stands, quiet, sullen. The cheerleaders are standing on the sidelines, their chins on their chests, and their pompoms hanging heavy at their sides.  You, Jason, are a  wide receiver.  In the huddle, the quarterback tells you to run a hook pattern about ten yards out.  Nothing too  fancy. Nothing too glorious.  Not a touchdown or anything. Just a simple first down to keep the drive alive.  Are you with me so far, Jason?  Good.  The ball is snapped. You run down the field, you drive your man to the outside, and cut back into the middle.  It’s been raining.  The field’s slick.  Your man slips and falls. You’re in the open.  The qb sees you, sets, and fires the ball.

Here it comes.  It’s coming in high. You’re going to have to reach for it, you’re going to have to extend yourself, if you want to keep the drive alive, if you want that simple first down.  Your man is out of the play.  But now that the ball’s in the air, you can bet there’ll be eleven other guys coming after you like mad dogs.  Like pigs.  Like mad pigs.  The ball’s coming in.  Where’s the safety?  Here it comes. Where’s the middle linebacker? You reach up and put yourself into your most vulnerable position, stretched out, unprotected, the ball comes in, you squeeze it, you catch it, you got it.

And then you hear the footsteps. It’s the middle linebacker.  He  smashes into your left knee with his helmet.  Your leg collapses backward.  A searing pain shoots up through your body, so hot it takes your breath away.  You want to cry.  You want to puke.  But you hold onto the ball.  In that moment of truth, you give your all.  Sure, you come down with ripped ligaments.  True, you’re going to be meat on the table for some half-witted surgeon.  Granted, you may never again know the simple pleasure of a stroll around the lake in the evening.  But you hold onto the ball.

Eventually, as you limp off the field, head high, Jason, head high, you can look into the eyes of the other guys and the coaches, ’cause they know:  There goes a guy who’s got it.  And as you’re limping off the  field, head high, you notice that the cheerleaders all  have tears in their eyes because they understand, and  their thighs itch because they see, limping before them,  A MAN.  A man.  And it’s not always easy,  being a man.

[Pause.  TOM regains his composure, and shines his flashlight directly into Jason’s eyes.]



Here are my musical offerings in honour of the two teams in this year’s bowl.

For what it’s worth, I’ve got SanFran by 7.

Thanks for reading!

and . .

Some Thoughts on Poetry   Leave a comment

At the Pocketful of Poesy Open Mic At Waves Cafe.

In my last post, I talked about how changes in technology, especially having to do with smart phones and various Apps like Instagram, have changed the nature of photography, both how it is done and how photos are shared. But what I really set out to talk about was poetry. This post is an elaboration of something I said, probably was in the middle of saying in the photo on the left, at a poetry gathering the other evening. That being, how is it that with all the new technology available today that poetry not only survives but seems to be thriving with little or no influence brought to bear on it by technology?

As I said in my last post, nowadays it’s easy for people to think of themselves as photographers, maybe even a serious photographers, depending on the number of followers they have on Instagram, say.

And yet while this makes perfect sense at some level, what seems remarkable to me is at the same time, more and more people are writing poetry, yet using none of the new technology in the process. iPads and Airbooks and notebook computers have their place for certain types of communication, but from what I’ve observed, poets still favour a pen and notebook (of the paper variety) and in this regard the process of writing poetry hasn’t really changed all much since Shakespeare was writing his sonnets a little over 400 years ago.

I don’t know of anyone who has an App on their phone or tablet that facilitates the writing of poetry. I don’t even know that there is one. (That said, there are two good programs I have discovered for word processing on my computer, Omni Writer and Write Room, that help create a very intense and lovely writing environment, and yet I can’t say I have ever composed anything using either of these programs.)

For me, as for so many, it’s still a matter of opening the old Moleskine (or Leuchhturm which I’ve been using lately and actually prefer to Moleskine) notebook and taking out a pen or pencil and having at ‘er. Technology only enters into the picture when it comes time to edit, I should think. Although one thing I’ve seen lately is people reading a poem from their smart phone, something I haven’t tried yet, but it looks kind of flashy and modern. I guess I’m terribly old-fashioned in this regard — I like the comfort of the paper, or the book, in my hands when I’m giving a reading.

But as I say, poetry seems to be thriving these days nonetheless. If you look at the above photo, you will see a good cross-section of people, of all ages and sexualities and finances and levels of education who have gathered together for the shared communal experience of communicating something vital to them with a roomful of virtual strangers.

That this is just one of many such reading series in a mid-sized city not universally known for its poetry gives a strong indication that whatever the world may be now, there is perhaps more than ever a need for poetry in it.

When I was writing plays and seeing them performed with some regularity, I used to remark on this same kind of shared communal experience that the theatre offers. In one of my ramblings, probably in the Calgary Herald, I speculated that while religion is not a serious option for many people these days, we still seem to feel the need to congregate and share our stories and our feelings. I believe the theatre does that — and I believe that’s why it is still a viable and essential art form.

Now that I seem to be entering a new phase in my life as a poet, I am seeing the same thing at the readings I attend. The internet, and even things like this blog, that you are probably reading in the privacy (and isolation) of your own home, have conspired to isolate many of us, while at the same time (as on Facebook) ironically making us feel more connected than ever before.

But I think it’s safe to say that as a species, we need shared communal events. In essence, we need community. Not electronic, but actual flesh and blood and bone.  As an artist, I believe I am able to contribute to this cause, and the feeling I get in a theatre, or a poetry reading, tells me that it’s not a luxury, it’s a necessity. And so I soldier on.

And so we all shine on . . . .

Thanks for reading.

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