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A scene from the Soulpepper production of Ins Choi’s play Kim’s Convenience in Toronto. (Cylla von Tiedemann)
A scene from the Soulpepper production of Ins Choi’s play Kim’s Convenience in Toronto. (Cylla von Tiedemann)

Why there’s a different sort of pipeline debate going on in Canadian theatre Add to ...

It’s telling then that Garnhum doesn’t really speak in the 1970s nationalist language of “new Canadian plays,” but rather says that he’s interested in telling “Western stories.” “I think every theatre company should be developing and premiering new work, but I come to it out of passion rather than obligation.… I don’t like to do anything I’m told to do,” he says.

Meanwhile, in Toronto, Canadian Stage’s biggest and most expensive production in its announced 2014-2015 season will be a new Canadian play called Helen Lawrence, written by television writer Chris Haddock. Indeed, it’s the priciest show since Matthew Jocelyn took over as artistic and general director four seasons ago. Like Garnhum, Jocelyn doesn’t think in terms of “Canadian plays” – but then he doesn’t think in terms of “plays” either. During his tenure, he’s made a compelling argument that Canadian directors are co-authors of productions and that choreographers deserve to be seen as theatre creators as much as playwrights.

Does this mean that the old debate over Canadian content at regional theatres is outdated and coming to an end? Not necessarily: Over at the more traditional MTC, the 2014-2015 season announced on Friday is a nationalist’s nightmare that deserves a raised eyebrow. Not a single one of the mainstage shows is written by a Canadian, even though four out of six are contemporary works. Schipper, who has been artistic director at the Winnipeg theatre since 1989, defends himself, saying this is an anomaly: “About 40 per cent of our programming has been Canadian plays.”

Looking at MTC’s upcoming contemporary programming, however, it’s at least hard to accuse it of being addicted to the old pipeline of Broadway hits. Yes, the Winnipeg theatre is programming last year’s Tony-winner Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike – in co-production with Toronto’s commercial theatre company, Mirvish Productions – but other American fare includes Clever Little Lies, a play by Joe DiPietro (Memphis) that hasn’t made it to New York, and a Sherlock Holmes adaptation that originated in Seattle.

What’s noteworthy is that when MTC has dipped into Broadway dramas in recent years, it’s often programmed them on its smaller stage, the Warehouse, usually reserved for Canadian and experimental works, instead of its 789-seat A-House. Venus in Fur was there this season, while Tracy Letts’s August: Osage County played there in 2012. Schipper is blunt about why the latter went into the smaller space: “It had seven mentions of the C-word and we knew that that would translate into approximately 3,000 subscribers not renewing.”

This touches on one of the reasons why the Broadway/West End pipeline seems to have broken down – commercial hits are racier than they were in past years, as producers go after the type of well-heeled elite audience that, at home, watches profanity- and nudity-filled HBO series rather than middlebrow audiences that regionals rely on to fill large houses. Mike Bartlett’s Cock may have won an Olivier Award and Stephen Adly Guirgis’s The Motherfucker with the Hat was up for a Tony, but even the titles of these plays are too much for many regionals’ A-House.

Neither Theatre Calgary nor Canadian Stage are shying away for these reasons exactly, however; “I was never happier than with Enron, this play that had the F-bomb 85 times in it, but got zero complaints,” notes Garnhum. But Enron, a Broadway flop by Lucy Prebble, is a good example of the unexpected contemporary programming that Garnhum has put on his bill in recent years based on what he thinks will work in his city, rather than what worked elsewhere.

Taking a risk on less-known fare makes more sense these days, Jocelyn argues, because the Broadway brand – when it comes to straight plays anyway – simply does not have “the guaranteed attractivity” that it used to. “We go crawling straight into the tar sands and get ourselves really dirty looking for work,” he says. “We don’t wait for it to come down the pipeline, we try to go straight to the source.”

Garnhum, who has been in charge of Theatre Calgary since 2005, suggests that another factor in the new diversity of programming at regionals may be that the Internet has simply made more new plays accessible to Canadian artistic directors. “We’re aware of so many more works and we can e-mail scripts around,” he says. The upshot of this may be that as the world of theatre becomes more global, regional theatres – whether their results are inspiring or lacklustre – are becoming more local.

Follow me on Twitter: @nestruck

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