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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 ...

Pipeline debates are always erupting on Twitter, but recently the term “pipeline” started to trend in the United States for an unexpected reason – due to an argument over theatre, rather than the oil sands.

It all started at an event called The Summit organized by The Washington Post, when moderator Peter Marks asked five of the major artistic directors in the D.C. area a question: Why, if 60 per cent of audiences are women, do female playwrights only make up 20 per cent of playwrights presented at their theatres?

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Ryan Rilette, who runs the Round House Theatre in Maryland, answered first – and his sound bite was the take-away from the evening. “It’s hard, because there’s not enough [plays written by women] in the pipeline,” he said, in a response that was pilloried the way Mitt Romney’s infamous “binders full of women” comment was.

While this initial reaction was unfair to Rilette, as he has recently committed his theatre to gender parity in playwrights, his comment did open up a useful discussion about the often unacknowledged “pipeline” that leads from New York and London’s stages to non-profit regional theatres in the United States, the diversity of plays that flow down it, and whether the very existence of such a pipeline contradicts the non-commercial ideals that originally inspired the regional theatre movement.

In Canada, a similar debate has been on a low simmer since, well, since its first regional theatre opened in Winnipeg in 1958: Are the country’s biggest not-for-profit theatrical institutions too in thrall to what’s produced in New York and London? Are they simply franchises of Broadway and the West End, all programming roughly the same seasons – with anything Canadian or unexpected relegated to our smaller stages?

Looking over the seasons at the regionals in 2014, however, it’s apparent that this stereotype may no longer be fair. In the wake of the collapse of the Vancouver Playhouse in 2012, regional theatres are looking less cookie-cutter than they once did – and more and more distinct in terms of programming.

Indeed, of the three major Canadian regionals with budgets in the $7-million to $10-million range that have announced their 2014-2015 seasons so far – Theatre Calgary, Winnipeg’s Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre and Toronto’s Canadian Stage – there’s not a single play that overlaps among them.

That’s quite a shift from, for example, the 2008-2009 season when American playwright John Patrick Shanley’s Tony-winner Doubt was seen in the A-Houses of all three of these companies, as well as five other regionals from the Arts Club in Vancouver to Neptune Theatre in Halifax. “Isn’t that fantastic?” says Steven Schipper, artistic director of MTC. “I think that speaks to the maturity and development of Canadian artistic directors.… We have our individual voices and we’re responding to our communities.”

Has the theatre pipeline that supplies Canada’s regionals really sprung a leak? One piece of good news is that, this season, for the first time in recent memory, the most-seen new play in the country hasn’t been a recent Broadway or West End hit, but one born in Toronto.

Kim’s Convenience, which originally premiered professionally in Soulpepper’s 210-seat Toronto theatre, has been on tour, playing on main stages as big as the National Arts Centre’s, which seats 897. With five stops this season (and more to come next), it beats its closest competitor, American David Ives’s two-hander Venus in Fur.

Ins Choi’s comedy set in a Korean-Canadian convenience store has been exceeding sales targets despite not having the built-in publicity that many shows that have passed through the Broadway machine often do. At Theatre Calgary, in fact, it has been the best-attended Canadian play in the company’s history, according to artistic director Dennis Garnhum. “People heard about it, wanted to see it and told their friends,” he says.

Next season, Garnhum will again please advocates of Canadian playwrights. For his 2014-2015 playbill, announced last week, two out of the three contemporary works he’s programmed are homegrown: Liberation Days, a drama by David van Belle about the freeing of the Netherlands by Canadian forces in the Second World War, and Dear Johnny Deere, Ken Cameron’s musical based on the songs and lyrics of Fred Eaglesmith. The first is a world premiere, while the second follows the Kim’s Convenience route, promoted to a big stage after having proven itself on smaller stages such as Ontario’s Blyth Festival. This is really how a regional should ideally work – with one recent transatlantic hit One Man, Two Guvnors and a selection of classics rounding out a distinct season.

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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