At a time of year when feel-good carols and Sugar Plum Fairies rule the stage, Vancouver’s Blackbird Theatre Company has been creating a different kind of holiday tradition: hard-hitting, challenging plays. From a violent Greek tragedy to a marathon examination of a dysfunctional marriage, Blackbird has been going up against all that fluffy holiday fare with works not typically associated with the Christmas season. It continues the tradition this week, with a production of one of theatre’s more difficult modern masterpieces, Waiting for Godot.
This developing holiday custom started, as these things tend to, serendipitously. In 2007, Blackbird was looking to mount a production of Hecuba, and the East Vancouver Cultural Centre (now called the Cultch) happened to have a good stretch available over the holidays, including a bit of no-charge rehearsal time right around Christmas. It was an offer too good to refuse for a fledgling theatre company dedicated to classical theatre.
“We thought oh no; [we don’t want to do]a Christmas story,” says Blackbird artistic director John Wright. “But then we thought: Well, you know, by the time people get that far along, they may be a bit fed up with Christmas stories.”
Hecuba, Euripides’s tragedy of a mother’s grief and her murderous revenge, could be seen as a hard sell any time of year. But over the Christmas holidays? Yet, people came. The production – Blackbird’s fifth since its establishment in 2004 – attracted the largest attendance in the company’s short history. Wright figured they might be onto something.
Two years later, they went holiday-serious again, with a production of Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Watching severe marital dysfunction play out over three acts (and three hours) may not be everyone’s idea of the ideal holiday outing, but the show was a commercial success, selling out performances and breaking Blackbird’s attendance record yet again.
It was also a critical hit, winning two Jessie Richardson awards for small theatre (Meg Roe for best supporting actress; Craig Erickson for best supporting actor). This year, the same production was mounted by the much larger Arts Club Theatre Company.
If Hecuba had convinced Wright that offering a challenging production over the holidays was not impossible, the success of Virginia Woolf confirmed it. “You have to be a little bit daring and it can work against you; there’s no doubt about it. But in that case, it didn’t. It was a certain risk. And worthwhile,” he says. “We were pretty much sold on it.”
This year, the company is putting the Godot back in Christmas with Samuel Beckett’s absurdist fable of an endless wait for a mysterious figure who (spoiler alert) never arrives. It’s another risk, Wright acknowledges, but he points out that Blackbird’s production emphasizes the humour in Beckett’s parable. “You know, it’s actually a very funny play.”
Beyond the challenge of attracting audiences over the holidays is the issue of attracting actors to work at a time of year when they might rather focus on turkey than tech rehearsals. But a meaty opportunity can sway even the busiest family person. When Wright called up Gabrielle Rose to offer her the role of Virginia Woolf’s Martha, she accepted immediately.
“She said, ‘Would I? Of course,’ ” Wright recalls. “She was just at an age when she could do that part justice and she had all the tools to make it sensational.” Even if she had to do it over the holidays.
For Godot, Wright – who directs – scheduled final rehearsals on the 23rd and 24th (“Bah humbug!” he says, laughing) with two days off over Christmas and Boxing Day before a dress rehearsal – and the first preview – on Tuesday.
He’s not sure if the break so close to the opening is beneficial (offering cast and crew a bit of respite) or detrimental (risking a loss of traction). But in any case, it’s a busy few days around the holidays, with the show opening on Thursday.
Two days before New Year’s Eve may be the absolute right time to contemplate some of the deep questions Wright poses in his program notes for Godot: “Is there a purpose to life? Is there a God? Is there truth? Is it better to be alone? Do we have a duty to someone? Something?”
Waiting for Godot is in previews Dec. 27 and 28 and runs Dec. 29 to Jan. 12 at The Cultch in Vancouver ( thecultch.com).