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Mahabharata, a new adaptation of the Hindu epic, kicks off 2023 at the Shaw Festival.DAHLIA KATZ

Live theatre and the performing arts are returning full-throttle this fall as companies embark on what will hopefully be their first complete, uninterrupted seasons since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. But it’s not exactly going to be business as usual. Apart from continuing to take health-and-safety measures, theatres are coming back with new initiatives and a renewed sense of purpose.

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Mike Payette, incoming artist director at Tarragon Theatre, has some exciting collaborations in store for the 51-year-old company. “We should be a microcosm of the Canadian experience.”SABRINA REEVES

Both can be found at Toronto’s Tarragon Theatre, where incoming artistic director Mike Payette is ushering in his first programmed season. Payette is determined to make the 51-year-old company – also a legendary home of Canadian playwriting – more diverse, both in its artists and in the kind of theatre it fosters.

“We should be a microcosm of the Canadian experience,” says Payette, whose past experience includes serving as assistant artistic director at Black Theatre Workshop in his native Montreal.

Payette has begun by giving two of Toronto’s rising-star theatre-makers their Tarragon debuts. The season opened in September with Cockroach by Chinese-Canadian actor-playwright Ho Ka Kei (Jeff Ho) and continues in October with My Sister’s Rage (Oct. 11-Nov. 6), written and directed by Indigenous dynamo Yolanda Bonnell.

“Yolanda’s an artistic mover-and-shaker,” Payette says, and he was determined to get her on the Tarragon stage. “The story that she’s created is heart-warming and familial and speaks to the power of healing,” he adds, “and I think we need that now.”

Payette also believes in pairing Tarragon newbies with the theatre’s established artists. November sees the return of the ever-provocative Hannah Moscovitch with Post-Democracy (Nov. 8-Dec. 4), a scathing look at corporate impunity, in a production directed by Mumbi Tindyebwa Otu – currently one of the most exciting young directors on the Toronto scene. “It’s an example of the kind of unexpected collaborations that I’m trying to create this season,” Payette says.

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Steven Page of Barenaked Ladies fame will appear at The Burlington Performing Arts Centre in To the End of Love, an homage to the late Leonard Cohen, on Oct. 16.DAVID BERGMAN

His commitment to different theatrical forms, meanwhile, has prompted the launch of the Greenhouse Festival (Jan. 2-15). It’s an interdisciplinary incubator that will see four creative teams developing experimental works, to be showcased at a January festival.

“Our building is fully energized with lots of new folks who didn’t necessarily have an entry here before,” Payette says.

Steven Schipper could say the same. The executive artistic director of the Rose Brampton continues to mix the venue’s mainstage season of touring acts with a season of eclectic series in its studio space, curated by local artists and impresarios.

Under the umbrella title This is Brampton, the series this fall ranges from Crate Clash, a multi-DJ battle in the Jamaican sound-clash tradition (Oct. 15) to Stand-Up Stitches, a stand-up comedy showcase (Oct. 22) and The Playback, a platform for R&B, rap and soul artists presented by indie label SounDrive Records (Nov. 25).

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Measha Brueggergosman-Lee in the role of the wicked Sorceress in Dido and Aeneas, a production by Opera Atelier, where she is currently the company’s artist-in-residence.BRUCE ZINGER

This is Brampton, which began pre-pandemic and has grown steadily – there are eight series this season – is all about empowerment. “There’s no gatekeeper,” Schipper says. “We just put out a call for these impresarios and give them support in terms of marketing and facilities. But they’re the artistic leaders of their own series.” Reflecting both Brampton’s entrepreneurial spirit and its multicultural mosaic, it fits perfectly with the city’s new five-year strategic plan, announced last spring, to build a diverse and inclusive performing arts community.

The Rose also has plenty on its mainstage this fall, from concerts by singer-actress Vanessa Williams (Oct. 15) and Juno Award-winner Serena Ryder (Nov. 24) to Anne of Green Gables: The Ballet by Canada’s Ballet Jörgen (Oct. 19) and a new show by comedian Shaun Majumder (Nov. 30).

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A celebration of Gordon Lightfoot songs will be held at the Burlington Performing Arts Centre on Oct. 26.Supplied

It’s just one of the theatres in the GTA that’s returning to packed programming. The Burlington Performing Arts Centre has a full slate as well, including tributes to two of Canada’s iconic singer-songwriters. Steven Page of Barenaked Ladies fame, Sarah Slean and others pay homage to the late Leonard Cohen with the Art of Time Ensemble’s To the End of Love (Oct. 16). Jory Nash, Matthew Barber and Suzie Ungerleider, meanwhile, are among the artists performing The Way We Feel: A Concert Celebration of the Songs of Gordon Lightfoot (Oct. 26).

Toronto, of course, has its fair share of concerts, including the wide-ranging programming presented by the Royal Conservatory of Music at Koerner Hall. Artists taking its stage this fall include famed flamenco dancer Farruquito (Oct. 21), cabaret chanteuse Meow Meow (Nov. 4) and pop singer-pianist Bruce Hornsby (Nov. 11). Mervon Mehta, RCM’s executive director of performing arts, says he’s especially excited by an Oct. 28 double bill of two Black Montreal artists: Juno Award-winning soul-jazz vocalist Dominique Fils-Aimé and roots singer-songwriter Allison Russell. “Her album last year [Outside Child] was on pretty much everyone’s Top 10 list,” he says of Russell. “She’s incredible.”

It’s the end of an era.

Ross Petty, Executive producer, Ross Petty Productions

Further afield, the Shaw Festival in Niagara-on-the-Lake has stepped up its efforts to make the venerable summer institution into a 12-month powerhouse. Once again, it reopens its theatres in the holiday season, with its adaptation of Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol playing at the historic Royal George Theatre (Nov. 9-Dec. 23) and Irving Berlin’s White Christmas, based on the movie classic, at the Festival Theatre (Nov. 18-Dec. 23). After that, the Shaw kicks off its 2023 season with a major production in March: the long-awaited new adaptation of the Hindu epic Mahabharata, commissioned from Toronto’s Why Not Theatre (Feb. 28-March 26).

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Ross Petty plays Capt. Hook in Peter’s Final Flight, a pantomime by Ross Petty Productions. This will be Petty’s last season before he retires.BRUCE ZINGER

Back in Toronto, the holidays bring a bittersweet celebration. Ross Petty Productions is staging its 25th – and final – panto at the Elgin Theatre. Peter’s Final Flight (Dec. 1-Jan. 7) will mark the end of a family holiday tradition that saw actor-producer Petty and his stellar casts crack bad jokes, sing satirical versions of the latest pop songs and generally have merry fun mangling beloved fairy tales. Petty, 76, is retiring. But before he goes, he’s planning to have a blast, with a new take on Peter Pan that brings back those panto mainstays, Dan Chameroy’s ditzy fairy Plumbum and sidekick par excellence Eddie Glen, as well as Petty himself in a villainous cameo as Capt. Hook.

Where many theatre companies are busy nurturing new artists this season, Petty can look back on a quarter-century of spotlighting some of Canada’s best young musical-theatre talent in his popular family shows. They’ve included such future Broadway stars as Chilina Kennedy, Jake Epstein and Paul Nolan.

“I’m so proud of all the talent that has come onside to be a part of our craziness at the Elgin,” Petty says. “It’s the end of an era.”

Petty had to put the 25th anniversary on pause during the pandemic, as the panto pivoted to digital versions, and he’s thankful to be able to bow out now on a live stage. Like all theatre-makers, he saw how the COVID-19 crisis only emphasized the value of the live performing arts.

As Schipper at the Rose Brampton puts it: “People connecting with each other is perhaps the most important factor in creating a sense of hope. The opportunity to come together in theatres and share in the act of imagining, or to celebrate, makes us all feel great to be alive.”


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