Long-time supporters of Alberta Theatre Projects no doubt let out a sigh of relief when Darcy Evans unveiled his first season as executive and artistic director on Monday.
The Calgary theatre company’s programming for 2019-20 is in keeping with its history as one of the country’s important hubs for contemporary Canadian playwriting.
It isn’t the lineup of American off-Broadway musicals that some had feared, anyway.
ATP’s 48th season will kick off in the fall with Evans directing a brand-new production of The Wedding Party, Kristen Thomson’s riotous comedy about a wedding reception that goes marvellously awry.
In the winter, the theatre will host Old Stock: A Refugee Love Story, the hit indie musical penned by playwright Hannah Moscovitch and klezmer-folk star Ben Caplan, which, come to think of it, has already played off-Broadway, but originates with Halifax’s 2b theatre.
And Evans’s first season will end with the world premiere of Cowgirl Up, a new play by Governor-General’s Award nominee Anna Chatterton about “the power of women and a heartfelt love letter to rodeo life” to be directed by Christine Brubaker.
Says Evans: “It’s part of ATP’s identity: We’ll always be committed to developing new work and having world premieres."
That commitment has been in doubt since Evans’s somewhat puzzling appointment in May of last year. His directorial résumé was very light on new Canadian work, traditionally ATP’s strong suit, and the focus of his career seemed to have been on small-scale musicals and revues.
But skeptical grumbling from certain corners only went full voice in August after Evans’s first major act as the new executive and artistic director was to bump the planned world premiere of Michaela Jeffrey’s WROL (Without Rule of Law) off the schedule he inherited in favour of a pre-existing comedy called The New Canadian Curling Club by Mark Crawford.
Adding to the consternation, the original ATP press release announced the replacement of a play by a white female Calgarian with one by a white male Ontarian as a first step in a new vision “built on telling stories that are representative of Calgary’s diverse population.”
Evans eventually admitted the change had to do with financial worries, not diversity – and the theatre apologized “for any confusion that we may have caused.”
Of course, it’s unfair to judge an artistic director entirely by one misstep. But Evans has taken over ATP at a time of heightened scrutiny for those who program contemporary theatre companies – with the age-old tension of Canadian against international plays made more complex by desires and demands for inclusive representation on stage and off.
Here’s Evans’s full philosophy on the matter: “We have stories we want to tell, we have voices we want to represent and we have seats that we need to sell,” he says. “I’m for looking at things in a three-season arc in terms of the curation of seasons. I think that, in my mind, it takes that long to fully and responsibly create space for every story that deserves telling – and also gives us a time to cultivate an audience that will sustain and support the desire to tell those stories.”
Fair enough. In addition to the three Canadian shows on his first playbill, Evans has programmed three American ones. Disgraced, Ayad Akhtar’s 2013 Pulitzer Prize-winner, will get a new production directed by Nigel Shawn Williams in the fall, while Actually, Anna Ziegler’s new hot-button play examining consent at Princeton University, will get a winter production directed by the up-and-comer Jenna Rodgers of Chromatic Theatre.
In between, over the holidays, Evans will direct Joseph Robinette’s stage adaptation of The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe; the Robinette’s adaptation of Charlotte’s Web has previously been a smash for ATP in family-show season.
All six shows next season will be staged in the Martha Cohen Theatre – but Evans plans to play around with cabaret, thrust and proscenium configurations of the usual Georgian-inspired space, show to show.
The biggest immediate challenge facing Albertan arts organizations is how to reconfigure finances now that, as Evans puts it, “the new normal is that oil is not going to be a major part of corporate sponsorship.” That’s the root cause of ATP’s recent challenges that led Evans to believe, rightly or wrongly, he couldn’t take a risk on WROL; in 2017, corporate donations dropped by 77 per cent to the theatre and its very existence seemed in peril.
Cue ATP’s board hiring Evans, who, unlike his recent predecessors, is both an executive and artistic director and holds a fundraising leadership certificate from Pennsylvania State University.
On that front, Evans is pleased to say individual donations are up 90 per cent year over year since he took over the development file. Likewise, he’s landed a new sponsorship with Mobility Quotient, a Calgary-based tech company, for The New Canadian Curling Club, a held-over crowd-pleaser at the Blyth Festival in Ontario before it became an infamous season replacement in Alberta.
“We’re definitely still in rebuilding mode but we’re absolutely focusing on keeping this company alive,” he says, noting the company’s accumulated deficit is “small.”
And for those who still question Evans’s personal interest in new plays, there’s this: “I think that would be everyone’s dream to have playRites come back,” he says of ATP’s late, lamented new-works festival that was long sponsored by Enbridge. “In my dream, for the 50th anniversary of this company, we would be able to generate some sort of fundraising initiative that we could bring it back at least in some limited fashion.”