Here are a couple of great pieces of theatre news out of Prince Edward Island.
The first is that the Charlottetown Festival, the long-running musical-theatre festival presented by the Confederation Centre of the Arts, has announced a 2021 season after spending last summer dormant due to the pandemic.
Artistic director Adam Brazier is planning three shows that will take place indoors, with 300 masked audience members at a time spread out around the centre’s 1,100-seat mainstage auditorium.
The second is that Anne of Green Gables: The Musical is not one of the shows planned.
Yes, the Charlottetown Festival has finally been freed from clutches of the red-headed orphan girl and the old-fashioned tuner she inhabits for the first time (well, second, if you count last year) since 1965.
The decision to put Anne on ice is simple: It’s too big a show to be cost-effective with a smaller audience, too long to be done without intermission, and local audiences have already seen it.
But, from an artistic point of view, it’s wonderfully refreshing to see the Charlottetown Festival present an entire season of more up-to-date in style and substance works of musical theatre about life in Atlantic Canada – and be able to focus on entertaining local and regional audiences over pleasing tourists from Ontario and Quebec and northeastern United States.
As Brazier puts it: “We have embraced this opportunity. … This is hugely liberating as an organization.”
What will be on the mainstage instead? Newfoundland’s Artistic Fraud, one of the most acclaimed independent theatre companies in Canada, has remarkably never had a show at the Confederation Centre of the Arts; to kick off the Charlottetown Festival in June, it will bring Between Breaths – Robert Chafe’s play about Dr. Jon Lien, whose life’s work was saving whales trapped in fishing nets, that features music by the folk trio The Once.
Next will be the world premiere of Dear Rita – a cabaret musical that celebrates the life and music of Maritimes icon Rita MacNeil. It features a script by Cape Breton’s Lindsay Kyte and musical arrangements by Islander Mike Ross.
Lastly, Old Stock: A Refugee Love Story, created by Nova Scotia’s 2b theatre and starring East Coast klezmer sensation Ben Caplan, will play in August. This unusual musical with a script by Hannah Moscovitch has been seen all over the English-speaking world to huge acclaim – but not at the Atlantic region’s premiere spot for musical theatre until now.
Now I’m not saying Anne should be shuttered in Charlottetown permanently. But a healthy not-for-profit theatre company or festival should not feel like it has to do a particular work every year – and the ways the big ones in Canada are funded, it can sometimes feel like buildings and financial structures rather than artists dictate the art.
The pandemic has opened up new possibilities, however. It’s likewise refreshing, for instance, to see the Stratford Festival in Ontario freed from doing Big Shakespeare – you know, those pageant-like productions that appear in each season, featuring mostly uncut texts from the high-school curriculum and geared towards busloads of students. In 2021, by contrast, it’s staging two small-scale shortened productions of Shakespeare that are nevertheless long on big ideas.
Anne can take up a lot of space and resources at the Charlottetown Festival – and, as Brazier puts it, sometimes it feels as though his job is to “try to make art around it”. He adds: “At this point, going forward, for this company, or this centre as a whole, all bets are off.”
The Charlottetown Festival is just one of many performing arts companies benefitting from the sound pandemic management strategies in Atlantic Canada – which is set to restart its “Atlantic Bubble” on April 19, allowing residents of the four provinces in it to cross borders without quarantining this summer.
Watermark Theatre just north of Charlottetown has announced a season that will launch with an outdoor performance of Mi’kmaq Legends, performed by the Mi’kmaq Heritage Actors; that will be followed by The Gin Game by D.L. Coburn and Cottagers and Indians by Drew Hayden Taylor (which I quite liked in its Tarragon Theatre premiere).
The Neptune Theatre in Halifax has been welcoming audiences back inside its walls with its ongoing Reunited series of concerts and play readings. And Two Planks and a Passion, a outdoor theatre company in a gorgeous location in rural Nova Scotia, has a three-play season planned to kick off with Leanna Brodie’s Schoolhouse at the end of June.
The Atlantic Bubble will also allow artists to workshop bigger shows to premiere post-pandemic – and in person, not just over Zoom. When I spoke to Brazier, for instance, he told me he was going to shortly be off to Newfoundland to work with Come From Away music director Bob Foster and NAC English Theatre artistic director Jillian Keiley on a new musical called Telltale Harbour – based on the movie Seducing Doctor Lewis.
What to watch this week: Red Sky Performance, one of the country’s most celebrated Indigenous dance companies, is celebrating its 20th anniversary by releasing a digital film entitled More Than Dance, We Are A Movement.
Featuring excerpts from two recent celebrated shows, Trace and Miigis, the film streams from April 14 to 20, 2021 through Digidance, which is a collaboration between presenters DanceHouse (Vancouver), Harbourfront Centre (Toronto), the National Arts Centre (Ottawa) and Danse Danse (Montreal) , as well as, this time around, Springboard Performance (Calgary). Visit your favourite of those presenters to purchase tickets.
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