You never get a second chance to make a first impression.
Too bad for Darcy Evans, the newly appointed executive and artistic director at Alberta Theatre Projects.
Evans got off on the wrong foot this week when he revealed new programming at the storied, but financially challenged Calgary theatre – and nearly embroiled Alberta in a controversy over inclusion versus artistic freedom of the kind that has recently rocked Quebec regarding director Robert Lepage.
But cancelling a mainstage production of a new Canadian play by a young, local female playwright was not actually about “diversity,” Evans clarified to The Globe and Mail on Wednesday.
“I guess I’m willing to admit that we didn’t give enough information,” he said, noting that the decision was, in fact, financially motivated.
There was no mention of finances a day earlier when ATP announced that it would be replacing the world premiere of Michaela Jeffery’s WROL (Without Rule of Law) in its upcoming 2018-19 season with a production of Mark Crawford’s The New Canadian Curling Club, a comedy currently enjoying a sell-out run at the Blyth Festival in Ontario.
Instead, a news release noted that the exchange “highlights ATP’s commitment to diversity and inclusion on stage.”
“This change is … Evans’s first step toward a new vision for ATP that is built on telling stories that are representative of Calgary’s diverse population,” the release continued.
It’s difficult to measure a pair of plays to see which is more diverse and inclusive, of course – but this stated rationale for replacing an edgy new play written by a white woman with a crowd-pleasing comedy written by a white man didn’t make a ton of sense on paper.
The New Canadian Curling Club is about a small town that offers a learn-to-curl program to welcome Syrian refugees to the community. It’s got a diverse cast of five characters – two women and three men, four of which require actors of colour
WROL (Without Rule of Law), which sounds like an edgier affair closer in line to some of ATP’s biggest artistic successes of recent years such as Nicolas Billon’s Butcher, concerns five 8th-graders (played by adult actors) obsessed with preparing for the apocalypse. Described as “Judy Blume meets Rambo,” it has four roles for women, one for a man – but there is no ethnicity specified for any of the characters.
Indeed, several artists of colour – two designers and one actor – were among the 11 that had their contracts cancelled and compensated in accordance with their collectively bargained agreement.
All of which left a number of questions: Why was the major new premiere of the season cancelled in the name of inclusion rather than, say, making the major new premiere of the season more inclusive? And why didn’t Evans just wait to the following season to put forth his new vision?
It’s clear ATP wasn’t expecting blowback to a decision couched in seemingly progressive language. The executive and artistic director scheduled a Wednesday morning interview with The Globe and Mail on the subject – and then cancelled it half an hour before.
But, as the social-media furor continued to build on Facebook with playwrights, artistic directors and theatre artists across the country expressing confusion and frustration, a new invitation to interview Evans during a conference call with a board member/lawyer on the line came a couple of hours later.
It was then Evans explained that he just didn’t think WROL – which, like the whole season, was programmed before he was hired in May – would fill the Martha Cohen Theatre’s 400 or so seats long enough to meet new sales targets “to ensure that the company is financially viable.” He thought The New Canadian Curling Club was more likely to do so.
“There’s going to be a lot more hard decisions like this,” Evans told me. “All my decisions are being made to try to protect this theatre and to mitigate the impact on all of the artists involved. And if I’ve made mistakes in that, then I’m willing to accept that. But that has always been my primary motivation.”
The replacement of one show with the other and the company’s commitment to diversity, he made clear, have “nothing to do with the other.”
Everyone knows full well that Alberta arts organizations have been hit hard by turmoil in the oil and gas industry in recent years. Indeed, just last year, ATP sent out a desperate fundraising plea after corporate donations dropped by 77 per cent. “[L]ooking beyond next season has become extremely difficult given our financial situation," Vicki Stroich, then ATP’s executive director, said in a release at the time.
The best route going forward for the theatre company is similar honesty as it navigates these waters.
To cancel a National Theatre School graduate’s first major professional production, in her hometown, at a company that enjoys a national artistic reputation owing to its history of such world premieres, must be a very tough decision to make. To misuse the rhetoric of diversity and inclusion to spin a tough decision, however, has no justification and is the real mistake here that Evans should learn from.