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Stafford Arima, artistic director of Theatre Calgary.Trudie Lee/Theatre Calgary

My first reaction when I heard that Theatre Calgary artistic director Stafford Arima was inviting Albertans to vote on a play to include as “Calgary’s Choice” in his 2022-2023 season was to be aghast.

An artistic director at a not-for-profit theatre should lead his audience, not follow it.

It seemed particularly perverse to me that Arima was pitting such disparate theatrical works as The Rez Sisters and Escape to Margaritaville against each other for a programming slot.

One is an internationally anthologized modern classic by Cree writer Tomson Highway – and the other is a Jimmy Buffett jukebox musical (and Broadway flop).

Creating the possibility that a major Calgary production of a seminal Indigenous play might be prevented by a motivated group of local Parrotheads – as Buffett’s fans are known – flooding an online poll seemed like madness. Surely, reconciliation should take precedence over songs about getting wrecked.

After getting on the phone with Arima this week, however, I started to see that there was some method behind the Calgary’s Choice competition, which runs until Feb. 6 and also offers voters the opportunity to choose the Stephen Sondheim musical Into the Woods, British playwright Simon Stephens’ stage adaptation of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, African-American master playwright August Wilson’s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom or the 2012 bio-play Red Velvet by Lolita Chakrabarti.

In normal times, this kind of stunt would definitely be inappropriate, but we’re not living in normal times.

Theatre is an art form that requires an audience to be complete, and stage artists – and administrators for that matter – have been cut off from their seat-filling collaborators for a long time now. There’s been a lot of talk in theatre about how to build back better, but no one has really been speaking to spectators about it.

“I just wanted an opportunity to reignite engagement, because the engagement had been kind of butchered by COVID,” Arima told me over the phone from California, where he is currently directing the world premiere of a new musical called Bhangin’ It at the La Jolla Playhouse.

While digital programming and other “pivots” have been reaching theatre’s hardest core fans during the pandemic, the more general audience that large regional theatres depend on in order to fill, in Theatre Calgary’s case, 750 seats every night during a show’s run has been disconnected and lost in the world of endless choice of streaming services such as Netflix and Amazon Prime for almost two years now.

The Calgary’s Choice competition is a way to involve that audience (or those audiences) in a simple, straightforward way.

Having Albertans (everyone in the province is eligible to participate, not just Calgarians) vote on theatrical works that are very different from one another was a conscious choice of Arima’s. He didn’t just want to have people choose between Shakespeare plays or musicals, for instance. He wanted to make voters, for at least a moment, read about and consider a diverse selection of contemporary plays and 20th-century classics.

Arima imagines that a fan of Into the Woods who knows it from its Disney film adaptation starring Emily Blunt and Anna Kendrick might well log on to the Theatre Calgary website to vote and learn about the celebrated 19th-century Black stage actor Ira Aldridge, whose life is the subject Red Velvet.

Perhaps the competition might also put the great works of August Wilson on the radar of an individual who enjoyed the book Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. And who is really to say that a Parrothead might not become intrigued by the very different island escapism of The Rez Sisters (the island in that case being Manitoulin)?

Regional theatres such as Theatre Calgary have their work cut out for them in our era where everyone lives, more than ever, in tiny silos online. Their value has always been the ability to bring larger groups of human beings together, if only for six shows a season.

As for the other five shows that will take place in 2022-2023, Arima remains in charge of those and will announce them this spring. “The rest of the season is filled with some very exciting new works, Canadian works,” he says. “This is really just an island on its own.”

An impossible play becomes a podcast: Fortune of Wolves, a dark apocalyptic 2017 play from New Brunswick’s Ryan Griffith, is an unusual beast: It’s made up of dozens of monologues by 66 different characters. When it had its world premiere at Theatre New Brunswick, different parts were chosen at random each show, performed by a small cast who had memorized the whole whopping text; every audience got to see a different show with different characters.

On January 28, a new podcast series based on Fortune of Wolves premieres on Spotify and Apple Podcasts produced by Big Noise Audio Collective and presented by Theatre New Brunswick. It will give audiences a chance to hear the entirety of Griffith’s epic play with individual actors playing each role for the first time.

Toronto’s Next Stage Theatre Festival is currently under way – even though the original plans to present a hybrid digital/in-person edition have been scuttled. Now everything is online, with some of the more intriguing shows such as The Complex involving interactive participation.

Editor’s note: A previous version of this article incorrectly suggested that The Rez Sisters had not yet had a professional production in Calgary. In fact, Tomson Highway's play was produced at Alberta Theatre Projects in 1990.

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