With theatre still slowly waking up to the new year in Toronto, I’m headed to Vancouver this week, where the stages are already jam-packed and buzzing.
On Wednesday, I’ll be reviewing the world premiere of Forgiveness, a co-production of the Arts Club and Theatre Calgary (on at the former through Feb. 12, then the latter March 7 to April 1) that was featured in my recent article about five major stage productions to look forward to in Canada in 2023.
The show made it on that very (too!) short list because of its well-regarded source material (Mark Sakamoto’s Canada Reads-winning memoir of the same name about two of his grandparents’ experiences in the Second World War) and the well-known theatres artists involved its adaptation (playwright Hiro Kanagawa and director Stafford Arima).
But Forgiveness also landed on my radar because of the large-scale nature of the production – 13 actors, a technologically innovative design – that you don’t often see for new plays in Canada.
As it turns out, three of five shows I selected for my 2023 preview owing to their big ambitions have something in common: a financial investment from the National Arts Centre’s National Creation Fund (NCF) that helped the artists involved dream large or deep and experiment during the creation process.
I learned this the other day when Sarah Garton Stanley, who took over as artistic producer of the NCF from Heather Moore last summer, pointed out in a post on LinkedIn that Forgiveness, Fall On Your Knees (which kicks off a tour at Canadian Stage next week) and Mahabharata (which does the same at the Shaw Festival in February) were all recipients, as is Kid Koala’s The Storyville Mosquito (which was mentioned in The Globe and Mail 2023 music preview).
In the case of Forgiveness, the NCF put in $150,000 that helped hold a costly two-week ”design investigation” on stage at the Stanley Alliance Industrial Stage in the summer of 2021 involving the playwright, director, dramaturg and actors as well as the set, lighting and projection designers.
“Since the play is told through memory, I had always envisioned the design elements to intersect theatrically and dramaturgically to illuminate the narrative,” Arima, the show’s director, e-mailed me this week. “Without the support of the National Creation Fund, this design-focused, developmental workshop could not have happened.”
It’s always noticeable to me the leap in quality that our perennially just-getting-by Canadian theatre companies are able to achieve when they have an extra pool of funding to tap into while building new work – whether that is private commercial enhancement money (which Come From Away producer Michael Rubinoff has started introducing to Canadian musicals such as Grow and the upcoming Maggie) or one-off public programs (such as the Canada Council’s New Chapter grants for the sesquicentennial).
The NCF, which was born in 2017 under the NAC’s then-CEO Peter Herrndorf, could be a sustainable source of such “extra” venture capital for deeper development processes if it continues on. In a phone call this week, Stanley told me it has so far doled out $11-million, all raised from private donors, and there’s still enough money in the tank from initial fundraising for another year and a half of investments. Her job now is to help the fund “crystallize its identity” as it charts its next chapter.
I hope the NAC finds a way to make the fund permanent – as it is really helping the Ottawa-based National Arts Centre live up to that “national” in its name.
The impact of the National Creation Fund is only really being seen now because of the pandemic. Other noteworthy English-language Canadian shows coming up that received money from it – and nearly made it on my list of 2023′s most anticipated shows – are The Darkest Dark, an adaptation of astronaut Chris Hadfield’s children’s book opening at Young People’s Theatre in February ($125,000); Prison Dancer, a new musical inspired by a viral video featuring inmates in a Philippine prison, which premieres at the Citadel Theatre in Edmonton in May ($135,000); and Treemonisha, a reimagining of a Scott Joplin opera that will be on stage in Toronto next summer via TO Live and the Luminato Toronto Festival ($240,000).
While in Vancouver this week, I will also be attending the first week of the PuSh International Performing Arts Festival – which is back in full force this year (through Feb. 5) after a fair bit of behind-the-scenes turmoil and restructuring.
The first show I’m seeing is Lolling and Rolling (Jan. 19 to 22), an interdisciplinary work by composer and theatre artist Jaha Koo about the South Korean phenomenon known as “tongue-tie surgery,” a procedure that makes it easier for patients to pronounce the English ‘r’ sound. It heads to Usine C in Montreal (Jan. 24 to 26) after PuSh.
The High Performance Rodeo, Calgary’s international festival of the arts, is also under way and runs to Feb. 5. Among the shows of note in the first week is MINE, a Theatre Replacement show that explores a classic mother-son relationship through Minecraft on Jan. 19 to 22 (and which I reviewed in a live-streamed version back at the very start of the pandemic in March, 2020).
Other notable openings this week across Canada – off the festival circuit
Sacre, a production from the Australian contemporary dance/circus company Circa set to Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, is at the Vancouver Playhouse from Jan. 17 to 21. It’s also at Le Diamant in Quebec City from Feb. 1 to 3. (What’s with these intriguing international tours hopping over Ontario from B.C. right to Quebec? Hmm …)
Controlled Damage, Andrea Scott’s award-winning play about the civil-rights activist and $10-bill model Viola Desmond, is at the Grand Theatre in London, Ont., from Jan. 17 to 29. I haven’t seen it but I enjoyed the graphic-novel adaptation, No Reason to Apologize, published last summer by Teach Media. (I love comic book adaptations of plays.)
Dix Quatre, the French-language translation of Jason Sherman’s play set in the writers’ room of a cop show called Copy That, is having its premiere at La Licorne in Montreal from Jan. 17 to Feb. 25. (It’s always fascinating to me which English-language Canadian plays end up being translated and produced in Quebec.)
Fifteen Dogs, mentioned in the last edition of this newsletter, opened in previews at Crow’s Theatre as scheduled last week – but, if you’ve been looking for a review, the theatre company pushed its media opening back to this week. Glenn Sumi will now be reviewing it for The Globe and Mail; look for his review later this week.