Opening nights of plays can be dramatic scenes all of their own – at least, they can be the way they are shown on television or in movies.
You’ve seen it depicted a million times, no doubt. The playwright or the director is a nervous wreck on the red carpet, producers or board members are all dressed up and drinking too much, and friends and family of the performers are carrying bouquets ready for the curtain call.
And then, the antagonists appear in the shot: All those nasty critics lined up in the aisle seats with their pens and pads armed and ready.
In reality, opening nights are not quite as exciting as that, especially these days – with the potential party poopers increasingly being kept far away from the party.
Take the Shaw Festival, for instance, which has been charting its own course on opening since Tim Carroll took over as artistic director back in 2017.
The theatre company’s productions of Gaslight and Damn Yankees are both what the festival calls “open for review” as of Thursday – which means they are out of previews and locked down creatively. I’ll be there then, with my pen and pad alongside regular paying audience members who likely won’t realize that they’re at a notable performance at all.
That’s because Gaslight and Damn Yankees’s “openings,” the ones listed in the Shaw Festival calendar, are taking place the following week. Those weekend performances marked with an ”O” are celebratory ones, with donors and members of the arts community invited; the reviews will already be out.
I used to find this an odd move on the Shaw’s part – to risk sending critics to a show with an uninvolved audience, and to risk planning a party for a show that just got panned.
But I’ve come around to seeing the wisdom of this scheduling: The Shaw Festival’s productions, like those at any other not-for-profit theatre, are going to run for a certain period no matter what I or any other critic has to say about them. So why not have celebrate them on a separate night that has absolutely nothing to do with the ritual of being reviewed?
“We have found it so much more fun to celebrate everyone’s work without all the stress of ´press night,’” Carroll said in an e-mail. “I also think it is better for the critics to see a real version of the show, not one jacked up on adrenaline and anxiety.”
Separating the critics from opening night is not a Shaw Festival invention, of course. This is common practices down on Broadway in New York – where critics are invited to a series of media nights in advance of the opening. The difference there is that the critics are asked to “embargo” (refrain from publishing) their reviews until the opening-night performance has come to an end.
Mirvish Productions, for the first time in recent memory, is giving that a go next month with its big-budget production of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, the stage-only sequel to J.K. Rowling’s popular book series that opens in previews May 31. Critics are being invited to see a performance on either June 17 or 18 – and reviews will be embargoed until June 19 at a certain hour.
I’m very much on board with that change in protocol. I’ve sometimes filed reviews of the most anticipated Mirvish shows in less than an hour in order to make the next day’s print deadline – and while the surge in adrenaline was exciting, I wouldn’t have minded putting a little extra thought into what I wrote.
That said, I do still enjoy being a part of the pomp and ceremony of opening nights from time to time. Thankfully, the Stratford Festival, bastion of tradition, is keeping to its usual practices this year, holding an opening week with critics and board members sitting side by side. It’ll be nice to have an excuse to put on a suit once again.
Curious about what’s new in French-language theatre in Canada these days, but live in Toronto? There’s an unofficial festival of francophone plays over the next few weeks – and nary a Tremblay, Bouchard or Lepage among the authors.
Lesson in Forgetting (Exercice de l’oublie), a play by the Acadian writer Emma Haché shortlisted for the Governor General’s Award in 2017, is currently on stage in English translation until May 22 at Pleiades Theatre (in English translation).
Then next week, Bâtardes, a Théâtre Everest production about siblings born to a Tibetan father and a Québecoise mother, opens at Theatre Passe Muraille, performed in French with English captions (May 28 to June 4); and Wildfire (Le brasier), David Paquet’s 2016 Theatre d’Aujourd’hui hit dark comedy that was remounted and toured in 2018, opens at the Factory Theatre in a new English translation (May 28 to June 19).
Last but not least, Singulières, a documentary play by Maxime Beauregard-Martin about single women in their 30s and 40s, will be performed at Crow’s Theatre in French with English surtitles from June 2-10. (It then heads to Théâtre La Bordée in Quebec City form June 14-22.) Bon spectacle!
What’s opening this week and next. Because of the upcoming holiday weekend, I’m going to miss filing a newsletter next Tuesday. Here’s a selection of what’s coming up across the country for the rest of the month.
- While Toronto theatres have their eyes on French Canadian theatre, Montreal’s stages are looking outward to the world. This year’s Festival TransAmériques (May 25 to June 9), the first under new artistic co-directors Jessie Mill and Martine Dennewald, features 23 theatre and dance shows from Canada and around the world – with a particular focus on African artists. Re:Incarnation, from the Nigerian choreographer Qudus Onikeku, kicks things off on May 25-28; the dance show is described as drawing on Yoruba philosophy to “celebrate Africa’s ability to reinvent itself.”
- Hot on the heels of Gaslight and Damn Yankees, the Shaw Festival is inviting critics to Too True to Be Good – so I’ll be back again then to review this rarely produced Bernard Shaw oddity that clocks in at three hours with two intermissions on May 26. (Runs to Oct. 8.)
- For a period before the pandemic, Drayton Entertainment had started to challenge Shaw Festival in terms of attendance, threatening to become the second most-attended not-for-profit theatre company in Ontario. After two years of being shuttered, Drayton relaunches next week with Billy Bishop Goes to War at the St Jacob’s Schoolhouse Theatre (May 25 to June 12). Its other five theatres open over the course of the summer – and shows range from Mamma Mia! to Sorry, I’m Canadian 2.
- Edmonton’s Teatro La Quindicina is celebrating its 40th anniversary season this spring and summer at the Varscona Theatre with four plays written or co-written by its longtime writer-in-residence Stewart Lemoine. Next up, the second in the series, is Evelyn Strange, a comic mystery set in 1950s New York (May 26 to June 12) last seen in the city of champions in 2006. (P.S. Go Oilers!)
- Hamlet, an opera composed by Brett Dean with libretto by former Canadian Stage artistic director Matthew Jocelyn, is on at the Metropolitan Opera in New York until June 9. It’s received a rave review from the New York Times, which calls it “great art.”
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