In performing-arts cities across North America, spring is usually the season of theatre awards.
It’s the time of the televised Tony Awards in New York – and of countless other smaller ceremonies in other urban centres where many theatre companies begin programming in September and start to wind it down at the end of April.
Of course, the 2021-2022 theatre season has, once again, not been a usual one due to this pesky pandemic. It’s interesting to see how different awards shows and ceremonies are adapting – or not – to the situation.
The Tony organizers, for instance, decided to return to a regular schedule of May nominations and June ceremony this year, and didn’t budge when many new Broadway productions pushed their openings back or went on “hiatus” in the winter because of the first Omicron wave.
The unintended effect of this has been to create an overcrowded April of openings that has overwhelmed critics and likely resulted in thinned-out media coverage. And in the end, ongoing issues related to yet another wave of COVID-19 cases resulted in organizers extending award eligibility and postponing the nominations anyway.
The Dora Mavor Moore Awards in Toronto, on the other hand, made the smart decision back in March to push their ceremony from June to September because so many live performances had been postponed beyond the usual adjudication period. Bravo to awards organizers at the Toronto Alliance for the Performing Arts for thinking ahead – and not making anyone feel like they had to rush to get their shows open.
Then there’s the curious case of the Jessie Richardson Theatre Awards in Vancouver, which are going ahead with a June 27 ceremony that, according to a Facebook post, will be on Zoom “due to budget constraints and the ongoing pandemic.”
But the bigger news about the Jessies is that they are also going on an indefinite hiatus after this year’s edition, pausing all jurying as of May 1. According to a long explanation posted online, the board of directors has been trying to make the awards more inclusive for several years now – and have had difficulty executing reforms such as diversifying juries. With no quick fix in site, the board says it does “not want to uphold existing power structures by pretending that the buy-in for the Jessies is diverse and representative enough for it to continue as-is.”
I’m a big believer in the aphorism that “perfect is the enemy of good” – and it’s hard to see how a pause on these undoubtedly imperfect Vancouver awards, on the eve of what will likely be one of the most diverse theatre seasons in the city’s history, is a step in the direction of greater equity and inclusion rather than a stumble.
I think it’s clear what the real root cause of the issue is: The Jessies, unlike the Tony Awards or the Dora Awards, are their own self-contained, not-for-profit operation and have not been part of a larger organization since they split from the Greater Vancouver Professional Theatre Alliance in 1997. We’ve got a serious case of unpaid volunteers burning out trying to change the world here.
Theatre awards are all flawed in their own way – and easy to criticize. But I’ve seen them boost careers of, and generate national discussion about, a diverse range of artists who have been overlooked by critics – and that includes the Jessies, so I hope they return or are replaced post haste.
Purdy, please: It seems like we have fully on Al Purdy revival going on in Ontario theatre right now.
This week, Factory Theatre opens among men, a new play by David Yee that stars Ryan Hollyman as the Canadian free verse poet. Set in Prince Edward County during the building of his famous A-frame cabin, it also features Carlos Gonzalez Vio as fellow poet Milton Acorn and is described as a “charged portrait of male friendship in uncertain times, and a story of how Canadian literature was changed forever.” (To May 15.)
In July, the Festival Players of Prince Edward Country are premiering another show about the same poet called The Shape of Home: Songs in Search of Al Purdy, created by Frank Cox-O’Connell, Beau Dixon, Hailey Gillis, Raha Javanfar, Marni Jackson and Andrew Penner. (It runs July 14-31.)
Also opening this week in Toronto:
– Three Women of Swatow finally hits the stage at Tarragon Theatre after over two years of postponement. This play about three generations of women grappling with their dark history is by up-and-coming playwright Chloé Hung (who has also written on two Ava Duvernay-created television series) and promises “lots of blood.” (To May 15.)
– The Great Divide by Alix Sobler, the winner of the 2015 Canadian Jewish Playwriting Competition, gets its belated Canadian premiere at the Harold Green Jewish Theatre. It’s about the immigrant experience and sweatshop labour in the early 20th century. (April 30 to May 15.)
ON TOUR: John Cleese, the British comedian of Monty Python and Fawlty Towers fame, is embarking on a Canadian tour of an informal show called An Evening of Exceptional Silliness that begins Tuesday night at Roy Thomson Hall in Toronto.
Between now and May 18, you’ll find Cleese in Kitchener, Halifax, St John’s, St Catharines, London, Edmonton, Calgary, Saskatoon, Regina, Vancouver and Victoria talking about his heyday performing silly walks and, no doubt, his current beliefs that the silly wokes are ruining comedy, and so on.
Musicals opening across Canada:
– The Shaw Festival puts some base in its walk with its first preview performance of the Broadway/baseball classic Damn Yankees at the Festival Theatre on Saturday, April 30. The first preview was originally supposed to take place on April 28, but has been postponed because of rehearsal delays caused by COVID cases within the company.
– Akiva Romer-Segal is a busy guy right now. Not only does the lyricist have his funny and heartwarming musical Grow on at the Grand Theatre in London (Critic’s Pick), his adaptation of the adult rock cabaret April Fools is about to open at the Segal Centre in Montreal (May 1 to 22). This show described as a “a deep dive into a woman’s mind” by singer-songwriter Keren Peles was a hit in Israel in its original Hebrew version.
– Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins and Elvis Presley: They all take the stage in the jukebox crowd-pleaser Million Dollar Quartet, which is getting a new production at Theatre Calgary directed by Thom Allison. Opens tonight, April 26, and runs to May 22.
– The Invisible: Agents of Ungentlemanly Warfare, a Catalyst Theatre production inspired by the true stories of female special-operations executives during the Second World War, lands at the Cultch in Vancouver this week (April 29 to May 7). Stephen Hunt reviewed this musical (with a different vast) for the Globe back in 2019.