I’ve used the words myself a lot, but it’s actually a misconception that theatres were “shut down” during the pandemic.
In fact, artistic directors and administrators were working harder than ever, primarily pivoting from Plan A to Plan B through Z as circumstances changed constantly. Some found time to make their own proactive changes to their companies, too.
Toronto’s Theatre Passe Muraille has much to show for its behind-the-scenes work of the past couple of years, actually – and is the rare theatre company that seems in a better position now than prepandemic.
The alternative theatre reopens its doors this week – its first season of in-person, live work since COVID-19 arrived – with The Year of The Cello (October 15 to 29), a new work created by artistic director Marjorie Chan with composer Njo Kong Kie. The show officially opens the renamed and renovated Bob Nasmith Innovation Backspace.
Chan, who was appointed artistic director of TPM in 2019, was just about to announce her first season of programming when the pandemic hit. When I spoke to her last week, she had a lot more than just programming to talk about. “The language of a ‘return’ or ‘back’ – there is no back, there’s only forward,” she told me in an interview that was itself delayed by a year and half.
TPM’s first of three big changes is physical. The City of Toronto, which bought the building that houses TPM in 2007, did overdue structural and electrical work in 2020. Then the theatre itself completed work on the Backspace, funded in part by a $142,600 Resilient Communities Fund grant received in 2021 from the Ontario Trillium Foundation.
The ultraintimate venue is now suitable for dance as well as theatre, with retractable, flexible seating that allows for different configurations and can pull back to make almost the entire space into a stage. Filming and streaming equipment is also being installed, with more tech to come that will make it possible for artists to experiment with augmented reality and virtual reality.
TPM’s second big change is at the top. A new three-headed leadership structure sees Chan remain as artistic director, Indrit Kasapi promoted to the role of artistic producer and the hiring of Michelle Knight as managing director, revenue and strategy.
This model will allow Chan to do less of the promotion and pitching usually involved in her role – areas, she says, that are not really her forte – and more time in rehearsal halls bringing her dramaturgical and curatorial eye to projects going on the stages.
TPM’s third big change is that it is doing what I like to call less with more.
In the lead-up to the pandemic, the theatre company’s own brand had really been watered down as it tried to do more with less. Former artistic director Andy McKim’s last full season had 10 shows in it, but only one of them was not a presentation of another theatre company’s work.
By contrast, Chan’s first live, in-person season has seven shows – and only one is a presentation.
Presentation houses have their place but it’s great to see TPM return back to primarily producing and co-producing its own shows again.
The large season is perhaps heavier on productions and co-productions than future ones will be, and that is possible in part because of a surprise $250,000 gift TPM recently received from the Slaight Family Foundation. “We literally were in the office crying for about an house afterwards, because we would not have been able to do the things we do this season without it,” Chan says.
New Cirque du Soleil show
Since the pandemic started to recede, Cirque du Soleil has mainly been getting its old big-top shows back on their feet, but today it announced a new touring show: ECHO, directed by Mukhtar Omar Sharif Mukhtar, based on an original concept by Es Devlin.
The circus show opens in the Old Port of Montreal on April 20 and, for me, the unique selling point is the involvement of Devlin as set and props designer. She is one of the world’s best, just won a Tony Award for her set for The Lehman Trilogy, and is known to the wider world for working on stage shows for the likes of Beyoncé and U2 and designing the 2022 Super Bowl halftime show.
Broadcasting and streaming this week
It was unclear for a while whether the Stratford Festival would get the rights to stream their film of their 2021 production of Edward Albee’s Three Tall Women, in which Martha Henry gave her final, scorching stage performance.
Thankfully, everything came together – and now Barry Avrich’s film of Diana Leblanc’s production will premiere on Sunday, October 16, at 2 p.m. ET on CBC and also stream on CBC GEM. It will also be available on Stratfest@Home, the festival’s own streaming platform for 12 months starting Sunday. Here’s my review of the show when it was on stage.
Notable openings this week
– Un. Deux. Trois, a trilogy of acclaimed shows by National Arts Centre French Theatre artistic director Mani Soleymanlou, is on a cross-country journey right now. An incredible 36 performers are on tour with the show about identity and, in particular, francophone identity across Canada.
The French-language show is being presented with English surtitles at Théâtre Francais de Toronto in collaboration with Canadian Stage in Toronto from October 13 to 16. Next it heads to Montreal (October 21 to 23), Quebec City (Octover 27 – 29), Caraquet, NB (November 2 and 3), Moncton (November 5 to 6), Vancouver (November 11 and 12) and Winnipeg (17 to 20). Full details on venues and tickets on the site of Orange Noyée, Soleymanlou’s own theatre company.
– Redbone Coonhound, a new comedy by married playwrights Amy Lee Lavoie and Omari Newton, opens at the Arts Club in Vancouver this week (to October 30). The title is a reference to a problematically named breed of dog, and the show explores what happens after an interracial couple out for a walk encounters one through what’s being called “a series of micro-plays.”
Newton is co-directing with Ashlie Corcoran out west; the in-demand script will get a separate co-production from Toronto’s Tarragon Theatre and Montreal’s Imago Theatre in February and March of 2023.
What the Globe is reviewing this week
Crow’s Theatre and Modern Times Stage Company have teamed up for Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo, Rajiv Joseph’s Tony-nominated play about a tiger haunting the streets of the Iraqi capital.
Joseph’s play is often remembered for having featured Robin Williams in the title role on Broadway. Crow’s favourite Kristen Thomson plays the tiger in this production running October 11 to November 6. I’ll be there on Friday; look for my review early next week.
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story misidentified Theatre Passe Muraille's managing director as Danielle Knight.