Theatre started to pivot back in 2021.
Performing arts organizations in parts of this country had to fight relentlessly for regulatory fairness and the most basic of information from governments needed to resume live and in-person performances, however.
And, everywhere, an industry used to planning years in advance had to continue to learn how to improvise at the last minute.
If the first half of 2021 was mostly exhausting, the second half was often exhilarating. Here are 10 theatre or theatre-adjacent works that demonstrated why the continuing struggle for the survival of (and innovation in) this art form is worth it.
1. The Rez Sisters, the Stratford Festival in Stratford, Ontario
Stratford’s first-ever production of Tomson Highway’s classic 1986 play about seven women from the fictional Wasaychigan reserve headed to the Biggest Bingo in the World had a fabulous cast; I hesitate to single out any one again here. (Okay, I keep thinking about Nicole Joy-Fraser’s jubilant performance as Annie Cook.) But Jessica Carmichael’s dream-like, multidimensional use of the stage (outdoors, no less!) immediately shot her to the front ranks of directors in this part of the world.
2. Trouble in Mind, Shaw Festival in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario
Alice Childress’s searing, long sidelined 1955 play about a Black actress’s backstage struggles on a Broadway show is no love letter to the theatre – but director Philip Akin’s production renewed many an audience member’s love for the up-close and in-person art form with its masterful orchestration of interpersonal tension. (It also beat Broadway to the punch in rediscovering this great work by a few months.)
3. Three Tall Women, the Stratford Festival
I think I’ve run out of words to describe how extraordinary Martha Henry’s final stage performance was; it was not of this world. She explored the darkest corners of mortality and motherhood as the woman at the centre of Edward Albee’s 1990 play – and then, it still boggles the mind, two weeks after the show closed, was no longer with us.
4. Is My Microphone On?, Canadian Stage in Toronto
The world hasn’t stopped for Jordan Tannahill. The charmed playwright-novelist’s 2021 accomplishments include being nominated for the Giller Prize (The Listeners) and bringing the Canadian premiere of a groundbreaking marriage of virtual reality and theatre (Draw Me Close). For this list, I’m choosing his post-dramatic protest play, in which a cast of real teens artfully berated me about my inaction on climate change and then sang about the end of the Earth. Director Erin Brubacher and the rest of the creative team made the outdoor amphitheatre in High Park live and breathe in new ways.
5. Out of Order, The 7 Fingers online
Cirque du Soleil’s dramatic ups and downs make the front-page headlines, but my absolute favourite Quebec circus troupe remains The 7 Fingers (Les 7 Doigts de la main) who will be celebrating 20 years of human-centred spectacle in 2022. They built stunning acts around social distancing and plexiglass barriers for their fantastic pandemic film Out of Order.
6. Into the Woods: In Concert, Talk is Free Theatre in the Springwater Provincial Park in Ontario
Director Michael Torontow’s mostly-staged outdoors production of Stephen Sondheim’s fractured-fairytale musical may not go down as the greatest of all time, but it was the perfect one for the moment. “Sometimes people leave you halfway through the wood …” Thanks for everything, Sondheim.
7. You Can’t Get There From Here, Factory Theatre online.
It’s boom times for radio drama, audio theatre, pod plays, whatever you are want to call it – but is anyone else finding it hard to get motivated to tune in? Factory Theatre got the form right, in my opinion, with these five short but satisfying audio dramas made available for free through Apple Podcasts. I was particularly moved by Every Minute of Every Day by playwright Keith Barker, who is a grandmaster in dramatizing grief.
8. Six, Citadel Theatre in Edmonton, the Brooks Atkinson Theatre in New York
Okay, so this British musical that reimagines the six wives of Henry VIII as a girl group actually played at the Citadel all the way back in 2019, but I’d long planned to catch up when it landed in New York … that just took a year and a half longer than expected. The highest praise I can give this smarter-than-you-expect entertainment is that I completely forgot about the pandemic (and my mask) while watching it.
9. 21 Black Futures, Obsidian Theatre on CBC Gem
The most ambitious pivot of the pandemic was Obsidian artistic director Mumbi Tindyebwa Otu’s commission of 21 10-minute monodramas exploring the question “What is the future of Blackness?”, which were then filmed and started streaming on CBC Gem in February. A who’s who of Black playwrights, directors and actors participated – and the (Afro)futurist results were fantastic, one way or another.
10. Tick … Tick … Boom!, Netflix
Movie adaptations of stage musicals are almost always disappointing, and the proliferation of excellent pro-shots is threatening to deep-six them for good. Director Lin-Manuel Miranda and screenwriter Steven Levenson may have single handedly saved the genre, however, with their smart adaptation of Jonathan Larson’s pre-Rent “rock monologue” that skillfully expanding the show’s universe and perfectly capturing the magic of rehearsal rooms and off-Broadway theatres.
Footnote: I can’t end 2021 without acknowledging the loss of three major Canadian stage actors: Christopher Plummer, whose international success made us proud; Martha Henry, for whom a career in Canada was always the first choice; and David Fox, who could do anything and chose to help shape crucial Canadian plays from The Farm Show to The Drawer Boy into homegrown hits.
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