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Dora Awards: The antidote to a tumultuous year in Toronto theatre

“A Brimful of Asha“ is one of the many strong plays up for a Dora Award this year.

Erin Brubacher

The Dora Mavor Moore Awards, Toronto theatre's annual awards show, takes place Monday. And boy, does this city's theatre community need a party and a nice, stiff drink (or two).

What a tumultuous 12 months. The rollercoaster ride began last June when SummerWorks lost its (now re-instated) Canadian Heritage grant under suspicious circumstances, and ended with beloved artistic director Ken Gass being dismissed by the board at Factory Theatre. In between, theatre companies folded and tales of libel chill grabbed the headlines.

And so it's a pleasure to look back at the season staged by Toronto's theatre artists and find that, artistically, it was the strongest I've covered as critic.

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Among the Dora nominees this year, as usual, there's a long list of surprising omissions. How could Studio 180's heart-wrenching revival of Larry Kramer's The Normal Heart not be up for best production?

What distinguishes this year's Dora nominations from other editions, however, is that, well, there's nothing to quibble about when it comes to who and what actually did make the cut. Pity the jurors, for instance, who will have to pick the winner of the outstanding production award from War Horse, The Penelopiad, Topdog/Underdog, The Golden Dragon and Crash. All five shows – from the mega to the mini – were indeed outstanding.

Here are a few reasons why our cup runneth over – and so many shows were held over – in Toronto this season.

Toronto's got directing talent

The old complaint about Canadian theatre is that our actors are as good as anywhere, our playwrights aren't half bad, but our directors aren't up to snuff.

That's simply not the case anymore. Toronto is blessed by being home to versatile talents like Weyni Mengesha, who mined all the heart and laughs in the hit comedy Kim's Convenience at Soulpepper, then immediately turned around and crafted a psychological thriller worthy of Hitchcock in Carole Fréchette's critical darling The Small Room at the Top of the Stairs at Tarragon Theatre.

Likewise, Alan Dilworth's controlled direction of Pamela Sinha's Crash turned a solo show about a rape survivor into an surprisingly edge-of-your-seat experience.

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From established pros like Kelly Thornton (The Penelopiad), Ross Manson (The Golden Dragon and Another Africa) and Chris Abraham (Seeds) to younger, emerging talent like Ashlie Corcoran (The Ugly One), Michael Wheeler (Jesus Chrysler) and Kelly Straughan (Stockholm), there was no shortage of directors rising to challenge of excellent material or lifting so-so scripts up to the next level.

New Canadians: If you stage it, they will come

Toronto has a huge population but, too often, the cities' established companies try to tap into the old reliable theatregoers rather than bring in new audiences from diverse communities.

In particular, the 50 per cent of Torontonians born outside of Canada are considered linguistically or culturally out of reach.

It's worth the risk to target them, however: Two warm-hearted stories about the clash between new Canadians and their children enjoyed sold-out runs this season.

Of course, there was Kim's Convenience, a rollicking comedy that tells the story of an inter-generational battle in a Korean-Canadian corner store. But another surprise success was A Brimful of Asha, in which actor Ravi Jain enlisted his mother, Asha, to tell the true story of how his parents' attempt to arrange a marriage for him on a trip to India. It's coming back to the Tarragon in November.

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Homegrown musical theatre is on the rise

Forget the decline and fall of Dancap. Toronto doesn't really need another commercial company bringing in touring companies from the United States.

What Toronto does need is more middle-scale producers like Mitchell Marcus, whose Acting Up Stage Company had a breakthrough season this year.

In the fall, Marcus partnered with Theatre Passe Muraille to bring the delirious Canadian musical Ride the Cyclone back to town for a run that quickly became an impossible-to-get-a-ticket sensationfor.

Then, in the winter, Acting Up joined forces with Obsidian Theatre for a production of Tony Kushner's Caroline, or Change that critics felt was stronger than the original productions in New York and London. It leads the Dora nominations with good reason.

Next season, Acting Up will get some competition from Theatre 20, another similarly sized theatre company looking to produce Canadian and international musicals with our own talent.

With any luck, Toronto is at the start of a second, sustainable, musical-theatre boom.

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