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From Alberta and California, this is theatre without borders

In a Theatre Calgary/ACT production, Gretchen Hall plays the title character in George Bernard Shaw’s Major Barbara.

Pak Han

Written more than 100 years ago, George Bernard Shaw's Major Barbara fires off on issues that are utterly contemporary: guns, income inequality, hold-your-nose-and-accept-it philanthropy. That topicality made it the right play on which to build a partnership between two theatre companies – one Canadian, one American.

Theatre Calgary's co-production with American Conservatory Theater recently opened in San Francisco and will travel to Calgary next month. "This was a co-production that was really integrated, top to bottom, from the beginning," says ACT artistic director Carey Perloff.

Canadian shows have long gone south to be performed in U.S. theatres, and American productions often come north. This unusual collaboration, however, was mounted using actors, designers and technicians on both sides of the border. "In terms of being built to be shown and shared in both countries, that … does feel incredibly different," says Theatre Calgary artistic director Dennis Garnhum, who directs the play.

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In Shaw's 1905 masterpiece, a millionaire munitions manufacturer (Dean Paul Gibson) has all the money and power he could want, but longs for the approval of his daughter (Gretchen Hall), who works for the Salvation Army. To win her favour, he offers a large donation to the organization. Would accepting it be hypocritical, or would it be folly for the Salvation Army to stick to its ideological guns and reject the much-needed cash?

Garnhum had the idea for the collaboration during the 2011 run of ACT's Tosca Café at Theatre Calgary. He was backstage, listening to Gibson in the bartender role, when the Major Barbara light-bulb went off. He made the suggestion to Perloff, and she agreed they should pursue it.

"What's been really thrilling to me is the whole project has been based on the idea of a creative collaboration – it hasn't been about saving money," Garnhum says. "You don't save money at all when you cross the border, if you think of visas and extra trucking costs and extra lights. Often co-productions are activities to save money; this was purely about collaborating on creative ideas."

Theatre Calgary is very keen on cross-company collaborations; this summer at the Shaw Festival, Garnhum will direct The Philadelphia Story, which will then travel to Calgary during its 2014/15 season. And there's an upcoming announcement about a co-production with Vancouver's Bard on the Beach, which will first appear in Calgary.

For Major Barbara, the design team was split down the middle, and the cast had a few more Americans for logistical reasons, but with a Canadian star and director. "There's the thing I thought was extraordinary: Carey Perloff allowed a Canadian director and Dean Paul Gibson in the featured role – a Canadian to stand centre-stage on her stage," says Garnhum.

The relationship with the venerable ACT has become a point of pride for Theatre Calgary, which sent 10 staff members to San Francisco to spend time with their counterparts and work on Major Barbara. Meanwhile, dozens of board members and donors travelled down this month to see the play in previews.

The play's topical subject matter will resonate differently with American and Canadian audiences, Perloff says. "We are in a morass of craziness in this country about guns," she contends. "You all don't have the Second Amendment, lucky you."

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"I would say for Calgary what's going to be really interesting in terms of the morality of money has much more to do with the oil and gas industry and the relationship of that industry to philanthropy," she says. "So it's a remarkably trenchant play, and I think it'll ring people's bells on both sides of the border."

Major Barbara is at ACT in San Francisco until Feb. 2 and begins previews at Theatre Calgary on Feb. 11, opening Feb. 14.

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