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The Globe and Mail

Helen Lawrence shows at Montreal’s Festival TransAmériques cancelled

Lisa Ryder is Helen Lawrence, a mysterious woman who shows up from L.A.

David Cooper/Arts Club Theatre

The stage was set for a significant moment in English-Canadian theatre.

Vancouver artist Stan Douglas's cinematic play Helen Lawrence was set to open Montreal's Festival TransAmériques in May, the first time that a production from the rest of Canada had been programmed in a prestigious performing arts slot previously occupied by international stage stars such as Germany's Thomas Ostermeier and American choreographer Merce Cunningham.

But now the FTA is scrambling to find a last-minute replacement as Helen Lawrence lead producer Canadian Stage and Canadian Actors' Equity Association have been unable to reach an agreement that would allow the show's 12-actor cast to perform in Montreal.

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"This is the first English-language Canadian piece to be invited [to open the festival], so it's heartbreaking," says Su Hutchinson, managing director at Toronto's Canadian Stage.

At the heart of the matter are Equity rules that require there be eight weeks of down time between a show closing and its next engagement.

Helen Lawrence ended its run at Vancouver's Arts Club on April 13, leaving only five weeks before its three-night showcase in Montreal, then only three weeks before the show is schedule to reopen at the Munich Kammerspiele in Germany. (Helen Lawrence's stops in Munich and, subsequently, at the Edinburgh International Festival and in Toronto are still set.)

According to Hutchinson, actors and agents were made aware of the Montreal tour date during casting in October – and Canadian Stage has been engaged in seeking a concession from Equity to permit the show to go ahead since then. "On March 31, they let us know that they were not approving the concession," she says. "Either we pay actors for 11 weeks for three performances in Montreal … or we cancel the show."

In response to an interview request by The Globe and Mail, Equity's executive director Arden Ryshpan released a statement.  "Canadian Stage's request for an easement to contract terms was received by the Equity only after the Helen Lawrence engagement was already under way," she wrote. "Most concession requests are dealt with long before contracts are negotiated so all parties understand the terms in force when signing the contract. …

"Equity's regret in this matter is that if Canadian Stage had asked for the concession before contracting the artists as is appropriate, all of this might have been avoided."

Hutchinson, however, reiterated that she has been in communication with Equity since the fall - and began submitting formal requests for concessions in December after casting was complete. "We were told not to submit anything until everyone was cast," she said.

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Helen Lawrence is one of the first major English-Canadian productions to attempt to break into the international festival circuit that European and Quebec productions regularly tour – and to Hutchinson, it's the demonstrated some of the limits of the Canadian Theatre Agreement, which is negotiated between the Professional Association of Canadian Theatres (of which Canadian Stage is a member) and Equity. "What we've taken out of this is that the CTA is not in any way set up for taking the work out to the world," Hutchinson says. "The constraints that we're working under are quite particular to English Canada."

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