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In defence of Canadian Stage: Matthew Jocelyn finds his groove

Matthew Jocelyn: The seats are starting to fill back up.

George Pimentel

The rumours of the death of Canadian Stage have been greatly exaggerated. In fact, from my perspective, the Toronto theatre company is truly alive for the first time in many years.

With John Logan's Red now open, it's not at all difficult to pick which of the city's not-for-profit theatres has had the strongest autumn artistically. That would be Matthew Jocelyn's Canadian Stage, hands down.

Now, naturally, Factory Theatre, Tarragon and Theatre Passe Muraille mostly focus on new plays, so they take on an extra risk and are more likely to stumble.

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And yet, Canadian Stage - in its second season selected by new artistic and general director Jocelyn - has embraced "risky" programming and has still had a remarkable run of critical acclaim. There was the rejigged return of Volcano's Another Africa; the beautiful and poignant I Send You This Cadmium Red, another double-bill; the orgiastic dance-theatre anarchy of Marie Chouinard's Orpheus and Eurydice (which played to 90% capacity); and Company Theatre's English-language premiere of German play The Test. (Yes, I wasn't particularly won over by The Test personally, but I'm not so egotistical that I can ignore the raves it received elsewhere.)

That's why it's frustrating to read Toronto Star critic Richard Ouzounian, in his review of Siminovitch-winning director Kim Collier's production of Red, still railing against Jocelyn's vision for Canadian Stage, even as it has found a definite groove. He calls it "a regime that seems to feel that being different is the answer to everything."

That sounds like a compliment disguised as an insult to me. What is the alternative to "being different", after all, but "being the same"?

That's what Canadian Stage was for an awfully long time - and I, for one, am relieved to see those days are over.

Toronto is the largest city in Canada and it should be a theatre hot-spot internationally, and yet for many years its biggest and best-funded not-for-profit theatre company was producing the safest work in town.

Forget the chimera that what this city most needs is a commercial saviour in the model of the defunct and discredited Livent to be the birthplace of great theatre. In places like London, Chicago and New York, almost all the exciting work that goes on to worldwide and, yes, even commercial, success, is born through R&D in the not-for-profit sector.

Particularly on its difficult-to-fill main stage, however, Canadian Stage has had a reputation for staging plays that you could see at any regional theatre in any of the smaller cities across the country or in the United States in ways that were, for the most part, pretty unoriginal.

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Whether or not these productions pleased or displeased audiences, the theatre company was definitely a follower, not a leader, frequently taking what had had commercial success in New York or London and aiming to recreate that here in Toronto in a not-for-profit setting (and, too often, failing at it).

Though Canadian Stage's audience was aging and in decline (or defecting to Soulpepper), many did not see the old vision - which was really a non-vision dictated by the anxiety of filling the Broadway-sized Bluma Appel theatre - as a problem, just something that needed to be tinkered with.

Many still don't. "Sometimes being good is all we ask," writes Ouzounian at the end of his Red review, wishing for a production that was more like the one he saw in New York.

Had I been reading that review in a newspaper rather than my laptop, this is the point where I would have balled it up and thrown it violently against the wall.

"Being good" is not all we ask of art, theatre or otherwise - and it's ironic that this should be argued in a review of a play where the main character, abstract expressionist Mark Rothko, goes off on a passionate rant about "living under the tyranny of 'fine.'"

"I am here to stop your heart, you understand that!" Rothko yells at his young assistant in the play. "I am here to make you think! I am not here to make pretty pictures!"

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Rothko has it right. All that I ask for from a night at the theatre is originality, brilliance, innovation, for my mind to be blown, for my gut to be wrenched, for my heart to be stopped. I don't expect it to happen always or even often, but I want to see theatre artists reaching for it.

I would always, always, always rather see a daring failure by an artist with a vision and passion of his or her own than a "good" production of a play that's been programmed due to box-office projections.

That's why I thought Jocelyn's first season (2010 - 2011) was actually quite vivifying, even if it didn't succeed so unequivocally as this season has so far. I would much rather see Peter Hinton make a beautiful mess of Michel Tremblay's Saint Carmen of the Main any day than see a so-so production of John Patrick Shanley's Doubt a few months after the movie version has come out. The former was at least something to talk about; the latter was irrelevant.

It's unfortunate, I think, that certain prominent media voices - and I've singled out Ouzounian because he's been the loudest, but there have been others - were prematurely dismissive of Jocelyn's reign at Canadian Stage and even now continue to dismiss it as a whole when it's starting to work out rather well on its own terms.

Indeed, thanks to articles like the one that appeared in Toronto Life this fall (headline: "Stage Fright: Matthew Jocelyn wanted to revive Canadian Stage. Instead, he's scaring audiences away"), many people in town have the erroneous impression that the company is going down the toilet.

Allow me to provide a little context. Attendance did drop last year at Canadian Stage - house capacity (percentage of seats filled) went down from approximately 70 per cent to 60 per cent. No one's denying this drop, but, in fact, most of it was expected. How could attendance not fall when a theatre company significantly changes its direction?

Just take a look at three Canadian companies for comparison. When the Stratford Shakespeare Festival changed guard in 2008, the three-AD experiment ended up with a season with an operating deficit of $2.6-million. When Jackie Maxwell took over the Shaw Festival, her ambitious first season landed $3-million in the red. Over at the National Arts Centre, Hinton's first season as artistic director of the English theatre saw attendance drop from 82 per cent to 68 per cent.

Knowing this, Canadian Stage planned for a drop, though it emerged from last season with an unspecified "small operating deficit," according to Ashley Ballantyne, associate director of communications for the theatre.

Attendance indicators are quite encouraging going forward, however - there appears to be a sustainable audience, some old, some new, building for the work Canadian Stage is now doing.

The company's subscription renewal rate from last season to the current one has not declined at all - indeed, this season is "tracking virtually identically" with last year's renewal figures, according to Ballantyne. (There was a 6-per-cent decrease in subscriptions between 2009-2010, the last season programmed by former artistic producer Martin Bragg, and the end of 2010 -2011.)

That doesn't mean that some audience members haven't been "scared away," but that new subscribers are replacing them. "We have twice as many new subscribers on this date in 2011 as we did on this date in 2010 (a year-to-date comparison)," Ballantyne e-mailed me early in November. "By the end of the 2011-2012 season, we anticipate that 1/3 of Canadian Stage subscribers will be new to the company."

What's important from a financial perspective is that Canadian Stage attracts enough spectators to cover its costs, otherwise it will run into problems in the long term. What's important from an artistic perspective is that Canadian Stage exist as an entity with a mission beyond "being good" and filling seats with shows that worked elsewhere, presented in largely the same way.

"Make something new," Rothko says, as his assistant Ken departs at the end of the play to start his own life as a painter. That's what Canadian Stage is doing, and getting better at doing. The company is beginning to lead and I, for one, am enjoying following.

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About the Author
Theatre critic

J. Kelly Nestruck is The Globe's theatre critic. More

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