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A scene from the Soulpepper production of Ins Choi’s play Kim’s Convenience in Toronto. (Cylla von Tiedemann)
A scene from the Soulpepper production of Ins Choi’s play Kim’s Convenience in Toronto. (Cylla von Tiedemann)

Why there’s a different sort of pipeline debate going on in Canadian theatre Add to ...

Pipeline debates are always erupting on Twitter, but recently the term “pipeline” started to trend in the United States for an unexpected reason – due to an argument over theatre, rather than the oil sands.

It all started at an event called The Summit organized by The Washington Post, when moderator Peter Marks asked five of the major artistic directors in the D.C. area a question: Why, if 60 per cent of audiences are women, do female playwrights only make up 20 per cent of playwrights presented at their theatres?

Ryan Rilette, who runs the Round House Theatre in Maryland, answered first – and his sound bite was the take-away from the evening. “It’s hard, because there’s not enough [plays written by women] in the pipeline,” he said, in a response that was pilloried the way Mitt Romney’s infamous “binders full of women” comment was.

While this initial reaction was unfair to Rilette, as he has recently committed his theatre to gender parity in playwrights, his comment did open up a useful discussion about the often unacknowledged “pipeline” that leads from New York and London’s stages to non-profit regional theatres in the United States, the diversity of plays that flow down it, and whether the very existence of such a pipeline contradicts the non-commercial ideals that originally inspired the regional theatre movement.

In Canada, a similar debate has been on a low simmer since, well, since its first regional theatre opened in Winnipeg in 1958: Are the country’s biggest not-for-profit theatrical institutions too in thrall to what’s produced in New York and London? Are they simply franchises of Broadway and the West End, all programming roughly the same seasons – with anything Canadian or unexpected relegated to our smaller stages?

Looking over the seasons at the regionals in 2014, however, it’s apparent that this stereotype may no longer be fair. In the wake of the collapse of the Vancouver Playhouse in 2012, regional theatres are looking less cookie-cutter than they once did – and more and more distinct in terms of programming.

Indeed, of the three major Canadian regionals with budgets in the $7-million to $10-million range that have announced their 2014-2015 seasons so far – Theatre Calgary, Winnipeg’s Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre and Toronto’s Canadian Stage – there’s not a single play that overlaps among them.

That’s quite a shift from, for example, the 2008-2009 season when American playwright John Patrick Shanley’s Tony-winner Doubt was seen in the A-Houses of all three of these companies, as well as five other regionals from the Arts Club in Vancouver to Neptune Theatre in Halifax. “Isn’t that fantastic?” says Steven Schipper, artistic director of MTC. “I think that speaks to the maturity and development of Canadian artistic directors.… We have our individual voices and we’re responding to our communities.”

Has the theatre pipeline that supplies Canada’s regionals really sprung a leak? One piece of good news is that, this season, for the first time in recent memory, the most-seen new play in the country hasn’t been a recent Broadway or West End hit, but one born in Toronto.

Kim’s Convenience, which originally premiered professionally in Soulpepper’s 210-seat Toronto theatre, has been on tour, playing on main stages as big as the National Arts Centre’s, which seats 897. With five stops this season (and more to come next), it beats its closest competitor, American David Ives’s two-hander Venus in Fur.

Ins Choi’s comedy set in a Korean-Canadian convenience store has been exceeding sales targets despite not having the built-in publicity that many shows that have passed through the Broadway machine often do. At Theatre Calgary, in fact, it has been the best-attended Canadian play in the company’s history, according to artistic director Dennis Garnhum. “People heard about it, wanted to see it and told their friends,” he says.

Next season, Garnhum will again please advocates of Canadian playwrights. For his 2014-2015 playbill, announced last week, two out of the three contemporary works he’s programmed are homegrown: Liberation Days, a drama by David van Belle about the freeing of the Netherlands by Canadian forces in the Second World War, and Dear Johnny Deere, Ken Cameron’s musical based on the songs and lyrics of Fred Eaglesmith. The first is a world premiere, while the second follows the Kim’s Convenience route, promoted to a big stage after having proven itself on smaller stages such as Ontario’s Blyth Festival. This is really how a regional should ideally work – with one recent transatlantic hit One Man, Two Guvnors and a selection of classics rounding out a distinct season.

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