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Does New Canadian Theatre Matter?

New Canadian Theatre
By Andrew Cooper

As I was typing up a grant for a new project recently, this sentence sprang from my fingers, “I exclusively produce new Canadian work, which I believe to be paramount to fostering the growth of the national Canadian theatre landscape.” Now, this might just sound like grantspeak (that strange language artists and administrators use exclusively when writing grants), but it really struck me how much I believed that.

After living in Kamloops for eight years, I left the city last fall to pursue theatre in Calgary. I had been running a company I founded in Kamloops called Chimera Theatre for four years and once I landed in Alberta, I began thinking about starting a new company and what that company’s mandate might be. I’m still figuring that out, but the first thing that I KNEW was that new Canadian work would be the centre of the company, like it was with Chimera Theatre. Luckily, this is now very common in the national theatre landscape, from Tarragon Theatre in Toronto to Alberta Theatre Projects in Calgary, but is producing original Canadian Theatre enough to be the centrepiece of a company’s mandate today? And if it is, why is it important?

new canadian theatre

I’ve had the pleasure of working on a handful of world premieres over the past year and I’ve found that they really speak to people today and that’s because the shows are for today! We don’t have to find reasons why a script that’s fifty or a hundred years old is relevant today because when artists create new work that’s important to them, it’s inherently relevant.

There has been a lot of unrest across Canada with recent provincial and national elections. How will these affect the future of theatre in our country?

And can making new Canadian work make a difference? I think it can. I think that theatre in general can make huge impacts on people’s lives. I wouldn’t be in this crazy industry if I didn’t believe that, but I think one of the most efficient ways to do that is to make new work for the people of today.

New Canadian Theatre

I hear a lot of theatre companies, and I’ve been guilty of this too, saying how important it is to support art by buying tickets. Instead, why don’t we make art that doesn’t make people feel obligated to go, but gets them excited about the live performance experience! Let’s make art that makes people flip out and want more and more. Even with a lot of changes to government budgets, we are still lucky to have an incredible amount of support for the arts in this country on national, provincial, and municipal levels, so let’s use this money to get people activated in our communities.

To me, theatre is about two things: entertainment and connection.

As odd as this sounds, I sometimes feel like companies and artists forget that theatre is meant to entertain. If theatre is too in-your-face with its views or not diverse enough, audiences won’t be entertained. And, to be clear, entertaining does not mean funny. Entertainment can be gut-wrenching, it can be thought-provoking, it can be emotional. The point is, let’s not ostracize our audiences, let’s include them. Theatre is about connection. Film does so many things better than theatre, so let’s focus on what we can do best and that’s tell a story, live, in a room with other humans. Research from 2017 found that “watching a live theatre performance can synchronize your heartbeat with other people in audience, regardless of if you know them or not.” Make your audience a part of our work and share it with them.

I believe, one of the easiest ways to connect with your audiences is by presenting work that speaks to them today, in the present, in this very moment.

Canada has so many amazing artists and companies, and not just in Toronto. There is incredible and interesting new work being done in British Columbia, Alberta, and the prairies and it’s work that’s speaking to underrepresented communities. Shows like Children of God from Vancouver’s Urban Ink Productions (an important and timely indigenous piece), GLORY from Kamloops’s Western Canada Theatre, and Catalyst Theatre’s The Invisibles (important stories about brave women in history) can attest to that. One of my favourite things about new work is how diverse it is. We have so many new voices wanting to burst onto the stage now and we need to embrace that.

I want to see less productions of American playwrights like Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams, and Sam Shepard. Let’s tell Canadian stories!

Look at the success of Old Stock: A Refugee Love Story, which was nominated for six Drama Desk Awards while Off-Broadway (and is, by the way, coming to Calgary at Alberta Theatre Projects next season) and Come From Away which won a Tony Award and was nominated for six more, and Kidd Pivot’s Betroffenheit, which won an Olivier Award in London, UK for Best Dance Production. When I was at the Edinburgh Fringe last summer, I went to the CanadaHub (where I saw Calgary’s The Old Trouts perform) and was so proud and excited to see amazing Canadian work being showcased at the world’s biggest theatre festival. It’s clear that Canadians are making amazing art that’s being appreciated around the world. But even as I’m writing this, I wish I could tell you how great Canadian Theatre is without saying it also goes to New York or London, because it can be world-class and successful right here in our borders.

Let’s put Canada in the centre of the world stage for theatre. Let’s scream out “We are here!” in our communities, in our provinces, in our nation, and throughout the world. Let’s set this world on fire and ignite something in the hearts of humans around the country and around the globe. For me, new Canadian work does that and that’s why it matters.

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Also by Andrew Cooper:

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