#ChFestTC: Creating dialogues that matter

As a broke student, I found it was actually a good idea on my part to buy a general pass to the Charlottetown Festival Theatre Conference and get broke-er. $85 was a fantastic price for what was offered over the four days. Michael Rubinoff was there, producer of Come From Away (that’s the fact I tell my mom so she’s convinced it was indeed worth it), and participated as a panelist in a discussion called “Creating Across Geography”. One of my favourite events was Cathy Elliott, Mary Francis Moore, Keptin John Joe Sark, and Adam Brazier’s panel discussion titled “Building Relationships”. There was a keynote address given by Bob Martin, creator of The Drowsy Chaperone, in which he spoke in classic Bob Martin style. After Brazier’s introduction in which he acknowledged a Tony nomination, Martin approached the podium saying “I won a Tony, actually.” His advice to a young playwright: “Take a vow of poverty”. Something I’m working at and which, as I said, seems to be paying off.

The new musical material that was presented, although at times underwhelming (must we continue to churn out new work in this country with [white] women in corsets?), was generally exciting. Lindsay Kyte and Ian Sherwood’s Tompkinsville was touching, and avoided harping on Maritime cliches for cheap laughs. In fact, with the exception of the overused narrative of an unsuspecting, brooding strongman suddenly taking charge and leading people to salvation with help from a wise old wizard, the show did a good job at exposing the corporate/governmental structures at work. The story is a true one, based on the cornering of Cape Breton miners into a nearly impossible situation and the subsequent formation of the credit union and co-operative movement. The oppressive structures that are confronted, I would argue, continue to this day in subtle and not-so-subtle ways, economically forcing Atlantic Canadians into a perpetual cycle of self-deprivation. We see the “Irving Group of Companies”, for example, dominating the job market in New Brunswick, and general Atlantic Canadian tourism relying heavily on quaint stereotypes of leisure and passivity. So Tompkinsville can certainly open up some valuable conversation in the current climate.

My comment about women in corsets stems from my conflicted opinion on Scott Christian, Wade Bogert-O’Brien, and Kevin Michael Shea’s new musical, A Misfortune. The music is beautiful and the cast is great to look at (no shame), but the story and its time period simply should not be explored as a new piece. Producing a Chekhov adaptation is blase. Unless, of course, you do something completely riveting with it (I’m looking forward to the opening of The Musical Stage Company’s Onegin tonight at the National Arts Centre). I understand that for whatever reason 1800s Russian fashion is assumed to be a turn on for senior subscribers, but the majority of patrons’ willingness to be challenged stretches far beyond that. It’s time we stop using narratives with men in authoritative positions, even if we do have little winks to the audience to suggest we’re more clever than that now. Let’s create new theatre that speaks to contemporary advancements and challenges. Also: more diverse casting, Charlottetown.

I could talk about the truly rich material that was presented at the conference, but what I loved most of all was the conversations happening between the people who were present. I had lunch with Leslie Arden and Cathy Elliott, whom I admire. After briefly addressing my previous night’s loud, sex-related conversations that took place in earshot of Leslie (she didn’t hear, or if she did she didn’t care), we discussed the important stuff. What is the future of Indigenous relations in professional “Canadian” (the term is inextricably bound to colonialism) theatre? How can we convince juries outside of Central Canada to accept more submissions based on interesting storytelling and not solely on localized stereotypes? It was these types of discussions, happening privately and at livestreamed panels, that created the magic of the conference. The major producers/Artistic Directors who were present even got together for lunch and talked about how they could better collaborate, share resources, and vouch for creators they simply can’t financially support at a given time.

Folks involved with musical theatre in this country are simply the nicest. It’s an incredibly exciting time to be doing this work, and I can’t wait to see what the future holds for our nation’s talented artists. That said, there are a lot of difficult challenges to confront. As we move into a future with a large turnover of ADs, emergence of spirited entrepreneurs, and new uses of technology, we have to stay focused on what matters: more inclusion of First Peoples’ knowledge and values. Deeper settler reflection on ongoing appropriations. Climate change. How can our art bring people together and continue the dialogues that took place at a conference between people privileged enough to attend? How can we be more accessible in the future, and bring in those who, unlike me, can’t pay the $85?

These sorts of problems seem to have made a daunting and impenetrable wall, obstructing us from the true potential of theatre and performance in this country. I will say, however, that over four short days in Charlottetown, I observed an unmistakable cracking of the surface.

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