Ins and Outs at Intrepid Theatre

By Monica Prendergast, May 2016

Janet Munsil may be departing, but Intrepid is forging ahead.

Janet MunsilEARLY APRIL BROUGHT NEWS that Intrepid Theatre’s Artistic Director Janet Munsil is stepping down from her position after 25 years. Munsil’s long-term contributions to theatre in Victoria are impressive. Under her leadership, and working alongside other movers and shakers in local arts administration (Gail Manktelow, Stephen White, Ian Case, among others), Munsil has produced the Fringe and UNO Festivals, brought in top touring productions, and developed two performance spaces. 

When I moved to town in 1998, the Herald Street Theatre that Kaleidoscope Theatre had created was at risk and was eventually lost. It is now a furniture store. The need for alternative performance spaces was palpable and Munsil showed real leadership in securing the Metro Theatre from the Conservatory of Music via a lease arrangement. She then led the development of the smaller Intrepid Theatre Club on Fisgard, in the same location as the company’s offices. These two spaces have allowed many performing artists much-needed venues and have significantly raised the number of live performances we enjoy here.

I spoke with Munsil about her decision to leave the company. She assured me that Intrepid Theatre is in great shape, now running three festivals each year plus the two performance spaces. (More on the third festival, OUTstages, below.) Munsil describes her leaving as “stepping aside, not stepping down.” She radiates confidence in Executive Director Heather Lindsay’s abilities to take over the helm. “I’m proud of the work I’ve done over the years, and I see the impact of Intrepid’s work on the changing expectations and tastes of audiences—and emerging contemporary artists—in this city.”

I asked Munsil what is next for her, hoping to hear that she will have more time to devote to her playwriting. I am a huge fan of Munsil’s plays, which always strike me as both deeply intelligent and theatrical. Her interests are often historical and unusual stories of people who are outsiders due to events such as terrible accidents (Circus Fire), medical curiosities (That Elusive Spark, nominated for a Governor General’s award), disfigurement (The Ugly Duchess, widely toured and performed by her husband Paul Terry), or historic figures struggling for acceptance (poet John Keats and painter Benjamin Robert Haydon in Influence). 

The good news is that Munsil is working on two playwriting commissions at present, as well as directing Twelfth Night for this summer’s Greater Victoria Shakespeare Festival. 

The first new play, Act of Faith, is for Realwheels Theatre in Vancouver. Realwheels’ mandate is to address issues related to disabilities. In typical Munsil style, she has chosen to write an unexpected play based on a true story. “The play is based on the faith healing of a young paraplegic Christian woman who was in a wheelchair,” Munsil tells me. “She had a dream one night that she would be cured and the next day became fully ambulatory. I am interested in the tensions and fallout this event caused in the disability community, including her friends. I have spoken to some of them and hope to speak to the woman herself. I am curious about how this ‘cure’ ripples out in relationships.” The play is scheduled to premiere in the 2017-2018 season.

The second play Munsil is working on is for Vernon’s Powerhouse Theatre. Powerhouse is Vernon’s community theatre and has been running since 1964. They asked Munsil to write a play based on the community’s history. She became interested in a fascinating local figure, the artist Sveva Caetani. Caetani was the daughter of aristocratic Italian immigrants who fled the fascist regime in 1921 and settled down in Vernon seeking a simpler life. After her father died in 1935, Caetani’s mother became mentally and physically ill and forced her daughter to remain housebound for the next 25 years. Despite this captivity, Caetani developed as an artist and after her mother’s death became an art teacher. Her major work Recapitulation is described by Munsil as “a masterpiece in the surrealist style” and is made up of a series of large watercolours recounting her life. This mostly unknown Italian-Canadian artist and her remarkable story seem ripe for dramatization by Munsil. I look forward to seeing it and all of her future offerings.

One of Munsil’s more recent innovations at Intrepid has been the queer theatre festival OUTstages that launched last July under curator Sean Guist. Guist is the marketing and development coordinator by day for Intrepid, but at night is a queer artist, producer and director. He intended to launch a queer theatre festival independently in town, but when Munsil and Lindsay heard his plans they decided to fold the festival into Intrepid’s offerings. 

I asked Guist what led to this new festival’s launch. He tells me that OUTstages “fits well into Intrepid’s mandate to provide audiences with edgy, contemporary and multidisciplinary work.” Guist is a director himself and as a queer artist has an interest in queer performance. His idea was “to create a West Coast version of Toronto’s Rhubarb Festival at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre or Halifax’s Queer Acts.” He tells me that Vancouver’s Queer Arts Festival is multidisciplinary with a focus on visual and literary arts and only the occasional performance piece. His impetus was to create a festival for Victoria’s “underserved queer community,” the loyal audiences who attend everything Intrepid stages, and new audiences drawn by the attraction of groundbreaking work. 

I asked Guist about the need for a separate festival focused on queer content. After all, we have seen queer-themed shows at UNO and the Fringe and at the Belfry, such as this spring’s excellent The Gay Heritage Project during the Spark Festival. Guist and Munsil admit to some “horse-trading” as they curated between UNO and OUTstages (the Fringe is lottery-based). But Guist sees the need for a space within which both queer and non-queer audiences can “start conversations within and beyond the queer community.” He tells me about a show last year, Stewart Legere’s Let’s Not Beat Each Other to Death, a one-man play from Halifax about gay bashing. After each performance, Legere invited audiences to stay for a dance party to shake off the darkness of his storytelling and to be together in a positive and healing way. Audiences did stay to dance with each other and with Legere on stage. I love this story, which for me is about what theatre can and indeed should be doing to generate greater understanding, dialogue and connections within a community.

This year’s OUTstages reflects what Guist sees as a shift in the queer theatre community from the political to the personal. “We don’t have to fight the same fights as we had to in the past,” Guist says, “so the work is more about individual stories.” 

Guist feels some of the best theatre in Canada is emerging from the LGBTQ community, especially from younger artists just beginning their careers. Mashing-up genres is a newer aesthetic that leads to a show like Cocktails with Maria, which we will see in June. Drag-diva Marie Toilette presents verbatim stories of gay sex encounters through the medium of the European art song. 

Ivan Coyote and “an all-tomboy band” present a mix of storytelling and music in Tomboy Survival Guide. Ludwig and Lohengrin is a one-man play performed by Calgary’s Kyall Rakoz about King Ludwig II of Bavaria in which Rakoz plays 17 roles. The play deals with Ludwig’s “fascination with building fantastical castles, his obsession with fairytales, his fall from power, and his mysterious death.” 

This last one sounds like Janet Munsil’s cup of tea, and OUTstages is a great opportunity for the rest of us to see some of Canada’s most innovative theatre. June 21-25. See www.intrepidtheatre.com.

This summer will see the publication of the second edition of Monica’s international award-winning book Applied Theatre, co-authored and edited with Juliana Saxton and published by Intellect Books.