Theatre Skam's 18-year road trip

By Joe Wiebe, July/August 2013

A one-night stand led to an unexpectedly long journey, including that night in the Volaré. Damn right.

Victoria’s Theatre Skam turned 18 this year—quite a feat given its humble origins. Co-founder and current Artistic Producer Matthew Payne recalls a simple phone call from Amiel Gladstone back in January 1995.

“Ami called me up and said, ‘I think there’s this café owner who’ll let us do a show and there’s these two gals. Are you in?’ And I said sure.”

Before the four friends could stage a night of five short plays under the title “Table for Two,” they figured they had to call themselves something. Maybe an acronym based on their names? But none of their surnames began with a vowel—Donald, Gladstone, Payne, Turner—so that wouldn’t work. What about their first names: Sarah, Ami, Matthew and Karen? 

Here’s where the creation story becomes mythic. Ask Gladstone and Payne, who together grew Theatre Skam into a prominent Victoria company that has produced theatre internationally, and you get two slightly different stories. Gladstone says it was his idea, but Payne disagrees.

“I remember somebody said ‘mask’ and we all laughed at that, and then somebody said ‘skam’ and I remember kind of going, ‘Oh yeah,’ and Ami loved it. He got it right away so it must have been one of the girls who said it, because it wasn’t me and he jumped on it. Sarah Donald claimed it was her, so I’ll give it to her.”

In response to Payne’s claim, Gladstone says, “Wow. I have a memory of it being me, but the fact that we are having this conversation means I question my own memory.”

“But the other thing about that time was that we were just putting on a show,” Gladstone continues. “We weren’t forming a theatre company that was going to be around 18 years later. It was just the name to put on this one little evening of small plays. So we knew it was the right name because it was cheeky and fun.”

When that first show sold out its four-night run and led to several more successful shows, they realized that they had formed a theatre company—and the name still worked.

“We were named for our initials, but it really created a spirit and identity for the company,” Gladstone says, looking back. “It always felt like the right name because we were really trying to be an alternative to all the other stuff that was happening.”

It is interesting to note that was the only time the four founders actually performed together. “We only ever did one show together,” Payne explains, “which is amazing since this is our 18th year.”

As they formalized the company and began staging productions in and around Victoria, Gladstone took on the role of artistic director with Payne as artistic associate. The other two founders were often involved in projects—Sarah Donald as an actor and musician, and Karen Turner as a director from time to time—but Gladstone and Payne quickly came to be identified as Skam’s artistic leadership.

The two friends had met while studying theatre at the University of Victoria in the early 1990s, and were roommates for a time along with a third theatre student, Lucas Myers, who became one of a core group of regular performers for a time. Other “skammers” came and went; the company became an incubator for a generation of performers who cut their teeth in Skam shows and then moved on to professional success elsewhere.

“You think of Julia Mackey and Michelle Monteith and Naomi Snieckus and Graham Somerville and Paul Fauteux,” Payne lists names off the top of his head. “These are artists who are well established in their careers now, with the success of [Mackey’s] Jake’s Gift or the Shaw Festival or Stratford or Second City in Toronto.”

Theatre Skam was also defined—at least in the early days—by its preference for “site-specific” theatre: plays staged in unusual locations such as back alleys and loading docks—even the front seat of a 1978 Plymouth Volaré with room for up to four audience members tightly squeezed in the back (Norm Foster’s Louis and Dave, which Gladstone and Payne performed many times in fringe festivals across North America). 

Skam began an annual summer theatre festival called Summer Kamp in 1997, presenting George F. Walker’s Zaztrozzi as well as The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged) and 29 Plays in 59 Minutes. Using the Fringe Festival circuit as a foundation, they reached out to audiences beyond Victoria, staging productions in Toronto, New York, Philadelphia, Seattle, and even in France. 

In 1998, Theatre Skam produced a play called District of Centuries by Sean Dixon, a Toronto playwright “whose imagination was as bold as ours,” according to Payne. As Gladstone writes in the introduction to Dixon’s collection, AWOL: Three Plays for Theatre Skam, “That production marked the beginning of a collaboration that eventually spawned three full-length plays and a strong sense of identity, creativity and joy for our little company. In the past we had relied upon our interpretation of scripts to give our plays a certain Skam style. Now we had a collaborator from the ground up, a partner in crime.”

Dixon wrote two plays for the company—Billy Nothin’ (1999) and Aerwacol (2000)—which were staged in Victoria, Toronto and Vancouver. Then, Theatre Skam began producing Gladstone’s plays, including The Black Box (2001), The Wedding Pool (2004), Hippies and Bolsheviks (2005), and My Three Sisters (2008).

As Theatre Skam gained notoriety nationally, the core members found themselves being pulled in various directions. Gladstone moved to Vancouver and began focusing more on directing and writing. Payne became a regular performer/stage manager on the children’s theatre touring circuit. Then, in 2007, Gladstone decided it was time for him to leave. He had already been living in Vancouver since 1999, returning each summer to produce Summer Kamp.

“At first it was great to come back every summer to do shows,” he says, “but then it became harder and harder to justify doing that. I can’t be running a theatre company in Victoria from Vancouver. It’s just not fair to the idea of the company, and then coupled with my own work, it was kind of like I wanted to break off and do some solo albums.”

The choice was to either fold the company up or for Payne to take over the reins, and they agreed that Skam’s artistic producer needed to be based in Victoria. After a few years in Toronto, working on Skam shows on a project-by-project basis, Payne had recently returned to British Columbia.

“I kept coming back to the roots of where I’d started,” he says of his decision. “I just felt like I think I’ve got to be back in Victoria. And I also knew that if I was going to come back to Skam and to Victoria, then the company was going to have to move from project-based to year-round operations.”

In the six years since then, the company has done just that—in spite of the significant cuts to provincial arts funding that occurred during that period—and now Payne proudly boasts of Skam’s year-round staff: two full-time employees and one part-timer, along with many others hired on a project basis. Summer Kamp has evolved into Bike Ride, an annual “mobile feast of live performance” where audience members cycle along the Galloping Goose Trail in Cecilia Ravine Park to see 12 live, brand new short works.

And this August will mark a reunion of sorts as Theatre Skam will be producing Smalltown: A Pickup Musical, written by Amiel Gladstone and Lucas Myers, and staged outside in the back of a truck parked in a field at Victoria High School. Quintessential Theatre Skam.

 

Bike Ride runs July 6, 7 and 13, 14, from 3:30-6:30 pm (last tour departs at 6:30) at Cecilia Ravine Park.

Smalltown: A Pickup Musical runs August 6-25, 7pm (no shows Mondays) at Victoria High School field (access via the Belfry lobby).

And in September (dates TBA), watch for Cariboo Buckaroo, written and performed by Matthew Payne, and developed in partnership with the Xeni Gwet’in First Nation. www.skam.ca

Victoria writer Joe Wiebe’s Balkan guidebook to BC’s booming craft beer scene, Craft Beer Revolution, has just been released. www.joewiebe.com or www.thirstywriter.com.