Bits of the Blitz

By Monica Prendergast, June 2014

A sampling of new Canadian plays.

For almost 30 years, the Alberta Theatre Projects’ PlayRites Festival in Calgary has premiered new Canadian plays— well over 100 works, a number of which have gone on to be produced across the country. Sadly, this year marks the final mounting of the festival so I was especially committed to attending at least the final weekend of the month-long event. The “Blitz Weekend” is when artistic directors and theatre administrators join the audience, not only for the main performances but also for stagings-in-progress and play-readings.

It really is unfortunate for the professional theatre in Canada that this forum for up and coming playwrights is shutting down. I estimate at least 100 delegates were on the scene, considering potential prospects for their companies to produce. I was on hand for five plays in three days—blitz indeed, seeing three shows on the Saturday alone is a record-breaker in my experience! What follows is my impression of the types of plays being written in this country today. That these concerns are evident in our contemporary theatre can only reflect their significance in the society at large.

Two of the five plays at Blitz had themes of bridging cultural gaps. Same Same But Different, written and performed by Anita Majumdar (with Nicco Lorenzo and Reza Jacobs), is a semi-autobiographical tale of growing up Indo-Canadian and falling in love with Bollywood. Majumdar’s character, Aisha, is a Canadian filming a Bollywood film, and we are treated to lots of the music, singing and dancing of that tradition.

Aisha is bullied by an overbearing director who we only ever hear offstage. This director keeps complaining out loud that her skin should be bit lighter in shade. This leads Aisha to spiral into childhood memories of the way her mother insisted she keep out of the sun and use bleach creams. The issue, which remains a problem to this day in Indian culture, is bravely explored by Aisha who struggles personally with the baggage of shame about skin colour. Her encounter with a Filippino-Chinese-Canadian dancer cast as her love interest in the Bollywood film, helps her to come to terms with herself and Act One ends with a dazzling display of joyful dance. 

Unfortunately, Act Two does not work nearly as well. It takes us back some decades to show us Aisha’s mother in a recording studio in Bombay. There we see the circumstances and attitudes that lead to her valuing the whitest possible appearance. I felt this act to be superfluous. The play could have ended at the intermission and would still have succeeded in getting its message across.

The second show I saw dealing with cultural diversity was a workshop performance, rough around the edges and nearly three hours long. Nevertheless, Making Treaty 7 is a remarkable project. A collective creation involving First Nations and settler performers of many disciplines (actors, singers, dancers, musicians), the project investigates the history and legacy of treaties signed in the late 1800s and early 1900s in the areas around Calgary.

I was deeply affected by witnessing this coming together of people from very diverse backgrounds. The presentation was filled with direct honesty and inventive theatricality in scenes and monologues that included traditional drumming and dance. In tracing the history of what happened, the presentation never flinched from identifying the oppressive impacts of colonialism that remain. I recommend the website on this project for anyone interested in this kind of cross-cultural, socio-political and community-based theatre: www.makingtreaty7.com.

Two other plays I took in focussed on inter-generational relations.

Games—Who Wants to Play? by Linda Griffiths and You Will Remember Me by François Archambault (translated by Bobby Theodore) both deal with this topic. In Griffiths’ play, we see a mostly myopic and self-absorbed white, upper middle class, urban couple fret about their teenage son playing too many violent video games. Griffiths juxtaposes the fixations of the parents and the son as two kinds of equally obsessive behavior. The adults are just as taken over by game-playing as is the youth, only in a manner that is immediately mentally manipulative rather than through a machine. One of the son’s friends insinuates himself into the family and the negative mind games continue to an inevitably violent finale.

I found all the characters entirely unsympathetic and the treatment of the theme sensationalistic. Although the production had some nice performances and was quite well-directed by former Theatre Skam-er Amiel Gladstone, the failure of this play was in not making me care very much about this family and therefore the deeper subject matter.

You Will Remember Me, on the other hand, is a beautiful play about a family dealing with Alzheimer’s disease. Quebecois playwright Archambault’s protagonist is a retired history professor who is progressively losing his memory. This is, of course, a terrible fate for anyone, but it is acutely so for an individual whose career has been devoted to remembering, for whom being presently alive is so much about recalling the past.

No longer able to cope with the demands of care-giving, his wife abandons him to the responsibility of an adult daughter at the beginning of the story. So the journey becomes this father rebuilding his relationship with a daughter who had become distant, along with her new boyfriend and the boyfriend’s young daughter. All of these relationships are sensitively portrayed as the professor’s memory steadily diminishes. The final scene of the play shows him entering a nursing home, and the family facing together the end stages of this terrible disease. Very moving. You Will Remember Me is unsentimental yet thoroughly compassionate. A highly relevant work of theatre in an aging society such as ours, I predict this play will be remounted often.

Finally, I think plays based on improvisational comedy will be popular (and needed!) in the near future. 

Legend Has It by Rebecca Northan and the cast members was certainly the most fun I enjoyed at the Blitz Weekend. Northan has made a name for herself touring her one-woman show Blind Date. That show features her picking out an audience member and improvising their first date together. Northan and her fellow performers were trained in theatresports, a Calgary tradition developed by Keith Johnstone and Loose Moose Theatre. They are highly skilled comic improvisers and their abilities lift what might have been a gimmicky show into the stratosphere. 

Legend Has It is a Hobbit-like magical adventure, the twist being that an audience member gets to play the hero. The performance I saw selected an 11 year old from the front row. Perfect! Much of the humor came from watching how the actors guided him, quite gently and generously, through the adventure and into victorious battle against the evil villain. I came home suggesting to my husband that we buy stock in this venture, as it has long-term success written all over it. I am confident Legend Has It, and other forms of improvised comedy involving audience members, will become a popular form of theatre attracting audiences of all ages.

So there you have it. A snapshot of five new Canadian plays provides some clear indicators about who we are as theatre makers and audience members, what matters to us, and what we want to see on our stages. Here’s hoping a replacement for the PlayRites Festival comes to the fore somewhere in Canada soon. In the meantime, Alberta Theatre Projects has provided an excellent model.

Monica Prendergast reviews theatre for CBC Radio's On the Island (90.5 FM), teaches and researches drama/theatre education and applied theatre, and has worked as an actor or director on many stages in Victoria and beyond.