It takes a village to raise a theatre

by Russ Hunt

The official posters for this summer's NotaBle Acts Theatre Festival called it a "celebration of New Brunswick playwrights." And it was certainly that. But it was also a celebration of a whole community of people without whom the writers wouldn't matter -- stage directors, electricians, producers, house managers, artistic directors, actors, and all the people out on the edges, such as visionaries who build theatres or hire theatre directors or offer support grants to festivals.

Even more than most art forms, as festival co-founder Ilkay Silk remarked on opening night, it takes a village to raise a theatre. The official festival program listed 51 people actively involved, and dozens of organizations -- from El Burrito Loco to the CBC, from the James Joyce Pub to all three levels of government -- who participated in other ways. In terms of public presence, of course, it's no Harvest Jazz and Blues Festival, but Fredericton, for a few days at the end of July and the beginning of August, felt like a village with something pretty exciting going on.

Planning had been underway since the closing of the first festival, last summer, but for most people the experience began on Tuesday at noon, on a stage at the corner of the Tannery, just off King Street. The festival began with productions of five original short plays, all selected from scripts submitted by writers across the province last winter, and pulled together for performance by overlapping teams of actors, directors, and technical people.

For the first four noon-hour shows, the lighting director (the weatherman) cooperated, and we could sit in the sunshine in the Tannery and watch a couple harassed by a telephone collection agency or a father showing his son how to shave and what some of the differences are between shaving and growing into a man, or a playwright losing control of his characters. And you could, between shows, watch lots of people who were just passing across the Tannery on their way to or from lunch, or just wandering around Fredericton seeing the sights, stop for a second look.

And -- once the "outdoor theatre" problems of sound projection were solved, as they were by Wednesday noon -- the shows themselves repaid all the attention those passersby might give them. Outdoor theatre tends to be reduced to broad, loud comedy: but these short scripts were all thoughtful, and some were touching (and some were very funny).

That night in the Black Box Theatre up at Saint Thomas the "indoor" part of the Festival began with two plays. First up was Tighten the Traces, Robbie O'Neill's touching one-man portrait of Leo Kennedy, a heroic survivor of cerebral palsy and childhood polio who lived in Cape Breton and whom O'Neill met and interviewed at length. Though the Fredericton-based O'Neill's been doing the show off and on for over twenty years, it had never been performed publicly in Fredericton. This production was newly mounted, with music provided by Mike Doherty and Tom Easley, two of the city's finest musicians. The show felt very much as though you were in the kitchen with an aging and engaging relative, pouring forth his life and lessons over a glass of rye and occasionally breaking into song (in this case, with a wonderful full-on rendition of George Formby's immortal music-hall song "When I'm Cleaning Windows").

The second part of that evening was quite different. A "workshop" presentation of a musical being written by Tania Breen, Tony LePage, and Leigh Rivenbark, it was eminently engaging, often brilliantly funny, and sometimes darkly and effectively satiric. I hope when Plastic eventually goes into production it will find performers as remarkable as the four actor/singers (Breen and LePage, along with Natalie Roy and Shawn Henry) who stood behind their music stands and made us believe that there really was a show going on around them, and brought us to care about the desperation and loneliness suffusing their lives. Though there wasn't a song that you come out of the theatre humming, there were none that aren't interesting, amusing, and engaging, often with lovely melodies and extraordinarily clever lyrics.

We only saw the first act, and only an outline of that. With luck, and hard work, the rest will be at least half as good, and we'll get to see it all one of these days soon. In a festival celebrating the creative energy of playwrights, this workshop was as powerful a demonstration as we're likely to see of how that energy can transform four music stands and a keyboard into a world.

On Thursday night we saw the two scripts which had won the festival's winter competition for the best one act plays. What the playwrights had won was essentially the right to participate in having their work "workshopped" -- that is, rethought, rewritten, sometimes re-imagined. The plays, as seen by the opening night audiences, both still had some rough edges, but were both well worth attending to.

Ryan Griffiths' Take is essentially a conversation between three young friends, one of whom, at the end of his social and financial and emotional rope, is proposing to rob a bank to solve all his problems. The conversation is set in a coffee shop or diner, and the action essentially consists of everyone discovering that nobody is really a movie-style criminal, a person who plans out a complex robbery as though planted on earth for that purpose.

The evening's second play, Burnt Offerings, written by Sherry Coffey and Ian LeTourneau, was utterly different. Accordingly, director Ron Spurles took an entirely different approach to this work, loading the Black Box acting space with props and business, and providing an ambulatory sound system in the person of T.C. Richards, toting now a djombe and now a bodhran and sometimes a tin whistle, providing incidental music and sound effects (I especially liked his dying teakettle and his cell-phone ring).

The play presents a radically dysfunctional family of four. The mother, Lorna (Michelle Daigle), collects junk and plans extra rooms to put it in, burns chicken in a microwave, and generally copes valiantly with early senile dementia or perhaps Alzheimer's. The divorced father (Andrew Jones) relates clumsily to his two children and not at all to his ex-wife. The son Jack (Brent Dawes) is just enough of a son to be concerned about his mother's loss of memory, and too frenetically engaged with his job to be aware of his own scattered mind. And the alienated daughter, Sheilagh, was played by Meghan Mesheau with a kind of nervous, angular, brittleness that brought Merryl Streep to mind.

Did the final shouting match among the family solve or conclude anything? It wasn't clear, and probably didn't matter: Like other plays in the festival, Burnt Offerings is a work in progress, and it's a privilege to be part of the process. It's what live theatre, to some extent, is always about, and what makes it different from most other forms of art.

Those two evenings were repeated on Friday night and Saturday afternoon, and on Saturday night the Black Box saw the Festival's most ambitious production, a new full-length play by UNB's Len Falkenstein, Free / Fall, an ambitious, complex and challenging work which weaves wildly disparate themes and ideas into a tapestry of images and sounds about Romanian history, the fall of the Soviet Union, vampires, 9/11, and people's lives, and folds all that around a jagged narrative of two apparently quite different and obviously quite separate couples, one in Canada and one in Romania. Demanding on both company and audience, rewarding them with laughter and shivers, Free / Fall is a sort of object lesson in what theatre can do that no other art form can.

Opening on a bare stage, backed by three screens on which were projected a rich, various, and astonishingly well-timed series of images, maps, titles, photographs, the play involved four actors (and a tiny but crucial part for "a girl," played by Hilary Ball) using a minimal range of props, and an electronically-enhanced violin off in the stage-right shadows, punctuating and supporting the action. The four young actors (Terry McKinnon, Josef Addleman, Matthew Spinney, and Marissa Robinson, who have been -- and presumably will continue -- workshopping the play with Falkenstein) did an astonishing, energetic, disciplined job of keeping the audience engaged, of making us watch what's happening right now, even when we didn't yet see why, or how it connected with what had gone before.

Like most of the other productions in this year's remarkably successful festival, this is a work in progress. Like them, it tiptoes along the line between workshop and the sacred space of theatre, where nothing's an accident and everything's significant, and like them, it leaves an audience hoping that those involved continue working on it and helping it grow, wondering what strange flowers might bloom between now and next time we have a chance to see it.

It may be arguable (I'd argue it, for sure) that this festival is one of the most imaginative and powerful cultural events to occur in Fredericton this summer.

You'd never guess that from the coverage in the daily press, though. The Telegraph-Journal, which calls itself the provincial newspaper, gave it ten words and a picture, well after the Festival was underway. The Gleaner dutifully printed two press releases ahead of time, and published one short article two days after the opening, describing the first evening performances, and announcing that the festival was "beginning a four-night run." Reviews? Don't be silly. They'll recount every sporting event down to the minute, especially if it happened elsewhere and you could catch it on TSN, and they'll reprint every PR squib about TV shows and movies. But, after all, no one wants to know about local theatre or music or art, either before or after. Do they?