What's Wrong With Canadian Plays?
Quick, name five modern Canadian playwrights (Canadian natives, put your hands down). Can’t do it? OK, name five Canadian plays that aren’t The Drawer Boy or The Drowsy Chaperone. Having trouble? I bet you are.
I’ve probably seen somewhere in the neighborhood of 2,000 to 2,500 productions in thirty-four years of active theatergoing in the U.S., with occasional trips to England and, yes, Canada. But while I can minimally exceed my own low threshold by citing George F. Walker, Joanna Glass, Michel Tremblay, Morris Panych, Tom Cone and Michael Healy, that’s the sum total of my knowledge of Canadian authors. That puzzles me.
For all of our interest in international exchange, in world theater, it is work from other continents that excites the programmers of our own cultural festivals and the centurions of our literary offices.
The United States and England may be two countries separated by a common language, but the fact remains that theatrical literature flows fairly freely across the Atlantic, with Irish and the occasional Scottish work thrown in for good measure. If you use theatrical awards as any kind of a yardstick, it’s often hard to tell, based upon nominees and winners in any given year, whether you’re looking at results for The Tonys or The Oliviers. While provincialism may rear its head in certain quarters, there’s no arguing that Miller and Williams are staples of the London stage just as Stoppard and Churchill are revered here—and of course that Shakespeare guy is everywhere, and not just because his works are royalty-free.
But what of Canada? Surely U.S. Customs is not stopping Canadian plays at the border, which seems sufficiently porous to allow U.S. works to make the northbound trek unencumbered. It’s not as if there isn’t a theatrical tradition in Canada (remember that Sir Tyrone Guthrie started the Stratford Festival ten years before founding his eponymously named Minneapolis venture) and thriving theater communities in the major cities of each province. And even if our northern neighbor has mixed English and French heritage, let’s remember that authors as diverse as Samuel Beckett, Marc Camelotti and Yasmina Reza have written their plays in French, all of which have gone on to international success—so language can’t be the barrier.
The love affair between the British and U.S. theater may be rooted in our common heritage, although it’s not as if shows shuttled between the countries constantly since we settled our differences in 1776. But the American stage, which began coming into its own in the early days of the twentieth century, could look to London for a rich, centuries old heritage of authors and actors; a healthy Anglophilia fueled camaraderie. As the glitter of our Broadway evolved the form known as musical comedy, British theatergoers came to love the form as well, beginning a reciprocity that would ultimately expand beyond that particular form. Canada seems to stand outside that mutual admiration society.
It’s not as if Canadian culture has not been embraced by Americans. There are countless Canadian actors who have become big Hollywood box office (some quite venerated, as evidenced by the many awards heaped on Christopher Plummer over the years); Canada’s SCTV and The Kids in the Hall proved as seminal to U.S. comedy and satire as did Saturday Night Live and The Second City; Toronto emerged as a key Broadway tryout town (boosted, no doubt, by a once favorable exchange rate). So where are the plays?
I am taking it on faith that there are a lot of terrific new plays being done in Canada because Canadian theaters’ seasons, based on a cursory survey, aren’t made up solely of imported works. New work is being done and (presumably) people are going to see it. So I first have to ask what’s happening in Canadian literary agencies? Are they aggressively courting the literary offices and artistic directors of American companies—and if they are, is the response welcoming? As for the theater companies themselves, I am used to seeing a barrage of advertising from the Stratford and Shaw Festivals, often in glossy inserts to newspapers and magazines backed by tourism councils. But where are the companies that specialize in new works? Are they the victim, like so many companies that focus on what’s new, of taking a backseat to that which is bigger, higher-volume and already better known? In point of fact, Canada’s greatest cultural export is a commercial enterprise, Cirque du Soleil, the circus behemoth that encircles the globe with its particular style of circus arts. Maybe the clowns are blocking everyone’s view.
The aforementioned festivals, terrific as they are, probably aren’t helping matters much either. They are major tourism attractions with huge audience capacity, and because they are at their height during the summer, they offer the vacation and junket-ready U.S. media the perfect opportunity to take a northerly jaunt to see many plays in a concentrated period of time, fulfilling some unspoken quota of Canadian theater coverage while visiting bucolic towns. But what’s on display there are fine classics by Shakespeare and Shaw and, with increasing frequency, U.S. musicals. The work is Canadian theater, but rarely Canadian literature.
I’m compelled to point out that I’m not lobbying for Canadian plays because I find something wanting in new American plays, and I hastily acknowledge that there are already too few opportunities for new work to be produced here as it is. But there is a cultural lacuna when it comes to Canadian theater that seems perpetual. We owe it to Canadian artists to see beyond our own borders and the theaters of the West End, especially when we can get to major cities in Canada in perhaps one-fifth the time it takes to get to London, and if we’re of a mind to, we can even drive (not an option for London, as you know). To those who say that Canadians have a different sensibility than Americans, I say so do the English, the Irish, the Scots and the French, yet we don’t have any problems there (although some do start quivering the moment any play mentions cricket). And if anything, the Internet should have helped to erode this invisible barrier, since we can now read Canadian theater reviews online at will, rather than trying to hunt down copies of the Globe and Mail at our local, dying newsstand.
For all of our interest in international exchange, in world theater, it is work from other continents that excites the programmers of our own cultural festivals and the centurions of our literary offices. Perhaps proximity breeds indifference, since Canadian work is not familiar enough to us to breed contempt. But I for one would like to know more about what’s going on up there and can’t help but think that at least some of it belongs down here. After all, Canada theater veterans produced the greatest television show about theater ever made, Slings and Arrows, which transcends national boundaries. There must be more.
P.S. Yes, yes, what about Australia, I hear you cry. They speak English too. But that’s half a world away. Let’s look in our own backyard first.