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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.

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I have been working in and out of Canada for several decades. An actor just has to be mobile to continually make a living; and to earn their stripes; as Canada doesn't have a theatre history that has many little touring or resident theatre companies that allow years of practice/apprenticeship on the boards; as doe England: nor does it have the audience support that most cities in America has for the Arts. But, with regards to Canadian plays (and from the perspective of having worked abroad some of the time): I'd have to say that, for the most part, Canadian plays have a self consciousness in writing that one just doesn't see in American plays for example. Our plays are more interesting than artistic. As an obvious example, let me use Streetcar Named Desire. Here is a poetic writer who is struggling with his own demons. The characters being (obviously) all the various parts of one man fighting for his existence: his inner bully; inner lover, inner saint, and inner victim. That the bully wins out is a very truthful story for most of us in our struggle to find ourselves and be ourselves in the world. So; here we have a play that is deeply personal (for an artist can only work on themselves); and yet has found a way to deal with an act (the struggle for oneself) that all men have to deal with in their lives. So, the story is personal, but the acts that take place are universal. When I attend Canadian plays (for the most part) all I think and feel is: oh, that was clever or dull. I never walk away having had my own self be challenged in the same way as when attending an American play. And, of course, England, and most European countries have a long standing history of dealing with their lives and their history with theatre and other art forms. Canada has no theatrical history; except our borrowing of Shakespeare and Shaw. But our own voice. We have yet to explore it in any majour real and honest way.

There are a few exceptions. The Ecstasy of Rita Joe for example: but they are far and few between.

We need to find writers who write very personal stories that touch the universal unconscious (like Williams did). Otherwise what we get is merely interesting; and, almost always, dull.

Howard, Thanks for a great article. Am joining the discussion a little late, apologies. Since 2004 my partner Dustin Olson and I (both loyal Canadian ex-pats from Calgary and Toronto, respectively) have run The Bridge Theatre Company (www.thebridgetheatrecompany...) in New York City, with the mandate to bring new Canadian plays by emerging writers to the Big Apple to get in front of a New York audience, often following a workshop with a New York director and combined casts of Canadian and American actors. We also do our best to promote as much Canadian work going on in New York on our website as possible and often co-produce outside of our regular ‘season’. We are consistently overwhelmed by the quality of the new work coming out of Canada, and we strongly believe Canadian playwrights have a distinct voice that deserves to be heard, and loudly, in the largest english language theatre market in the world. In recent years, we have been more and more surprised that our tiny two-person company still seems to be the only one of it's kind in town. We source most of our plays from the festival circuit in Canada, and most of our work, for financial reasons primarily, is at the workshop and development level. We have also produced a new Canadian play at the New York Fringe Festival for the past three years (Kate Hewlett's The Swearing Jar, Nicolas Billon's Greenland - which won the award for Outstanding Playwriting - and this August's The Particulars by Matthew MacKenzie). We benefit from a great relationship with the Canadian Consulate in New York (who do still publish an arts e-newsletter – you can subscribe on their website), the Canadian Association of New York, the Canadian ex-pat community here, the wonderful indie and festival theatre community in Canada and a generous Molson Canadian beer distributor. We work with an outstanding group of New York based directors and actors who love the scripts we share with them, and we do everything we can to ensure the playwright is able to be present in person as a part of the process. Audiences and critics have been extremely supportive of the work that we do, however, it has been difficult to grow beyond the world of equity showcase productions and workshops as the competition for funding and support in New York is fierce and as a NY-based company we do not qualify for Canadian support. As Vern and others point out, most of the funding for artists to visit the US to perform their work has been eliminated. Some playwrights we have worked with have received Canadian support, but many indie works in Canada (and this is a key point to producing Canadian work in the US) are collective creations of some kind - writers who also perform; director/writer collaborations, etc., and visa and union regulations can complicate their ability to produce and perform in the US, particularly if they want to perform outside of the confines of a festival. And the process is confusing and complicated. After a quiet year, The Bridge is on the verge of making some noise again and I'd love to continue the discussion off-line as to ways in which we can further make an impact and expand the audiences for outstanding Canadian work. We would love to be a ‘homebase’ for visiting Canadian artists in New York and will strive to make it happen in the coming years. Any help or advice is more than welcome!

We're doing Stephen Massicotte's Mary's Wedding here at the Weston Playhouse Theatre Company and we couldn't be more exciting. It's an exquisitely written dream play that is pure poetry in certain moments. Can't wait to see it on stage soon. Thanks for an excellent article that brings much-needed attention to the value of Canadian theatre!

Adding to the conversation, Mark Shenton, a prolific blogger and critic for The Stage in London (where I am also a monthly columnist), has written about the Canada-US-UK play sharing situation, conveniently timed to the London debut of Michael Healey’s THE DRAWER BOY. Here’s “Theatre Beyond Borders (But What About Canada?)"

Dear Mr. Sherman,

I enjoyed and appreciated your article about Canadian playwrights not
being better known and produced in the US. There are major problems
Canadians seem to face when it comes to promotion of culture. Our
major movie chains are owned by American companies and they
predominantly play American films and high-profile foreign films.
Canadian films are lucky to get a week or two in theatres and there is
so little promotion. Even when greatly promoted, without a branded US
star, or Canadian star branded in the US, Canadian audiences, in
general, have no interest in seeing Canadian films. The same can be
said of Canadian television and the theatre. There certainly is a
vibrant theatrical community here in Toronto, but the people who go to
see Canadian plays at independent theatres are either in the industry
or in the minority. War Horse, The Lord of the Rings, Mama Mia, shows
like this with large promotion budgets and the brand of an American or
British production will draw audiences out in droves, but Canadian
fare, even shows like The Drowsy Chaperone, until given recognition in
the US, were not all that well known here.

There are attempts to change this. I am currently an actor at the
Stratford Festival in a show called The War of 1812, one in a series
of plays about Canadian history, written by a brilliant playwright
named Michael Hollingsworth. Over the past 30 years, with his partner,
Deanne Taylor, through their company, VideoCabaret, they have
presented some of the most stunning works in Canadian theatre history,
yet they are still relatively unknown. We had been requested to join
the season at Stratford this year due to some fortunate coincidences.
Des McAnuff, current AD at Stratford, used to be roommates with
Michael before he left for the States around 30 years ago. He never
saw one of Michael's history plays until very recently. When he did,
he immediately indicated he wanted VideoCabaret at Stratford for this,
his final season. As this year marks the 200th anniversary of the War
of 1812, Des asked Michael to create a full-length play where before
it had been but one chapter in a much larger series.

There is hope, of course, that this exposure to larger, especially
American audiences at Stratford will make Michael's name better known
than it has been for so many decades, but what is not clear is what
comes next. My agenda in writing you now is to bring him and the
company to your attention. He will go down in history as one of our
greatest playwrights, creating not only a vast series of plays on
Canadian history, but also a fantastic theatrical style that uses
comedy and broad representations of historical figures to
re-contextualize our current political and cultural climate from the
post-colonial perspective of the aggressors, charlatans and heroes
that built this country.  

I don't know if you ever come to Stratford, but I cannot recommend too
highly seeing this production. I have worked as a performer at various
theatres, including creating three mainstage shows with the Toronto
Second City and been fortunate enough to have been a lead in a few
Canadian television series', but it's only VideoCabaret that inspires
me to write you. Even if I were not in the show, I would promote them
with just as much vigour. I hope you may have a chance to come see the
show, or at the very least, have Michael Hollingsworth and
VideoCabaret on your radar.

Anand Rajaram

Thank you for this article, Howard. As a young New York based
director and native of Toronto, I'm often struck by how few of the many
wonderful, savvy, in-the-know American colleagues I meet can name five modern
Canadian playwrights or five Canadian plays that aren't The Drawer Boy or The
Drowsy Chaperone. I began to wonder what I could do to help change this. I
passionately believe that both Canadian plays and American audiences would
benefit from getting to know each other better, so one of my larger aspirations
as a Canadian director in New York has become to foster that exchange by
bringing great contemporary Canadian work to the U.S..

I'm starting this endeavor with CANON IN D MINOR, a new play with
music by Toronto playwright/actor Jessica Liadsky that I am directing in
the 2012 New York International Fringe Festival this August. It is a
tender and stirring story of friendship, forgiveness and the power of music to
connect us. The play premiered in Toronto's juried SummerWorks Theatre
Festival in 2007 to critical and audience acclaim. The NY premiere will feature
an American cast. It is one of a a handful of Canadian plays
selected for this year's FringeNYC and for all of my American friends who are
keen to discover what Canadian writers have to offer, these might be a
fantastic starting point right here in the city.


I've been living in London, UK, for almost a year now, and doing an MA at RADA am pretty in-tune with what is going on. As far as I know, only 2 productions of Canadian plays have been on in this time. One of Daniel McIvor's (can't recall which) and Michael Healey's The Drawer Boy is on now at the Finborough. The majority of discussions on our course have been absent of discussion of Canadian writers (although with a couple of us on the course we have raised them whenever we can!). Awareness of Canadian writers is really limited, but many at least in my bracket are aware of Thompson, Tremblay, and Hayden-Taylor. And an astonishing number didn't know Lepage was Canadian.

There certainly seems to be a lack of awareness of the Canadian theatrical voice, which, granted, many Canadians are unaware of, too. We need more Canadian plays, more productions of Canadian playwrights at home, and a major push to raise awareness for Canadian playwrights in the major centres.

Thank you for this article, Howard. As a young New York based director and native of Toronto, I'm often struck by how few of the many wonderful, savvy, in-the-know American colleagues I meet can name five modern Canadian playwrights or five Canadian plays that aren't The Drawer Boy or The Drowsy Chaperone. I began to wonder what I could do to help change this. I passionately believe that both Canadian plays and American audiences would benefit from getting to know each other better, so one of my larger aspirations as a director in New York has become to foster that exchange by bringing great contemporary Canadian work to the US.

I'm starting this endeavor with CANON IN D MINOR, a new play with
music by Toronto playwright/actor Jessica Liadsky that I am directing in
the 2012 New York International Fringe Festival this August. It is a
tender and stirring story of friendship, forgiveness and the power of music to
connect us. The play premiered in Toronto's juried SummerWorks
Theatre Festival in 2007 to critical and audience acclaim. The NY premiere will
feature an American cast. It is one of a a handful of new Canadian plays
selected for this year's FringeNYC and for all of my American friends who are
keen to discover what Canadian writers have to offer, these might be a
fantastic starting point right here in the city.


Well, based on the energy here it may be time for a Canadian Commons to jump up. You guys-- the New Play Map can be easily be reset to deal with Canadian communities and Vijay can tell you how to do that. We'd be happy to share whatever you need.

I'm also really delighted to see Carey Perloff's continued engagement with the discussions on HowlRound. Thank you Carey. I've enjoyed so much of the work you reference in your responses.

I'm surprised the writer Lynda Griffiths hasn't popped into the discussion anywhere yet. I saw a very powerful production at the Wilma a few seasons back of her own "vibrator play", Age of Arousal, which I think deserves to be more widely produced. Rather to the point of this discussion, it falls behind Ruhl's play, which came after it, and sits a bit in its shadow, but if you are looking for great roles for women (and a number of them at at that) pick it up and do it!

I am glad to see LePage referenced and it points to the whole scene around him there in Montreal and Quebec, which if you haven't been to see for yourself you should stay alert to the presenting seasons in your region. More and more of that work is making its way south.

And it's worth noting that the Literary Managers and Dramaturgs Association has a North American focus that unites US and Canadian #newplay advocates comfortably-- they are just finishing up their annual conference, in Atlanta this year, in Vancouver next. (http://www.lmda.org/whoweare)

I also am intrigued by the way you've framed your original post, Howard, to deliberately prod/invite conversation. I have to say, when I first read it I thought "Huh. I could name a dozen Canadian writers and more companies that are impacting theater internationally including in the US. Look 'em up!" But what's clear here is that a post actually laying out the landscape of Canadian theater would have been widely read, most likely, but generated much less discussion. What's up with that?

As I’ve said elsewhere, David, my goal was to provoke conversation, and to do so, I set myself up as a straw man to be knocked down if my personal perception -- based on a northeastern U.S. bias -- proved to be inconsistent with the awareness of the broader community. While there are obviously folks like Carey who have strong knowledge of the Canadian community, and while several Canadians leaped forward to celebrate their country’s playwrights, it seems that my own (only partly feigned) ignorance may well be the norm. The title of the piece, which can be read in different ways, proved a call to action; to have just written a survey of the copious talent in Canada would likely have failed to generate the same interest. Call me a huckster if you will, but it seems to have worked.

It’s time we start talking about North American Theatre, not just American theatre. A Canadian Commons, or a broader scope for your existing Commons, might help immeasurably to bond the countries tighter. Who’s up for a Toronto road trip this fall?

P.S. The question of Canadian plays in England remains largely unaddressed. I’d love to know more.

Part of understanding Canadian theatre includes recognizing that it is so vibrant because unlike other art forms, Canadian audiences accept it forints success at home, not requiring its success in foreign countries,which is more often how film and music are judged. With this in mind, please understand that they are unlikely to want to join a Foreign theatre initiative like the New Play Map.

I'm a Calgarian, and can say that I probably can name and know more Canadian plays than any other nationality. We feature them here. Norm Foster is an Eastern Canadian icon more so. Many are doing well in New York. Catalyst Theatre comes to miind, as well as Massicotte and Thiessen. Our plays used to be more about Canadian themes, but I believe they are more universal now. Perhaps there is simply not the money for marketing?

Hi Howard. As a Canadian playwright who lives and works in
New York City, I have a vested interest in this discussion. I am lucky to receive many productions
around the world each year with at least a dozen or so in the US . And I am not
alone. You can see the work of
Stephen Massicotte, Daniel McIvor, Judith Thompson, Hannah Moscovitz, Colleen
Murphy and many others across the US, UK, Europe and Asia at any given time.
Considering how small our country is, and how young it is, Canadian playwrights
do amazingly well internationally, whether its musicals, dramas, experimental
work or comedies/farces. In New York City alone, there are many theatre
companies that commission, develop and/or produce Canadian work on a regular
basis. Ensemble Studio Theatre, Epic Theatre Ensemble and The Drilling Company
have all produced my work Off-Broadway, and the plays of my compatriots. (And there are plenty more, including the fabulous work done by Carey and Seth, who have weighed in already.) Take any meeting with almost any theatre
company in New York and they will be able to rattle off a dozen Canadian
playwrights right away. So no, there’s
nothing wrong with Canadian plays. Are these plays marketed as “Canadian?” Of
course not. Because the average ticket- goer doesn’t care about a plays country
of origin – they just want to see a good play. That said, the Brits and Irish do an amazing job of
promoting their cultures in NYC and spend millions and millions of dollars every
year doing it. Meanwhile, the Harper government continues to slash consulates
and embassy budgets and refuses to see culture as part of its trade initiative.
It is heart-breaking to go to the NYC Canadian Consulate and watch its hard
working, dedicated staff cobble together a monthly newsletter and maybe a
cocktail party while down the street other countries are POURING money into
promoting their plays, musicians, painters and authors. It’s embarrassing. The Canada Council (as do some
provincial government agencies) do their best to aid culture export. But it’s a real pittance compared to
other nations. And in places like New York or L.A. or London, you have to
scream pretty loud to get anyone’s attention. So the REAL problem with Canadian plays does not lie with
American un-interest. Quite the contrary. (I can vouch that I have never had an
American theatre not return my call. I can’t say the same for my home country.
) No, the real problem is that in the real world competition that is theatre in
the US and the UK, we need to have a government back home that believes it has
a valuable, exciting product/art on it’s hand and its worth promoting. And that hasn’t happened since the
1970’s, when we had a Prime Minister who actually ATTENDED cultural events on a
regular basis. We currently need a
Prime Minister and a government that will (MY FELLOW CANADIANS CAN INSERT THEIR
DREAMS HERE) There is also the dreadful state of arts journalism, criticism and
reviewing in Canada. But that’s
another discussion….

Dear Vern: Your perspective on this is valuable and I’m glad you’ve contributed to the discussion. It is interesting to me that you live and work in New York; I think any playwright, once they relocate here, ceases to be anything but a New York playwright, whether they hail from Sacramento or Saskatoon originally, unless their work remains geographically focused in content. Your comments about government support are interesting to me, because I do recall efforts by the Canadian Consulate to promote Canadian culture in the U.S., and even used to get a periodic newsletter on that subject when I was at the American Theatre Wing. I wonder whether it’s still produced. And by the way: I never thought there was anything wrong with Canadian plays. The open-ended headline was supposed to resolve itself, to those who considered the issue, into the thought, “Not a damn thing."

Thanks for responding! The idea that once you move to NYC you become a NYC playwright is a fallacy. Playwrights choose NYC for many reasons, and one is that its a hub. Philly, DC, New Haven, NJ, - all those theatre communities are a train ride away. I am a Canadian and my culture will be part of my work for the rest of my life. And most of my plays don't even take place in Canada, ha ha! Beckett is undeniably Irish even though he chose to live in Paris and wrote in French. Again, thanks for the great convo you've started!

HI Howard,

I enjoyed this article, which makes some salient points.

Currently I am an assistant director at the aforementioned Shaw Festival and for the past nine years I have been Artistic Director of Praxis Theatre, a company specifically dedicated to new works based in Toronto. We also run a popular blog about Canadian indie theatre at praxistheatre.com, for those looking for info on new Canadian works.

A number of commenters have made great points about what has caused this ambivalence toward Canadian plays. As a graduate of ART's MFA program in Boston I don't recall a lot of interest from my contemporaries and colleagues towards what was going on up here. Most conversations revolved around how and if I could remain in the US. I think there is an (erroneous) assumption that the best Canadians come south to work, so why investigate what is left?

In defence of the major festivals, they do invest some resources in Canadian playwrights. I am currently working on Helen's Necklace by Quebecois playwright Carole Frechette at The Shaw Festival. Last year they mounted an original adaptation of Shaw's On The Rocks by Drawer Boy author Michael Healey. Stratford also has a new Canadian work component to their season.

Most troublesome to me is the unwillingness of Luminato, a major international festival just finished its sixth year in Toronto, to program local artists. This year's festival contained some artists from Quebec, but exactly 0 plays from or by Toronto artists or companies. So I place some of the blame on us: If we can't get excited enough program our own works and artists when we invite the world, how can we expect the world to be excited about them?

Finally, any conversation about exporting Canadian works has to take into account the hostile political environment towards the arts in Canada under the Conservative government, which specifically targeted and eliminated touring grants in 2008. While they have attempted to shore up their Philistine image through increased funding for other projects, they are usually for community arts projects or Canadian historical ones (War of 1812 art is big this year). None of this work is attractive or relevant to a broader international audience.

Hi, Michael: I did gloss over the work of Stratford and Shaw, perhaps too glibly in order to comport with my writing style on this piece; both have broadened their artistic scope in recent years. However, in general, its seems that the press I see about their work here in the U.S. still focuses on their “core authors” and now their musicals. Whether my memory has gravitated to that content and indeed new Canadian work is reported on, or whether the journalists have concentrated on the “classic” work, I would have to study. But what certainly holds true is that American press rarely ventures north to cover theatre except during the summer, leaving a great deal of Canadian work unexplored in our major media.

Hi Howard,

I bet you are right that the Canadian openers at Stratford and Shaw are much less reported on in US media. You are definitely right that there is very little media coverage in the US of Canadian plays.

Without sounding too much like Scott Walters, I think more than anything this is a result of an NYC-centric perspective that assumes whatever is worth covering will eventually find its way there - we are distant cousins of the US Regional model.

Happy Canada Day by the way!

my surprise in Mexico City (where I had 2 plays running in rep for the
last 2 years) there are many Canadian plays produced and not so many US
plays. I asked a Mexican artistic director why he thinks that's the case
and he responded that he finds Canadian plays much more edgy,
theatrical, visceral, intriguing, innovative than the US plays which are
mostly focused on psychological-realism and relationship TV-like

course it's wrong to generalize but there's something to be brought
into discussion here besides institutional opportunities: the mainstream
aesthetic of new playwriting in Canada, Europe, the US/UK, etc. It might be
that a director-driven theatre culture as the continental European one generates/requires a different kind of plays,
the discussion is complex, but as Howard Shalwitz pointed out at the
TCG conference there's a lot to be gained from the cross-pollination
among cultures. So YAY to more cross-ethnic borders-free interaction!

To my surprise in Mexico City (where I had 2 plays produced and running in rep for more than a year) there are many Canadian plays produced but not many US plays. I asked a Mexican artistic director why he thinks that's the case and he replied that Canadian and European plays are more interesting, theatrical, visceral, poetic, dark, innovative, edgy than US plays which tend to be focused on psychological realism and TV-like relationship drama/sitcom...
For instance "Scorched" (Incendies) by Wajdi Mouawad was produced in many big theatres over there and only at Wilma Theatre in the US (as far as I know). Oh, I should also mention that the French-Canadian plays are the ones mostly produced over there so it might not be about the language but an aesthetic that speaks to them. (I am simplifying the discussion about various aesthetics in new playwriting of course but let's face it, theatricality is not the main attribute looked for in mainstream US dramas.)

Canadian names I would like to say right now: Daniel MacIvor, Brian Drader, Kenneth T. Williams, Hannah Moscovitch, Ann Marie MacDonald, Dennis Foon, Judith Thompson, Kenneth Brown. New work from Joseph Aragon. And yes, Panych and Foster. All Canadian, all wonderful playwrights. All deserving of being on stages everywhere.

Don't forget: Sally Clark and John Murrell. Sally's "Lost Souls and Missing Persons" is required reading for all of my students. And John Murrell's "Farther West" is gorgeous. We used to produce a lot of Canadian plays at Perseverance Theatre in Alaska, back in the late 80's and early 90's.

Wow, Howard, we do Canadian work ALL THE TIME at A.C.T.! Working with the Canadians (directors, writers, actors, designers, choreographers) over the past decade has been incredibly fertilizing, and the work is not that hard to find. There are amazing writers in both English and French and there are LOTS of new play theaters publishing that work... it's not all in translation, but start with ANY translation by Linda Gaboriau of quebecois work (we produced Wajdi Mouawad's brilliant SCORCHED this year which the Wilma did last season-- he's a remarkable writer, Linda has translated all of his work, and she is a font of knowledge about french canadian work, runs the Banff translation project which is a whole other wonderful resource you should check out; also at Banff is the great Canadian dramaturg Kelly Robinson who knows every Canadian writer and nurtures a lot of them), also Michel Marc Bouchard, Tremblay, the list goes on. For English language work, usually people start with the Tarragon in Toronto which is a wonderful place that does exclusively (almost) Canadian writing, also the Factory, Soulpepper (mostly classical but some new Canadian) and now Can Stage again under Matthew Jocelyn's leadership... even Stratford and Shaw are now commissioning new work, so don't dismiss them so quickly-- Shaw is one of the best run organizations in north america (Jacky Maxwell is the A.D. and she's terrific). Vancouver is more into physical and devised theater because of the training at Simon Fraser University. We toured A.C.T.'s wild new movement- theater piece TOSCA CAFE across Canada last fall and found Vancouver very receptive to that kind of work-- but the most interesting place, surprise surprise, was Calgary! Theater Calgary is run by a great AD named Dennis Garnhum who was at Long Wharf at one point, loves new work, and has commissioned lots of Canadian premieres... he was SO welcoming to us and his dramaturg really helped shape our piece. I could go on and on-- I have had the happiest times of my theatrical life recently in Canada-- their actors are superb, often they are triple threats like the great Morris Panych who does it all, and they are a gas to work with. We are doing the world premiere of George Walker's new play DEAD METAPHOR, directed by Irene Lewis, next February. Come out and see it!! There's so much juice happening across Canada, it's really a shame that we are still such obsessive anglophiles but can't seem to look north. You're right. Thanks for giving me a chance to enthuse. :)

Hi, Carey: Even before you shared this comment, others had pointed to your work at A.C.T. with Canadian artists, and I need to learn more about it. But, more than a day after the blog was posted, and after copious comments here and on Twitter, you appear to be the only theatre that has stood up and declared their affinity for, knowledge of and commitment to Canadian theatre. Since I wrote my piece knowing full well I might prove merely that I am uninformed, I can’t help but wonder where else this scale of exchange might be taking place.

BRAVO Howard for stimulating this fascinating discussion! I think beneath the lack of interest in Canadian theater lies another truth-- it's getting harder and harder for American artistic directors to look beyond the recognizable and "admired" names in our theater culture and to do ANY kind of maverick programming, because that takes a) a great deal of research and exploration which people don't seem to have time for any more and b) usually attract virtually no attention from the press. I have found that if you produce work that the mainstream hasn't easily heard of (that is, work that hasn't yet been approved of in NYC) your chances of getting any advance press are just about nil. So you have to really WANT to do something like explore foreign theater or dive into non-traditional scripted plays or what have you, because you're going to be on your own. On the up side, what one can learn by doing this kind of programming is unimaginable. Our recent broad fascination at ACT with movement-theater and devised work (which has permeated both our MFA program and our mainstage) began when we brought Wendy Gorling and Morris Panych's extraordinary physical theater version of THE OVERCOAT to A.C.T. many years ago. Despite the absence of any spoken language, it proved o be one of the biggest audience successes we ever had, even though I then I failed to persuade a SINGLE LORT THEATER to pick it up! (They said it "wasn't a play" and besides, it was Canadian!) But the impact those artists have had on our work has been huge-- and the good news about international exchange is that is is a people-to-people process, so once you start it, it keeps going, like any good friendship, back and forth across the borders... so let's keep the discussion and exchange alive!

I would also add to Carey's comment that I believe that SCORCHED, by Wajdi Mouawad, is one of the most-produced plays around the world over the past few years. We did it a few seasons ago but I know it also received a high-profile production in London, just recently. Mouawad has been presented at the Festival d'Avignon several times including his "Le Sang des promesses" quartet (of which SCORCHED is the 2nd part).

INCENDES, the film adaptation of SCORCHED was also nominated for an Oscar.

So-- he's one to know!

According to 90% of regular Canadian summer theatre attendees, that would be Norm Foster, Norm Foster, Norm Foster, some other guy, and oh yeah, Norm Foster.

Great Article! Say what you want about Garth Drabinsky, but he did during his Livent days put Canada on the map as far as Live Theater was concerned. Most of his productions started in Toronto with a Canadian cast, and then went down to Broadway where he won several Tony Awards. Now Live Theater in Canada is restricted to having touring shows come up to play in our big theaters. Yes we do have smaller production companies producing work from scratch, but they never make it to Broadway.

Canadian casts only in the sense of the chorus. The leads were always American, the composers were American, the directors and designers were American. Brent Carver only got the lead in Kiss of the Spider Woman because no NY name actor would touch a gay character then.

I'm so damn sick of Drabinsky getting praise for something he didn't do. Give me the Drowsy Chaperones, the BASH'd, the My Mother's Lesbian Jewish Wiccan Wedding as exports instead.

I'm surprised that Lucia Frangione didn't mention the funding problems we have here, in Canada, and especially British Columbia and even more especially, Vancouver, believe it or not. We just had one of our main theatre companies, the Vancouver Playhouse, close because of civic funding cuts. Lucia herself, protested by writing her one of her plays on the sidewalk, from the Playhouse to City Hall. I thought that was brilliant. I have seen one of her plays, and i'm sorry, i don't remember the name of it, but it was at Pacific Theatre many years ago.

My son, a young actor first, then artistic director of his own company, which co-produced "Einstein's Gift" last year, which i believe is written by a Canadian, and now an aspiring writer/director/producer, has participated in the Vancouver East Cultural Centre's Ignite program, which features the works of young Canadian playwrights, directed by young Canadian directors, and acted by young Canadian actors. Quite an awesome program.

Then there is the LEAP (Learning Early About Playwriting) program which he has been a part of for two years. It is sponsored by the Arts Club Theatre company. In the first level, young playwrights write a scene, at the second level, they write a one act play, at the third level one playwright is chosen to write a full-length play. All of the scenes, one-acts are read by and the full-length plays acted by local professional actors.

These young people are brilliant. The program is free to them, and they get really excited, but if there are no other small companies/venues to produce these works because there is no funding for theatre, they will go elsewhere. It's sad, but common knowledge among theatre people here, that if you really want to "make it" in theatre, and can live off of your acting/directing/writing, that at the very least, you must go to Toronto/Stratford, but more likely NYC or even hop across the pond to London (England). I know of one writer/director/actor who ended up going to NYU to get a masters in musical theatre. I don't think he's looked back, other than the fact that his family is here, and i'm pretty sure he's he's not coming back anytime soon, to stay at least.

This is just my opinion as the parent of a young man who is a persistent, but sometimes very discouraged young actor/director/writer/producer in Vancouver. He wants to go to post-secondary in theatre, but he's just registered for the local community college in courses. He understands only too well, that in his young career in theatre, that he must have a "back-up plan/day job" to have the money to self-produce etc. He also needs to broaden his horizons as far as life education, but that's beside the point.

If Canada wants to showcase Canadian playwrights, they need to support them in every way possible. Their parents can't be expected to bankroll their efforts all of the time.

There is a common misperception as to why the Vancouver Playhouse shut down after 50 years. It isn't because of lack of civic funds - or at least not directly because of that lack. It is because a jury of peers at every level of government funding (fellow artists and administrators), year after year questioned the artistic vision of the company. So it is the Playhouse's artistic peers who shut it down. Prior to the last AD, who was brought in too late, the company had been run poorly for about 15 years. The product wasn't consistently good enough and the audience was disappearing. One of the things the Playhouse consistently did NOT do was to produce new Candadian plays. The few times they did put new plays on they either chose poorly or did things like not include the show as part of their subscriber season (as they did with the Electric Company's Studies in Motion). Unlike the regional theatre scene in Alberta, the so-called flag ship of Vancouver Theatre did not get behind local writing or directing talent. With little opportunity for local playwrights in the city, there is little incentive for people to get into playwriting. Therefore not a lot of good new plays are being produced. Those that are produced have gone through the meat-grinder of the local dramaturgical workshop process - a process which is not producing outstanding plays; as the author of this article points out, the names of great Canadian plays don't fly off the tongue. I've ask the same question of theatre people and gotten the same blanks in response. I think this author raises a very valid point. And I think we have to turn the lens on our own failings in producing great work. Is the dramaturgical system creating great plays? Why don't Canadian theatres produce more Canadian work? Why aren't Canadian audiences clamouring for more Canadian work? Why isn't there a greater demand, internationally, for Canadian plays? I don't feel any of those who have responded, intelligent as their responses have been, have really answered these questions.

I am a Canadian and can add that there is also a strange fear in Canadian arts in general (literature, playwriting, film, dance, music, etc) of being "too Canadian" to appeal to international audience. Authors are reticent to set novels in a specific Canadian province or city and to make Canadian references in fear of not being understood or accepted. This fear is something that seems fairly unique to Canada as of course we wouldn't bat an eyelash at an American novel or play which made reference to specific landmarks or historical figures. However, perhaps it is a symptom of a complex that has been created by Vancouver constantly posing as Seattle or Toronto as a stand in for New York in films made here. This fear is most likely misguided however if you think of the popularity of things like L.M. Montgomery's Anne of Green Gables, which is incredibly specific to Canada and to Prince Edward Island in particular. Do you think these fears are justified in any way? Perhaps talking about Vimy Ridge or Trudeau or Quebec seperatism seems like an overblown version of "cricket": something which might make Americans cringe or at least remove them from the moment of the play?

Good stuff, Howard! I actually know a bit about Canadian plays, playwrights and the reasons why there isn't more flow between our theatre industries. According to my two Canadian theatre colleagues -- Richard Rose, Artistic Director of the renowned Tarragon Theatre and playwright Jason Sherman (whose work we have produced twice at InterAct) -- the Canadian government, while extremely supportive of the arts (as compared with, say, the U.S.) is fiercely nationalistic and strongly encourages the production of Canadian playwrights among Canadian theatres. There is essentially a disincentive for Canadian theatres to produce anything but the biggest hits from outside of Canada. The upside of this is that Canadian playwrights, on average, get far more opportunities for production than American playwrights by American theatres. The downside is that they struggle to get productions outside of Canada. So a hit Canadian play might get produced in Toronto, Vancouver, Winnipeg and Edmonton and then never be seen again. While President of the National New Play Network I tried to convince Richard Rose to join our organization, but he felt he could not reciprocate in an equal exchange with U.S. theatres. This is why some terrific playwrights like Jason Sherman have moved away from the theatre and toward the Canadian television and film industry.

That’s fascinating information, Seth, and very valuable to have within the discussion. I purposely wrote from a position of ignorance (I could have researched the situation), but wondered whether others shared my feeling that we know less about Canadian work than we should. While what you describe is almost protectionist, but I’m surprised that the same motivations wouldn’t prompt the Canadian government to fund opportunities to export Canadian work, instead of remaining (apparently) insular.

I lived in Buffalo a number of years ago and was introduced as an undergrad to Canadian writers like George Walker (who came to speak to us I remember) and Michel Tremblay and Judith Thompson (who I was happy to see won the Susan Smith Blackburn Prize a few years ago). As a reader for the first international women playwrights conference there in 1988, I read the work of some amazing women writing in french and english. Maybe what's needed is some kind of exchange program? Maybe through new Dramatists and whatever the equivalent is in Canada as a way around the resistance/protectionism?

Tammy, who was teaching that course in Buffalo?!
My wife, Teri Lamm, and I are very proud to be connected to the life of Judith's PALACE OF THE END, which won the SSB prize (my company, Epic Theatre Ensemble, commissioned the play and premiered in in NYC). It's one of those amazing, shocking things that Judith could be so well known in Canada as to have a joke about her in the first season of "Slings and Arrows" (which Howard refers to), but not have the presence in the U.S. that, say, Caryl Churchill or David Hare enjoy. There are many reasons for this that others have speculated and highlighted in this comment thread, but I would add that part of this is also the lack of inclusion of Canadian playwrights in our undergrad and graduate programs in comparison to British (and German etc.) writers. For more than two decades, I beleive, my father Len Berkman was the only professor in the U.S. to teach a full course in Canadian drama, let alone include Judith, Tremblay, Walker, Erika Ritter, and others in largery survey classes. So that's part of why I'm very curious where and with whom you studied in Buffalo.

Zak, I don't think it was a class, actually. I was there as an undergrad at SUNY/Buffalo, but I believe it was Neil Radice of Alleyway Theater that brought George Walker to town. Either that or it was Saul Elkin who was then chair at UB. Sorry, my memory fails me. But I do remember being exposed to Canadian writers while I was there, and women writers through Anna Kaye France -- she began the International Women Playwrights Conferences that began in Buffalo. Then I was lucky to actually meet Judith Thompson at the Galway Conference in 1997. I've been very inspired by her work. I was working on a play about Joan of Arc then and she gave me very good advice: to get out of my head and into my body, Also as a young mother, I was totally encouraged, since she had many children and pregnant at the time (her 5th?) and I remember being completely amazed by her. It's a big loss to American playwrights that we don't see read know more Canadian playwrights like Thompson.

I had a wonderful conversation with Carey Perloff at ACT while we were performing Kim Collier's vision of Sarte's No Exit, one of many Canadian productions Perloff has brought to her stage. She viewed Canadian theatre as innovative, particularly the non-narrative inter-discipline work coming from the Westcoast. I was surprised by this and encouraged by it. She spoke of the American theatre generally being conservative in comparison. Of course there are several text based playwrights like myself and the aforementioned wonderful and far more prominent writers who have crossed borders and been produced in the USA, but I think some of our most exciting work is hard to export: a play done underwater or with a hundred actors on mini ferries, or a set made of snow and ice performed outside with audience members covered in fleecy white blankets and sheepskins...these sorts of productions seem to travel best when the original company tours it: Robert Lepage, Electric Company, Boca del Lupo, etc. Thank you for having this conversation, HS. I know Canadian playwrights have a lot to offer. Being the youngest of the countries, perhaps, as Gordon mentioned, we are not taken seriously. Please let me add to your list some playwrights I feel are very beautiful writers and produceable: Joan McLeod, Aaron Bushkowsky, Michelle Riml, Leanna Brodie, Michael Lewis McLennan, Daniel McIvor, Hannah Moscovich...there are so many. Thank you.

Hi Howard - you can start here...http://www.playwrightsguild.ca

The Playwrights Guild doesn't list everybody of course, but it will open your world up a bit.

Canada does have a thriving new play development scene. Most major companies are looking to develop new work and not just rely on NYC and London for what is hot. Even Stratford has a development program now. In fact, after those two cities (NY and London), I believe Toronto is number 3 for the amount of theatre produced annually.
As Canadian playwrights, we have the same issues here, (not enough opportunities for new work vs proven work from US/UK), and we are not very much on the radar in the US, so you can imagine our struggle to get in the game there. Add to that, due to funding requirements, etc, most new work opportunities in the US require US citizenship, the opportunities shrink even further.
But we're here, struggling to be heard like the rest...
Thanks for thinking of us!
Neil Fleming,Calgary

In order to have new plays done in the U.S. you must be a U.S. citizen? That’s news to me. As for not being “on the radar,” that’s my point. Why? What needs to be done for a more balanced flow of theatrical literature between the U.S. and Canada?

It's not so much that you have to be a Canadian citizen to have work produced - your own references to Drawer Boy and Chaperone prove that. It's that very often, companies (and competitions, which can be great door openers) in the US that look at new works often DO have residency requirements.

Gordon is correct. I was referring to new work competitions which often are the best way to get on someone's read pile, but also have geographic or demographic restrictions.

As to your question of literary agents, there just aren't that many in Canada to my knowledge. Playwrights of a certain level can pitch directly to the theatre companies they hope will produce them. The few agents that deal with drama are, as you suggested, focussed on getting those playwrights produced in NYC and elsewhere.

FYI - It was a huge thrill for Canada's Stratford Festival to have sent it's production of Jesus Christ Superstar down to NYC and be nominated for Tonys (and sadly mispronounced on the awards night). But this only proves your point, as the only thing Canadian about it was the cast and crew.

As an Australian, I would hesitate a guess at least 90% of USA work which gets seen beyond your borders played in a major NYC theatre first; and at least 90% of UK work which gets seen beyond their borders played a major London theatre first. And because these are the two "theatre capitals" of the world, 90% of new, non-native work in English theatres comes from these places. I don't think it's a matter of looking across borders or into your own back yard, as so much as it is everyone looking beyond a NYC/London duality.

Jane, I agree with you about the duality, but what’s a complete mystery to me is why it continues. As I wrote, the communications revolution should at least make texts more accessible, even when we can’t see productions. The question is whether anyone is actually concerned about this and whether theatre people are willing to venture beyond the duality into theatrical multiplicity, and if so, how?

Now that, I don't know. I fear, though, in some ways it is only going to get worse. Speaking as an arts writer and not as a programmer I may have it completely wrong, but: we know what's going on in NYC and London because a) there is lots of reporting about work there, and b) there is quality reporting there. There is reporting from everywhere about everything, but how many people have the time to sort through all the publications, find the writers they respect, and have an accurate knowledge of what's going on?

The hope is, perhaps, that we won't need these systems. That a global social media/word of mouth will take over. I've found online script depositories invaluable. But I still need to know where to start with them, and I need a voice I can trust to do that. I think the question is: how can we get our programmers to find these voices - if they be critics, or just a global network of programmers and lit managers? It's not a matter of the communications revolution - but a matter of deciphering it.

You're also looking, I think, at something socio-cultural that goes beyond the question of theatre and into the question of how the US and Britain tend to view Canadian art of any kind, and perhaps Canadian culture in general. There is the sense, and I stand to be corrected on this (and hope to be) that for the most part, Canada and its arts / artists are often regarded as colonial and/or unsophisticated and/or substandard by BOTH the UK and the US. In terms of theatre, you have writers like Brad Fraser (whose universal, sensationalist rawness is good box office) and Michael Healey (ditto for his universal sentimentality - and anybody remember a play by Frank Moher called "Odd Jobs" that filled exactly the same sort of well written and engaging, but still sentementalist, slot?) making their names internationally. But where are the representatives of Canadian culture (or facets thereof) like Tremblay and Highway (whose theatricality and compassion are transcendent of language and culture), Thompson (whose raw passion, as in "Lion in the Streets" often cuts right to the heart of human existence), or Thiessen (who melds intellect, passion, theatricality and marketability in a way few playwrights of any nationality do well?

I remember "Odd Jobs" :-) Gordon is right, I think, that it had success in the States (and more recently in Japan) because of its style -- accessible -- and no doubt its affordable scale; three characters, etc. I consciously wrote it in the lyrical style of much US theatre of that time (mid-'80s) -- not out of some commercial calculation, but because I loved the Williams/Lanford Wilson school -- and maybe that helped in the US as well. And hopefully it was good, too (and still is).
Jane is right that, unless a play is produced in a major metropolis, it is not liable to have an international life. ("Odd Jobs" was, in Toronto, though its initial production was in Edmonton.) There are exceptions, of course, but . . . And publication helps too -- though publication also often relies on a play having been first produced in a major metropolis.
That's in part why I started a site called "ProPlay" -- http://singlelane.com/proplay -- which may be one of the "online repositories" Jane refers to. We will post the script of any play that has received a professional production. Yes, it takes a bit of time to peruse them all -- but then it also takes time to rummage through the Samuel French catalogue.
Most new plays get a second or third or so-on production, I think, because some artistic director tells another artistic director about them. Maybe, as theatre people, we just need more cross-border interchange. This thread is a good start.