Two new playwrights’ work points to Calgary’s cultural growth
In 1950, there was a government commission on Canadian culture — that resulted in the Massey Report — where officials spread out across the country and counted the number of plays that were produced that year by Canadian playwrights.
They came back with a nice, round number: 0.
“In Canada the writing of plays,” says the report, which is available online, “in spite of the few vigorous creative writers who have found encouragement in the C.B.C., has lagged far behind the other literary arts.”
Things got better!
Now, as we all know, there are lots of plays produced in Canada by Canadian playwrights such as George F Walker, Judith Thompson, Sharon Pollock, Michael Healey, John Murrell, Ins Choi, David Yee, Carmen Aguirre, Joan Macleod, Daniel McIvor, Rebecca Northan, Karen Hines and Wajdi Mouamad.
England might have a thousand year head start, but Canada in the past six decades has made some pretty decent progress in the writing of plays that tell the stories of this country.
These days, thanks to places like Alberta Theatre Projects, One Yellow Rabbit, Lunchbox and Ghost River Theatre, there are few places in the country that create more new plays than Calgary — and lots of them are written by Calgary playwrights, (including a few from the previous list).
(That 1950 Massey Report didn’t even mention Calgary.)
It’s not something to be taken for granted, though, because developing new plays is an expensive, time consuming, scarce resource-allocating, tough-to-sell-tickets-to pain in the butt, which brings me to two of the city’s newest playwrights, Winn Bray and Jay Whitehead.
Bray is the author of That Men May Fly, the new Second World War drama at Lunchbox Theatre that tells the true story of the Number Seven Special Flying Training School in Fort Macleod, where aspiring pilots preparing to go overseas were taught by women they sometimes fell in love with.
Whitehead is a Calgarian (now based in Lethbridge), and the author of Unsex’d, the season-opening show by Third Street, Calgary’s queer theatre company.
Unsex’d is a comedy that explores the days of Shakespeare, when boy players played the female parts in Shakespeare’s shows.
It was inspired partly by Whitehead’s experiences as a graduate student at York University.
“As an effeminate man,” Whitehead says, “I was told through my acting training that I was not marketable and would have to adopt more masculine behaviour to ever be a successful actor.
“And that,” he says, “just kind of got me considering periods of history when being an effeminate as a man might have been an asset.
“You think of the times in history when men played the women in theatre, and so I started thinking about Shakespeare, and how that might be, and it kind of turned into this like, kind of a cross between Absolutely Fabulous and MacBeth.”
Working with his friend and fellow grad school colleague Daniel Judes, Whitehead started writing scenes.
The only trouble was that by then, he’d moved back to Alberta and Judes to New York.
“We kind of wrote it long distance,” he says. “I would write a scene in Alberta and send it to him, and he would write the next scene, and so on and so on. And it just kind of went on and on. And it was fortunate — we could Skype to talk about it, and send emails, and it just kind of evolved that way, long-distance.
“It’s kind of a post modern, campy combination of Shakespeare and Paris Hilton, if you will.”
Unsex’d, similarly, received a workshop through Third Street Theatre, featuring a contingent of Calgary theatre professionals, who put it up on its feet to see if it could stand.
“It was really exciting and interesting to give away the play to people who didn’t know about it,” Whitehead says, “and didn’t know where we were coming from.
“We actually got a lot of really interesting feedback and good ideas about formatting the play and so on.”
Unsex’d has already been produced in Halifax, Lethbridge, Dublin (Ireland) and now Calgary.
For Whitehead, the success of Third Street Theatre is a sign of a city coming of age.
“I don’t want to say (I’m) surprised,” he says. “I’m delighted. As someone who grew up in Calgary, there’s always this preconceived notion that we tend to be overly conservative and not very friendly to queer culture, but I think there’s a real movement afoot to kind of embrace these counter cultures and art that comes out of different kinds of cultural and sexual groups that I think is really exciting.
“It’s kind of the talk of the country,” he says. “My friends across the country are talking about the artistic and cultural renaissance going on in Calgary right now.
“I think Third Street is part of that, ”he says, “and we’re really glad to be onboard.”