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Volume 27 Issue 1 - September / October 2021

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Blue pages and orange shirts; R. Murray Schafer's complex legacy, stirrings of life on the live concert scene; and the Bookshelf is back. This and much more. Print to follow. Welcome back from endless summer, one and all.


MUSIC THEATRE Is My Microphone On? Necessary Theatre is Calling Out to be Created JENNIFER PARR ELANA EMER Back in my M.A. thesis-writing days in the late 1980s at the University of Warwick where I was studying English and European Renaissance Drama, I latched onto the phrase “necessary theatre” to describe a kind of theatre that is calling out to be created, that needs an audience, a shared community, in order to enable us to see the world around us in a new way – so that we are inspired to react, to do something to make the world a better place. A decade or so later, in 1999, the phrase took on an entirely different resonance, as the title of a book, The Necessary Theatre, by Sir Peter Hall, which to this day stands as a powerful manifesto for state support, rather than private patronage, of theatre as an art form. Left to its own devices, he argued, if theatre has to support itself it will stagnate, falling back on the tried and true. (Not that state support is, in and of itself, necessarily a guarantee that stagnation will not ensue, particularly when that support is directed primarily toward large organizations competing for resources, who must meet budget targets for what they do.) What is equally necessary for the very best theatre to happen, Hall argues, is for permanent companies of actors and technicians, secure in their premises, to feel they have permission to push the boundaries of their art. So, to merge Hall’s definition with my own, necessary theatre is always uncomfortable, irrespective of how technically polished it is, or how securely funded the companies of players are. What distinguishes it in its discomfort is its vitality – and the current and upcoming season is chock full of music theatre, plays, dance and interdisciplinary works that make us see and think, by giving us space to share the emotions brought to the surface by this time of upheaval. Shakespeare has Hamlet say, to the players, that the purpose of their work is to hold the “mirror up to nature” (which, granted, lots of theatre often does). But then he goes on to describe an even more essential purpose: to show “the very age and body of the time, his form and pressure.” In other words, to hold a mirror up for us so we can see ourselves within the current state of the world – to make us realize what is happening to us as well as around us. Is My Microphone On? The thing that got me thinking along these lines was being struck by the words being used to advertise a new play being presented as part of Canadian Stage’s Dream in High Park season – “powerful, urgent and necessary.” The new play by Jordan Tannahill (with music by Veda Hille) is inspired by, and peppered with, quotes from that unstoppable climate-change warrior, Greta Thunberg, and performed by a group of 17 young Torontonians aged 12 to 17. It aims to galvanize its audiences around the issue of climate change and the world’s seeming inability to do anything about it. The theme is so huge that, for me, the production only scratches the surface of it, although the title Is My Microphone On? has continued to resonate. This question that Thunberg posed to the UN was not really asking if her microphone was turned on but if the people she was about to speak to were really going to listen to what she had to say. The Dream in High Park season as a whole was inspired by necessity; the company, hit with too many unknown variables to plan for a regular Shakespeare play season, had to abandon the tried and true, opting instead for an extraordinary opening up and sharing of resources with many companies of various genres and cultural heritages from around the GTA. These groups have shared the space, bringing with them audiences that may never have been to this part of the city, thereby creating a wonderful gathering of multiple points of view and reactions to our current world in one extremely accessible place. Surely this is something that can continue on into the future, as, across the country and around the world, artists and arts companies, large and small, grapple with the need to reinvent themselves in the wake of the Black Lives Matter and Me Too protests and the horrific events that triggered them; and with the equally horrifying revelation of Indigenous children’s deaths at Canadian residential schools. A necessary reawakening of our individual and collective consciousness to the inequities existing in the arts as well as other sectors of society is under way. Stratford As exciting as the redistribution of artistic resources in the Dream in High Park season, is what can happen when an even larger flagship organization such as Stratford’s classical Shakespearean Festival is called on to respond to the need for change, and responds to the call. With the Festival’s usual tried and true season of 10 | September and October 2021

necessity pared down to bare essentials, they went one step further: reimagining the essentials themselves. New faces, new voices, new and lesser-known artists have all come to the forefront as audiences have flocked to the live performances under the canopies outside the Festival and Tom Patterson Theatres. The two Shakespeare productions have been pared down to the core and given license to reinvent or subvert the usual audience expectations. The American classic, Edward Albee’s Three Tall Women, is a showcase for a top-notch female creative team and cast led by Diana Leblanc and Martha Henry. Thomson Highway’s The Rez Sisters is also a showcase for female artists, as well as Indigenous voices. I Am William is an anarchic take on our understanding of Shakespeare using adventure and music to subvert expectations and, along the way, empower young watchers to follow their dreams. And Marcia Johnson’s Serving Elizabeth opens our eyes to the many layers of the story and points of view around Elizabeth II’s visit to Kenya in 1952, and to the rewriting of that history now. On the musical side, the commissioning of five new cabarets has opened the doors to more vital conversations, told through a mix of song and spoken text, each curated by a different artist or team. They have been performed live under the Festival Theatre canopy but, like the plays, also filmed for viewing online on the Festival’s STRATFEST@HOME streaming service. The first cabaret, Why We Tell the Story, curated and directed by Marcus Nance who also performs, was first seen in an earlier version as part of the 2019 Meighen Forum. Experiencing this passionate journey through the African-American musical canon interspersed with the voices of legendary Black poets, it is obvious why this show was invited back. The second cabaret, You Can’t Stop the Beat, was equally strong and passionate but focused on the genre of musical theatre itself, wonderfully curated and directed by Thom Allison to celebrate how musicals have always been “the ultimate tonic for the soul in good or troubled times.” Three more cabarets follow on a variety of themes as well as introducing lesserknown and new Stratford performers to audiences. Why We Tell the Story: (from left) Neema Bickersteth, Robert Markus, Marcus Nance and Vanessa Sears, in rehearsal Joining the dance Meanwhile, the dance world also seems to be exploding with new work as a way to explore our emotional experiences of the last year and a half and the urgent issues that are facing humanity. Taking this to a new immersive personal level is Touch, a world premiere by dancer and choreographer Guillaume Côté and multimedia artist Thomas Payette (who collaborated previously on Frame by Frame for the National Ballet of Canada). Produced by Lighthouse Immersive at 1 Yonge Street, where many have already experienced the immersive Van Gogh exhibit, Touch aims to go beyond that event, combining live dance, music and multimedia projections into an all-encompassing experience that brings us back to what we have been deprived of during the pandemic – the basic human need to touch and hug each other. Back in High Park, the dance: made in canada/fait au canada Festival is presenting InTO Focus, a program of several works that range from a personal human response to the deprivations of the pandemic, to the more political, such as Lua Shayenne Dance Company’s WAVES DAVID HOU September and October 2021 | 11

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