By Gabrielle Huston
On an independent theatre stage, art lovers get the chance to see some of the best and brightest local stars.
With almost eight billion people on the planet, the odds suggest there are a lot more talented people than Hollywood can fit on the big screens or that Broadway can fill its stages with.
It’s that dedication and passion which characterizes the Gladstone Theatre’s 2023-2024 season.
Theatre manager Robin Guy described the Gladstone as an “artist-run rental house.” It offers productions a space in which to perform and supports it with box offices services and marketing.
“I am completely in love with this theatre, and in love with indie theatre, particularly these fantastic, creative, scrappy people,” Guy said. “It’s theatre produced without big infrastructure. So what you’ve got are … all these brave, scrappy, creative people working on a shoestring, getting things done.”
In 2023-2024, the Gladstone will showcase work from five resident companies and four visiting companies.
Some of the upcoming shows are familiar, like God of Carnage. It’s a well-known play, originally written in French, about two sets of parents who try to reconcile a schoolyard incident between their children. The Phoenix Players will be putting it on at the Gladstone from November 17 to 25.
“It’s a show that also has a moral, in terms of how you treat other people and how you expect them to treat you,” said director Andre Dimitrijevic. “You could take the exact same situation and do it very politely … but the author decides to emphasize the human frailties and the human weaknesses that take people to places that are quite over the top. I think there is value in introducing humour because it underlines how inconsequential some of these things are that these people are getting so upset about.”
The Children will also be familiar to avid theatre fans. Director Eleanor Crowder warned that spoilers can ruin the experience, so suffice to say that it follows an accident at a nuclear plant. Bear & Co, an indie theatre collective, will put it on from May 1 to 18.
“These are professional theatre people in Ottawa who have worked long careers,” Crowder said of her cast. “They are at the absolute peak stage of their careers and have been doing a variety of things. So to see Rachel [Eugster] and Hugh [Neilson] and Bev[erly Wolfe] together on stage is a serious treat.”
Just Say The Word, a feminist retelling of The Emperor’s New Clothes by Hans Christian Andersen, was written by J.P Chartier and will be put on by the Artbeat Theatre Company from January 31 to February 3.
“The biggest takeaway that I have from presenting Just Say The Word is girl power,” Chartier said. “Most of the main characters in this show are females or they could be here, and it just highlights the unimportance of gender. And it is important now because you look at musicals historically and there’s always the leading man.”
Guy took over as theatre manager at the Gladstone in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. The theatre managed to put on a few shows for brief periods during that time when COVID restrictions eased.
Now restrictions have fully loosened and a full season can be presented without interruption. Guy acknowledged the ways that times have changed because of COVID, and how theatre has changed too.
“Across the country, producers are trying to get audiences back,” she said. “What you’re seeing right now is a lot of popular shows, shows you’ve heard of, shows that we’re hoping are strong draws to get people into seats. People’s habits have changed, financially speaking. People are being a lot more choosy. And the way that is impacting artists’ choices is we may be choosing more commercial shows than we might normally do.”
Wide Awake Hearts was the first show of this season, put on by WOW Factor from August 23 to September 3. It was written by Canadian actor, writer, and producer Brendan Gall, and was first staged in 2010 at the Tarragon Theatre, Toronto.
Burns and her co-founder, David Whiteley, both of whom star in the show, thought it was a timely story to tell in a post-pandemic world. It follows a group of four friends who are working on a movie and struggling to navigate their own messy relationships with one another.
“We’ve been through these very hard few years, these very topical few years,” Whiteley said. “I think it’s no coincidence that in this highly sensitive time of the pandemic, we also had George Floyd’s death and Black Lives Matter and all this sensitivity to diversity, equity, inclusion. All of that is really important, but it puts heavy demands on us to reflect on what we do feel right now about our values, how we need to perhaps change our values, change our attitudes based on new information. After several years of being in that mode of constantly being topical, being sensitive, examining every facet of how we learn our lives, we’re asking ‘Can we just be entertained? Can we just talk about some timeless subject that matters to us?’”
“It isn’t just entertaining, though,” Burns added, “because I don’t think we can go back to the time of just fluff. Because that just doesn’t stay with you. [Wide Awake Hearts] is entertaining, but in a provocative, thoughtful way. There is humor there, but it’s dark humor. It seems apropos in a post-pandemic theatre world. Yes, the story of relationships and love are always going to be timeless, but there’s also this sense of awakening, that these four characters are waking up out of some sort of illusion, and I think that speaks to us. There’s this sense of questioning everything we thought, dismantling systems that we thought were secure. And that’s exhausting work, but it’s also really healthy.”
Later in the season, from May 21 to 25, the original production Whale Fall will feature on the Gladstone stage. It was created by the Same Boat Theatre company, based in Hamilton, written by Stephen Near and directed by Aaron Joel Craig.
Whale Fall grapples with the ravages of climate change on the Canadian environment. Near said he was inspired by his daughter’s fascination with orcas. He began to work on it before the pandemic hit, but wrote the bulk of it during the lockdowns.
“It’s a show that’s very rooted in my own personal story, but it’s also a cautionary tale about reality,” Near said. “I don’t know that I could have come back from COVID with any piece other than this. I couldn’t have come back with a sort of ‘COVID play,’ which takes place in, you know, the living room of some domestic drama where the husband and wife are wrestling with being in lockdown.”
The Gladstone Theatre’s 2023-2024 season will run from August 23, 2023, to June 22, 2024. You can find a full list of the productions at www.thegladstone.ca.