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Rock the boat

Toy Guns Dance Theatre's "Fortuitous Endings." Photos by Marc J Chalifoux.
Toy Guns Dance Theatre's "Fortuitous Endings." Photos by Marc J Chalifoux.

Canoe Theatre Festival has always been a chance for Edmonton’s theatre scene to prove its dynamism. This year, it’s also a chance for Workshop West’s new artistic director to reveal his particular vision for the company.

Vern Thiessen was appointed artistic director of Workshop West last July, after the sudden departure of previous AD Michael Clark. A native of Winnipeg who went on to serve as a drama instructor at the University of Alberta and playwright-in-residence for both Workshop West and the Citadel, Thiessen had been living in New York for the past seven years before his return to Edmonton.

“There’s a whole new generation of artists that I’m interested in,” Thiessen says leaning back in his office chair in Workshop West’s headquarters. “You wouldn’t think things would have changed that much in seven years, but they have.”

Canoe is Thiessen’s first bout of programming at the helm of the company, and he only had about two months to pull everything together.

“I want to program stuff that’s really interesting, that’s unique, that’s exciting, that’s not too heady and that’s really visceral, that are experiences,” he says. “The festival is completely different from what we do the rest of the year. I like to think of every show that we’re doing as being an experience of some kind, because I didn’t want to put on something that was hugely dark or depressing in January in Edmonton.”

The Canoe Festival spans five days and features six productions, along with a set of salons: panel discussions on topics concerning the festival performances and broader issues facing live theatre. Each night wraps up with an after-party at the Pourhouse on Whyte Avenue, where audience members can engage directly with the artists over a pint; it’s something Thiessen hopes will continue into Workshop West’s mainstage season.

“I feel it’s my responsibility, with Canoe, in particular, to take risks on artists and to let them have a forum, and to not be so careful,” he says. “Almost every experience is in your face, to some degree. Many of these shows that I’ve programmed, I’ve never seen them—nobody’s seen them.”

Experiential, immersive, site-based theatre is not a new concept to audiences in Edmonton, and certainly not to Workshop West, which partnered with Theatre Yes on the National Elevator Project for the past two years.

“People want to have a more active experience in the narrative: they want to create their own narrative or their own experience. That is a direct result of video games, in particular; this is why board games are becoming more popular again—the analog version of Call of Duty,” Thiessen says, with a smirk. “Sometimes we also like to be voyeurs and watch other people go through an experience; there are these gaming things where there are, like, 15 000 people watching people play a game—which is why we’re going to try to livestream some of our events.”

Canoe has also engaged the What It Is podcast to cover the festival as well as local theatre blogger Jenna Marynowski.

“I wanted to program at least two of the shows, How iRan and The Hierarchy of Lost Children, which are really shows where you are creating your own narrative; you’re walking into an experience and you do what you want,” Thiessen says.

He also points out that not all of Canoe’s plays upend usual theatre conventions—so if you just want to sit back and watch a show, there are certainly opportunities to do so. Thiessen directs such people to Alan Williams’ The Girl with Two Voices, Gavin Crawford’s Sh**ting Rainbows, and Toy Guns’ Fortuitous Endings.

Diversity in both form and content were key in Thiessen’s mind while he was programming the festival; a glance at his selections certainly back this up. But a closer look reveals a glaring homogeneity: all of the shows are headed by white males.

“Sadly, there’s not enough women on the program,” Thiessen acknowledges. “There’s a lot of women performing in the shows and in the salons, but there are no women lead artists. I feel badly about that. Time was not on my side, in the scheduling of this. I’m having much bigger thoughts about women and diversity for next year’s festival. You’re going to see a season that is heavy on diversity and heavy on women and is going to be about plays connecting this theatre and the playwrights to community.”

Wherever theatre—in Edmonton, Canada, the world—may be headed, Thiessen can only guess. But he’s confident this particular artistic genre will persist, as it has for thousands of years already.

“We’ve always survived because we’re the cockroaches of the artistic world,” Thiessen says, with a laugh. “We will survive, along with painting, dance and music. We will survive because we’re just one of those core, early art forms. As long as we keep talking to people about things that matter and creating theatre experiences that invite controversy: that’s our job.”

Here’s Canoe’s line-up of shows, in the artist’s own words:

How iRan: three plays for iPod
An audio installation set in the Strathcona Branch of the Edmonton Public library, audience members choose an iPod and follow its string of shuffled tracks—one of 10.6 million possible combinations—to a series of visual installations created by new Canadians, chiefly members of the Iranian dissident community; participants then meet with playwright Ken Cameron afterwards for a discussion.

Cameron: “I hope audiences will take away the experience of seeing the world through the eyes of new immigrants to Canada. Even though there are no actors present at all, and you’re looking at still, static installations, it’s still surprisingly immersive because the audio plays on your imagination. The audience gets a deep empathetic connection to these characters, even though you never see them physically.”

Sh**ting Rainbows
Canadian television personality Gavin Crawford (This Hour Has 22 Minutes and The Gavin Crawford Hour) kicks off the festival with “a hilarious trip through the deranged, character-filled mind of a bent redhead from Southern Alberta.”

Crawford: “I was inspired by an overwhelming desire to pretend to be other people, coupled with the need to point out our collective failings as a species. The biggest challenge was trying to be truthful in a way that makes people smile and doesn’t just piss them off. I hope people will take away sore sides and a newly-skewed perspective on modern life.”

The Hierarchy of The Lost Children
Playwright Mark Harris has teamed up with members of Rapid Fire Theatre to present an immersive experience in which audience members can choose how far they delve into a mysterious new-age group, complete with soul readings, external influence adjustments and personal intraphysics testing.

Harris: “I have always been fascinated by our deep need for religious experiences, especially when those experiences lie far outside the mainstream. Cults often have strange beliefs, but in reality no stranger than the beliefs of major religions. The experience is structured to put the audience through the emotional experience of joining a cult. I hope they come away with the understanding that any of us might be seduced, under the right circumstances.”

Fortuitous Endings (What to do when you wake up drunk in a BBQ cover in your neighbor’s backyard)
A visceral dance piece written by Jake Hastey in cooperation with Toy Guns Dance Theatre, there are rumours of samurai swords and watermelons in this exploration of that moment in a relationship when you stopped telling your friends the whole truth.

Hastey: “It’s like watching a car accident while riding a camel on a busy street in San Francisco, but the performers don’t spit—or at least they try not to. While shopping for an engagement ring, a bearded lady grabbed me by the shoulders and exclaimed ‘Free the children!’ Then I thought, ‘Maybe I’m the children.’ My relationship died a slow death in the months that followed as I explored Buddhism through a series of Netflix documentaries. The piece grew out of the graveyard that was my heart in the summer of 2010; actually, it mostly grew in my backyard, which was also instrumental in the naming of the piece. We hope the audience will react well, but some people still eat white bread … ”

The Girl with Two Voices
An autobiographical piece about the winter Alan Williams returned to his native England after living in Canada for 15 years, the show places 19 audience members at the same table alongside Williams, who presents his story simply and unadorned.

Williams: “The biggest challenge has been to try to describe the remarkable and unexpected benefits of having had my biggest fears come true. That sense of failure I felt that first winter actually turned out to be really valuable. I’d like the audience to come away feeling like they’re not alone and that happiness isn’t such an implausible ideal.”

Surreal SoReal co-founder Jon Lachlan Stewart describes his show as “the Jian Ghomeshi story through the eyes of William Shakespeare.” This world première delves into deep, dark and extremely topical territory, namely male appropriation of female voices.

Stewart: “I was really concerned and alarmed by the story, a couple of years ago, about a woman being attacked by three men on the bus in Delhi. I started to question my own relationship with the opposite sex on a day-to-day basis, and I tried to figure out how I relate to those atrocities on a micro-cosmic level. I want to rethink the way we look at incidences and tragedies like this, and I want to have more straight-up conversations that don’t involve yelling or ranting or lots of exclamation marks. Really, it’s just a story: a story that ends in hope and looks for solutions.”

Until Sun, Feb 1
Canoe Theatre Festival
Various locations
Full schedule available at

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