2014: some of the best of this year in theatre

Corina Akeson, Leontes, The Winter's Tale

Don’t mess with Corina Akeson when she’s cross-dressing: she makes one serious dude

People often say to me, “You must get so sick of going to the theatre!” But I don’t. I love my job. Not to put too fine a point on it, but my job is fucking spectacular: I get to think and feel for a living.

As a way of saying thank-you to everybody who makes theatre in Vancouver—and to everybody who cares about theatre in Vancouver—here’s a list. It’s not an inventory of my favourite shows; it’s a selection of some of the performances and moments that embedded themselves most deeply in my psyche during 2014.

In no particular order, they are:

Emelia Gordon in Proud: When you’re watching the best actors, you can always tell that they’re having a good time—no matter what they’re doing. In Proud, Emmelia Gordon was having such a good time that she was in flight. And she was just as vivacious and present in the considerably more serious Fat Pig.

Corina Akeson in The Winter’s Tale: The pleasure principle we’ve been discussing? Corina Akeson’s gender-crossing turn as Leontes in The Winter’s Tale was so full of meaty, macho feeling—Akeson’s work was so enthusiastically committed; she was so into it—that watching her was like eating a steak. More directors should be casting this talented woman.

Peter Carlone having sex in Hunter Gatherers: One of the best comic performers in town, Carlone made me stamp my feet with glee in Hunter Gatherers: when his uptight character finally gave himself over to having wild, illicit sex, he paused, in the middle of ripping his clothes off, to fold his sweater.

Meg Roe’s exit in Saint Joan: When the soldiers dragged Roe’s Joan off to be burned, I flinched as if I was watching a child being beaten. It’s no small feat to provoke such a visceral response when staging G.B. Shaw’s wordy script, but Kim Collier’s direction was both smart and physical, and Roe is one of the most openhearted and skilled actors you’ll ever see.

Dean Paul Gibson in Saint Joan: Speaking of Saint Joan, Dean Paul Gibson’s turn as the Earl of Warwick was phenomenally thorough. Not a single Machiavellian cell was out of place.

Craig Erickson in Speed-the-Plow: Give me strength. I hope that I never forget the rhythmic ride that Erickson and Aaron Craven gave me in the opening scene of this Mitch and Murray production of David Mamet’s riff on Hollywood. And watching Erickson listen to Kayla Deorksen in a later scene, in which Deorksen had almost all of the lines, was a master class in acting.

The standing ovation for Jayson McDonald’s Magic Unicorn Island – Fringe performer Jayson McDonald has never failed to dazzle me, and his work in his solo show, Magic Unicorn Island—which is about kids protesting militarism and global warming—was no exception. But it was the standing ovation that the show received in Victoria, where I first saw it, that opened my eyes to the true value of the work. In Magic Unicorn Island, McDonald uses beauty and humour to give voice to sentiments that too often get mired in despair. That afternoon, in a weird little hall, a straggling audience of varying ages and backgrounds stood up and responded with deep, collective gratitude.

 

This was also a breakthrough year for a number of theatre artists.

Again, in no particular order:

Daniel Doheny – This recent Studio 58 grad took an enormous leap into full-blown professionalism with his performances in A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Tempest at Bard, and in Touchstone’s Late Company. Innocence and skill: what a beautiful combination.

Jay Clift – Clift knocked it out of the park in the dark Bug and the comic Hunter Gatherers. Clift has a big, beefy body—and he knows how to spin that masculinity into vulnerability, threat, babeliciousness, and absurdity: he is very good at playing the man game.

Meaghan Chenosky – Chenosky arrived in grand style, winning a Jessie (supporting actress, small theatre) for her soul-baring work in ITSAZOO’s Killer Joe. She was also the best reason to watch Solo Collective’s Small Parts. I’m sure she can play non-whackos, too.

Anton Lipovetsky – With his performances in Cymbeline and Equivocation at Bard, Lipovetsky moved from being a wunderkind to being a certified mainframe star. The guy is so confident—and so surprising—I’d watch him do anything.

Suzanne Ristic – Long established as an excellent actor, Ristic proved, with her play Poor at the Fringe, that she can also write. Creating work about homelessness has got to be one of the biggest artistic traps in the world, but Ristic neatly sidestepped sentimentality, exploitation, and finger wagging to deliver a witty, passionate work.

Loretta Seto  – I’d never heard of playwright Loretta Seto before I saw her script, Dirty Old Woman, at the Fringe, but I’m sure that I’ll hear about her again. Seto is young, but she did an amazing job of getting inside the head—and sexual organs—of her play’s post-menopausal protagonist. The script is funny and moving, but it’s Seto’s ability to telepathically inhabit the experiences of others that makes her extraordinary.

 

And that’s it for my yearly wrap-up!

Thanks for all of these moments, performances, and breakthroughs. Thanks for the many wonderful accomplishments that I’m not celebrating here, but that I have been lucky enough to experience throughout the year. And thanks to all of the theatre artists and other theatre workers in town for just damn well doing it, for making it happen. You rock my world.

About Colin Thomas

Colin Thomas is a Vancouver-based editor, an award-winning playwright, and an established theatre critic. Colin helps writers unlock the full potential of their novels, short stories, screenplays, and children's books.

Comments

  1. Hello Mr Thomas, I have a question, but first some context. I’m friends with some of the above artists who have embedded themselves deeply in your psyche during 2014. I am an admirer of them as people and as artists. Others on your list I don’t know personally but I have seen some of their work and I agree with you, they are/were brilliant in 2014. Based on my impromptu, unscientific “study”, I can only assume that the artists whom I am unfamiliar with on your list were/are also excellent. Love and respect to everyone named above. Now, my question.

    In your opinion, why did no established Vancouver theatre artists of colour embed themselves deeply in your psyche during 2014?

    There is one “Breakthrough Artist”, Loretta Seto, who appears to be a visible minority. Unless I have missed something, and I hope I have, Loretta Seto is the lone representative of diversity on your list.

    Do you believe the lack of racial diversity on your list of excellence for 2014 is due to a lack of diversity in Vancouver Theatre in general? Do you think it is due to Vancouver artists of colour lacking in ability in general? If so, is this lack of ability due to a lack of proper training? Or, is there something else at play here?

    Don’t get me wrong, I am sure your impressions are genuine. We all like what we like and that is our right. What I find amazing is, Vancouver is an incredibly racially diverse city. An astounding 43% of the residents of Metro Vancouver come from some type of “Asian” heritage. In fact, Vancouver has the largest Asian population of ANY city outside of the continent of Asia.

    SOURCE: http://blogs.vancouversun.com/2014/03/28/vancouver-is-most-asian-city-outside-asia-what-are-the-ramifications/

    If we add all of the other minority populations in Vancouver to the equation, well, that’s A LOT of diversity.

    Despite all of the above information, not one established artists of colour embedded them self in your memory on stage or page last year? Only one Breakthrough artist did? Would you agree that given Vancouver’s racial demographics this is at least, well, noteworthy? Troublesome even? Again, this is not an accusation of bias or racism. We are all entitled to like what we like. I’m just interested in hearing your thoughts on this issue. Thanks for your time. Omari

    • Hi Omari,

      Thanks for writing.

      I agree that lack of racial diversity on Vancouver stages is a big problem—both in terms of representation and in terms of maintaining audience numbers.

      The picture isn’t all bleak, of course. This past season, the Arts Club, which is the biggest producer in town, presented A Brimful of Asha, Kim’s Convenience, and Helen Lawrence, all of which presented experiences of Canadians of colour. There was a sprinkling of non-white representation elsewhere, as well. But, clearly, Vancouver’s stages are still a long way from reflecting the city’s diversity.

      I don’t think that any sane person would argue that this is because white artists have a monopoly on talent.

      A part of the problem, I think, is that, for whatever reasons, fewer writers of colour are articulating the experiences of their communities. Either that, or their scripts aren’t getting produced.

      And I think it’s hard for actors of colour to feel confident that they can build stage careers for themselves. Part of the solution to that, I believe, lies in the collective willingness of directors to see talent first and race second. It was great to see Daren Herbert in Saint Joan, for instance (also at the Arts Club). The guy’s got the chops; let him do whatever he wants.

      I’m interested in hearing other points of view about this—including your, Omari.

      Best,
      Colin

      • Thanks for the response Colin. Yes, I agree. There have been some strides made but we still have a frustratingly long way to go. Darren Herbert is also a friend of mine and I agree, he is consistently brilliant. It was also a treat seeing my dear friend and mentors, Nigel Shawn Williams, one of Toronto’s most respected and decorated theatre artists bringing some diversity and his immense talent to the Arts Club Stage as well. But, back to the issue at hand, a lack of diversity on Vancouver stages.

        In a 2008 interview you did with “The Next Stage”, you defined your role as a critic as the following:

        “My role as a critic is to contribute an informed opinion to the discussion of theatre. My primary responsibility is not to the audience or the artist, but to the art itself.”

        Again, I wholeheartedly agree with the above. Now, given the fact that you have rightfully identified a critic’s responsibility being to the art form itself, should you not make efforts to identify when nearly 50% of a community’s population is severely unrepresented?

        We all know that attendance numbers in theatres across the country have been on the decline for quite some time now. Logic would dictate that it is crucial for the long term survival of the art form for all of us in the theatre community to encourage producers to engage with a massive, untapped demographic that makes up half of our city’s population. Isn’t part of a critics job to hold members of the community accountable? For the sake of the art form’s progression and survival? I don’t mean this in a hyperbolic way either:

        A recent study posted in the vancouver Sun indicated that by 2031 caucasian’s will be a minority in metro vancouver:

        http://www.vancouversun.com/technology/Whites+become+minority+Metro+Vancouver+2031/8175821/story.html

        If trends in representation on Vancouver stages continue, the theatre will be phased out entirely due to lack of interest by the majority of the population. All of us who don’t do our part in fighting this inevitability will be complicit in the demise of the art form we love. Either that, or theatre will become an embarrassing relic of white supremacy.The situation will go from a big problem, to flagrantly offensive.

        There have already been great examples of critics being allies in the crucial fight for accurate representation on Canadian stages. In Toronto a few years ago, spearheaded by veteran artist Andrew Moodie, the issue of a major lack of diversity at the Shaw festival was pushed to the forefront of conversation in Ontario. The cause was picked up by Globe and Mail critic Kelly Nestruck who has since made a point to address issues of diversity and representation in his reviews. David C Jones has been doing great work in this field for years in Vancouver. What I humbly ask is that you actively join us in this cause. Not out of a sense of sympathy or guilt, but as part of your responsibility as a steward of the art form.

        As a professional artist of colour who has made Vancouver his home for nearly a decade, I have to tell you, reading your list was incredibly disheartening. It gives the impression that people like me are irrelevant in this community, despite the fact that I have been a CAEA member for nearly 15 years and have been involved in the creation of Canadian theatre as a performer, writer and producer on both coasts for most of my adult life. Seeing your list makes me understand why young people of colour for the most part stay away from the theatre. Why would they endeavour to join a club that is indifferent to their presence? As a respected, prolific critic in this city, your voice will have an impact. The voices of all major critics in this city will have an impact. The theatre needs all of you. Looking forward to hearing more thoughts on this.

        Omari

  2. Colin Thomas says:

    Hi Omari,
    Thanks for writing again. I’m not ignoring you; I’m just sick as a pooch with the flu.
    Colin

    • No worries Colin, thanks for the quick note. I recently got over some wretched flu thing that had me out of commission for days. Rest up, and respond whenever your health and schedule permits. Omari

  3. Hi again Colin, hope you are feeling better. Here’s a recent article in the Guardian Uk that is relevant to our discussion. I’ve included an excerpt: “Making theatre that is essential to the communities around us requires three things. First, the theatre-makers must ensure they reflect those communities. Second, they need to be trained to work alongside the communities, to channel their lived experience into art, with skill and authenticity and often for community members themselves to perform. And third, the whole theatre industry needs to be open to members of different communities becoming new theatre artists themselves, and commit to supporting and encouraging that.”

    The last sentence is particularly relevant. I’m not exactly sure how a critic would factor into this equation, but, I do believe we all have a role to play in theatre being a true reflection of the communities which we live in.

    http://www.theguardian.com/stage/theatreblog/2015/jan/08/fin-kennedy-tamasha-why-minority-community-theatre-is-essential?CMP=share_btn_fb

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