Canadian theatre is mourning the disappearance of another long-running institution this week. On Thursday, Alberta Theatre Projects announced that this winter's edition of its popular and successful Enbridge playRites Festival of New Canadian Plays will be the last.
Since its inception in 1987 as part of Calgary's Cultural Olympiad, playRites has been a significant incubator for new comedies and dramas in the country – with such international hits as Brad Fraser's Unidentified Human Remains and the True Nature of Love getting their start there.
But ATP artistic director Vanessa Porteous argues that the end of the festival isn't a sob story. Instead, it's about a theatre evolving with the art form.
"Times have changed and it's time for us to change too," Porteous told me in advance of the announcement this week. "I'm very excited at the artistic possibilities that this new move opens up for us."
ATP will now develop fewer new plays in a year, but invest in full productions of them and incorporate them into the main season (that will shrink from around eight plays to six).
That doesn't sound all that different from how many other regional theatres operate. But what made playRites special in Canada over its 28-year history is that it produced new work in repertory. That means that the same actors crossed over from play to play – and rather than having to fill ATP's 403-seat theatre with an unknown quantity for four weeks in a row, three or four new plays could share the space for the same time.
Not only was this cost-effective and risk-reductive, it allowed artistic directors from across the country to fly into Calgary for a weekend and see four works in as few as two days. Many picked up shows for the next season – and about 65 per cent of the more than 100 works premiered at the festival have gone on to second runs.
Indeed, at any given time, you'll see playRites's fingerprints across this country. The Highest Step in the World (playRites 2010) just finished a run in Richmond, B.C., while Trina Davies's The Romeo Initiative (playRites 2011) and Joan MacLeod's The Valley (playRites 2013) open next week at Vancouver's Touchstone and Toronto's Tarragon, respectively.
But Vicki Stroich, ATP's long-time dramaturg – who, in another announcement this week, was appointed as executive director – notes that many of the country's most exciting theatre creators work in different way now than they did in the 1980s – and that playRites's repertory model doesn't suit performer-creators, collective creations or playwrights who work closely with designers.
In order to accommodate that kind of work, playRites had added what it called Stage 2 – and, in truth, that's where the most exciting work has been made in recent years, such as Hawksley Workman's one-man rock opera, The God That Comes; Downstage Theatre's collective creation about the clash between oil industry and agriculture, Good Fences; or Eric Rose and David van Belle's high-tech show about a test pilot, The Highest Step in the World.
These are plays that can't be developed through traditional sit-down readings and workshops – and they're works that can't be cross-cast as easily.
Certainly, on one level, playRites's end is about "right-sizing" around less money. ATP, like most theatrical institutions in the country, is anticipating a decline in funding in coming years, as funders such as the Canada Council for the Arts try to share a stagnant pool of public money with more upstart organizations that deserve it.
But Porteous and Stroich have been thinking about the limitations of playRites for a while (I've spoken with both of them about it in the past) – and these impending funding reductions are more of a catalyst for the change than the cause of it. "We're not changing playRites because it's bad or because it's broken; we're changing it because there are better opportunities if we work outside the festival," Stroich says.
Only time will tell if the results are as impressive, and audiences agree.