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For Edmonton theatre company, smaller is bigger

Sheldon Elter is playing Beowulf and David Ley is Hrothgar in Edmonton’s Workshop West production of Beowulf.

Ah, the new Canadian play: written, re-written, dramaturged and workshopped, produced, and then mounted on a shelf somewhere. Such has been the experience, too many times, for director Michael Clark. "There are so many great Canadian plays that only get done once," says Clark, who has directed more than 40 productions. "They get a couple of workshops, they get a three-week rehearsal, they get put on and then the playwright gets patted on the bum and sent on his way with a script to try to sell it elsewhere."

As artistic director of Edmonton's Workshop West Theatre, Clark felt he had the power to change this pattern. "I came to this mini-identity crisis for Workshop West. If we're supposedly the playwrights' theatre what are we doing that's different? How are we serving the playwrights?"

So this year, instead of mounting a regular season that allows for as many as three plays, Workshop West has poured all of its resources into the development and production of one new play. Beowulf the King is wrapping up a three-week run, the sole offering of Workshop West's 2011-2012 season.

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The idea is to give the play life beyond this run – particularly in the form of a tour. Produced by Workshop West, a future tour would build on lessons learned from the initial staging. The play improves along with the production, word of mouth does its thing, and other companies develop an interest. The play gathers audiences across Canada – maybe beyond – rather than gathering dust on a shelf.

Clark, who joined Workshop West in 2006 after seven seasons with Nakai Theatre in Whitehorse, had been thinking about a paradigm shift for the company for a while. But it was an encounter at a board meeting a few years back that provided the final catalyst for change.

It had been a tough slog planning that upcoming season; seven plays had fallen through for one reason or another. When a board member asked what they were going to stick in the fall slot, Clark balked.

"I sort of had this epiphany," he says. "Is what we're doing filling programming slots or creating works of art?"

He chose the art, of course. Inspired by companies that focus on play development rather than mounting a season, such as Edmonton's Catalyst Theatre, Vancouver's Electric Company Theatre and Toronto's Necessary Angel Theatre, Clark decided to change up the company's operating model, choosing Blake William Turner's Beowulf work – which he'd seen at the 2007 Edmonton Fringe Festival – as his first project.

"[Clark]called me one day," says Turner, "and said 'I'm tired of doing plays that are set in kitchens. Could we do your show on the mainstage?'"

Turner and Clark brought in a cast and designers within six months of deciding to co-direct the project. Their early involvement in developing the piece is a key element to Clark's vision.

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"So often the playwrights are just alone in the garret and [then]hey're subjected to gang dramaturgy and actors and everyone trying to fix their play. So we felt, especially on a piece like this, the design would affect the dramaturgical development of the piece."

Not set in a kitchen and with some 45 minutes of fight choreography, Beowulf has been attracting good reviews and strong audiences. The preview performance brought in 90 people – compared to the usual 10 or so; and box office has surpassed expectations. But this is not the ultimate measure of the success of the play – or Workshop West's new model. That comes next, with the question of whether there will be a life for this play beyond this run.

"We really, really, really want to do the show again," says Turner, who lives in Vancouver. "It was always built with that in mind."

This philosophical shift has certainly worked for Catalyst.

Consider its 2010/2011 season. With two productions – Nevermore and Hunchback – the Edmonton-based company clocked 90 performances over the course of the season, reaching 36,000 people, with earned revenue accounting for 62 per cent of their annual revenue of $1.1-million. Compare that to artistic director Jonathan Christenson's first year at Catalyst: With a season of five shows, annual revenue was approximately a quarter of what it was in 2010/11, and less than a third of that was earned revenue.

"Moving away from the season model has enabled us to invest in developing a high quality product that has a much longer life than the two-week run our productions received when we presented a season of plays," offers Christenson, who moved the company away from the season model shortly after taking over in 1996.

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Catalyst's works now have a life of three to five years and have toured in Canada and beyond, to important theatre centres such as New York and London.

After Beowulf closes on Sunday, Turner will take a break, write a new draft over the summer and gather the cast for another reading in the fall.

"If I get another chance to do this script," says Turner, "I'll get the chance to make it that much better."

Clark and his company, meanwhile, will work toward touring the show in two or three seasons, after what he calls a buffer year, when Workshop West goes back to its previous season model.

"We didn't want to put all our eggs in one basket in case it didn't work out," he says. "But this is where we're going."

Beowulf the King is at La Cité Francophone in Edmonton until April 29.

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About the Author
Western Arts Correspondent

Marsha Lederman is the Western Arts Correspondent for The Globe and Mail, based in Vancouver. She covers the film and television industry, visual art, literature, music, theatre, dance, cultural policy, and other related areas. More

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