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How a Regina theatre community got past mourning to produce an ‘evolution’

Joey Tremblay, artistic director of Curtain Razors Theatre, wrote and directed Bad Blood, which opened in Regina on Wednesday. The play follows a character named Joey after a botched gall-bladder surgery.

Mark Taylor/The Globe and Mail

Bad Blood's triumphant opening at the University of Regina on Wednesday night was both a final chapter to a story and the first chapter of a new one. Director and playwright Joey Tremblay's dark and surprisingly funny play about a traumatic trip through the Saskatchewan health-care system was the last project that Michele Sereda had initiated as artistic director of Curtain Razors before she died. And it's also the first major show to premiere at the retooled theatre company under the new leadership of Tremblay – who assumed the role of artistic director in the wake of Sereda's sudden death in a car crash just north of Regina two years ago.

"Bad Blood is so much about perseverance," says Johanna Bundon, an associate artist at Curtain Razors, "both in the material, but also in getting the production to this point."

Indeed, after one of the biggest tragedies to ever hit Western Canadian theatre, the Regina theatre and performance community has come together around the company that Sereda co-founded in 1989. With expanded support from locals, Curtain Razors has gone from a budget of around $20,000 to one of more than $100,000 and aims to put Saskatchewan on the theatrical map across the country in the way other touring indie companies such as Catalyst Theatre, 2b Theatre or Artistic Fraud have for Edmonton, Halifax and St John's.

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"The challenge has been to honour the legacy of someone who's died – but at the same time to recognize that it couldn't stay the same," Tremblay says. "It needed an evolution."

Before Tremblay saved Sereda's theatre company from dying along with her, Sereda helped keep the actor and playwright from giving up on his own theatrical artistic practice – after the awful experience that is chronicled in Bad Blood.

In 2008, returning to Regina from a trip to Mexico with his partner, Tremblay began to feel ill – iller than he ever had before.

Rushed to the hospital for surgery to remove his gallbladder, he embarked on a medical odyssey that led him to believe he was going to die on multiple occasions. First, Tremblay was misdiagnosed with both cancer and being HIV positive – and only learned after five days of preparing for death that neither was true. Then, it became clear that his surgery had been botched – toxins were leaking into him, while gallstones left in his body created abscesses on his liver. Even after surviving that septic disaster, he was starved for two weeks when a doctor forgot to update his chart.

These experiences left Tremblay with post-traumatic stress. As part of his therapy, and also to fulfill a grant requirement, he wrote a play about his experience, mocking his own writer's voice and making fun of how personal the story was – and then he hid it away in a drawer. It stayed there until Tremblay – a former National Arts Centre ensemble member whose play Elephant Wake, about a dying French town on the Prairies, has toured internationally – was asked by Sereda to read it in 2014.

Tremblay was reluctant to show it to her – but, after she called him a few choice words, he gave in. "She read it and phoned me back immediately and said, 'I couldn't put it down,'" Tremblay recalls. A workshop took place in Sereda's garage that spring – and by the early winter of 2015, Curtain Razors was lining up finances for a full production.

Then came the car accident.

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In February, 2015, Sereda was driving fellow artists to the Piapot First Nation reserve as part of the development of a show called Making Treaty 7 when a three-car pileup on Highway 6, just north of Regina, claimed their lives. Kainai First Nation elder and educator Narcisse Blood; Michael Green, a founder of the Calgary theatre company One Yellow Rabbit; the Regina-based multidisciplinary artist Lacy Morin-Desjarlais; and Sereda died.

In a city like Regina, with a population of around 200,000, a tragedy such as that would have had a major impact no matter who had died – but the loss of so much local artistic talent was acutely felt.

Mary Blackstone, director of the Centre for the Study of Script Development, explains the significance of Sereda to this outsider. In Regina, the theatre scene has only two long-standing institutions: The Globe Theatre, the regional theatre founded in 1966, and Curtain Razors, which Sereda had founded with Paula Costain fresh out of the University of Regina theatre department in 1989.

After seven years, Sereda had become the sole artistic director of the company – exploring the boundaries between performance art and theatre in presentations and with original work, connecting local artists to the local First Nations artists, and others from around the world until her death.

"There was a lot of anxiety at that point that [Curtain Razors] would be gone," says Blackstone, who was a friend of Sereda's and recalls her hearty laugh when she would walk into the room. "It's just really fortunate that Joey was in the place that he was in – in a place where he felt he could take over the company and put his weight behind making it survive and taking it to the next stage."

Everyone I spoke to in Regina calls Tremblay the perfect person to take over Curtain Razors. He and Sereda had known each other since their days as students at the University of Regina in the 1980s, bonding as they both came from small towns.

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The two kept in touch, but followed different paths – Tremblay did what many aspiring theatre artists do in Saskatchewan after graduating: move to a larger city. First it was Vancouver, then Edmonton where he ran Catalyst Theatre with Jonathan Christenson for a while. His show Elephant Wake made that company well known when it toured to the Edinburgh Fringe and won an award in 1997.

Meanwhile, back in Regina, Sereda had put down roots – and, as many graduates of University of Regina before and after, started her own company. "She was from the pioneering settler stock," Blackstone recalls.

Tremblay moved back to Regina in 2004 for a contract at the Globe Theatre, but he continued to travel to work outside of the province, for instance spending a year in the National Arts Centre ensemble under Peter Hinton. When the board of directors of Curtain Razors first contacted Tremblay after Sereda's death, they were mainly wondering how much of a promise there was for a production of Bad Blood.

But soon enough they had another question for him: Would he want to take over the company?

Tremblay, now 52, worried he was too old to take on a company in need of saving – but eventually saw it as a chance to create a company such as Catalyst in his home province – one that would focus on building productions over a long process that could then have an extended life through touring.

If Bad Blood is an example of the work to come for Curtain Razors, we're likely to see more of them outside of the province in coming years. It's a health-care story from the province that birthed our health-care system – reminiscent of some of the Electric Company's early work.

It follows Joey (played by a wonderfully charismatic Jayden Pfeifer) on that journey after a botched gallbladder surgery. With a 16-person cast, Tremblay's staging gives it an operatic feel – but also makes it seem a bit like Alice's journey into Wonderland, with IV bags perched up on impossibly high intravenous poles, and a doctor named Lala who looks like a Teletubbie when Joey is high on morphine.

To get a show this big on stage, Curtain Razors had to get creative. Tremblay developed the work as the first Michele Sereda artist-in-residence at the University of Regina – and eventually partnered with the theatre department to create its first production. Six professional actors teamed up with chorus of students and recent graduates.

Kathryn Bracht, the head of the theatre department, was at the opening and found it an emotional experience. Like most in Regina, she knew Sereda – and was happy and sad at once to see Tremblay carry her vision forward in a new way.

"There's a little bit of letting go and a little bit of embracing – which I think Michele would be really happy about," she said, holding back tears.

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About the Author
Theatre critic

J. Kelly Nestruck is The Globe's theatre critic. More

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