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Mentoring co-op project helps young theatre community

Producers Viktor Lukawski, left, Dan Watson and Nina Gilmour at the Theatre Centre in Toronto.

Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

What do you do if you are a 28-year-old theatre artist who badly needs the cash to finally escape the Fringe and get your brilliant show up on the boards in real professional style?

You could try to borrow the tens of thousands you'll need from your supportive parents. Or you could enter into an innovative arrangement with a more senior theatre company that will lend you its artistic know-how and administrative infrastructure in exchange for a share of the box office. Or, if you are Nina Gilmour, you could do both.

Gilmour and her creative partner Danya Buonastella are one of three troupes of emerging artists currently presenting works at Toronto's Theatre Centre with sponsorship from two more-senior companies. Their show, created in a buffoon style and entitled Death Married My Daughter, wakes Ophelia and Desdemona from the dead and lets them rant about Hamlet, Othello and the patriarchy in general. The project is getting administrative support from Why Not Theatre and artistic mentorship from Theatre Smith-Gilmour, a company run by Nina's parents, Dean Gilmour and Michele Smith.

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"I am just not at the point in my career where I am getting grants – I have to prove myself," explained Nina Gilmour, who has performed with her parents' company. "Senior companies are helping junior companies get their foot in the door."

The three-play co-operative project is based on a proposal by Ravi Jain, artistic director at Why Not Theatre, to have established companies act as sponsors so that newer, independent artists don't have to set up the significant administrative structures involved in applying for operating grants. He was struck by how younger artists are often shut out of the operating grant process, because the same incumbents get the grants year after year, and has been looking for ways to break the cycle.

"For me it's about redistribution of wealth," Jain said. "You incentivize the top to support the bottom."

Bringing together a group with all sorts of personal and professional connections, in physical theatre Why Not and Smith-Gilmour are putting up about a quarter of the $100,000 budget, in cash and kind, to help mount full-scale, professional productions of the three shows. Using money from their own operating budgets, the two senior companies are investors who will win or lose depending on ticket sales. They are also acting as mentors, giving advice on marketing and box office and overseeing budgets. Smith-Gilmour also has an artistic hand in two of the three shows.

"We are probably never going to be an operating company; there's no room for us," said Dan Watson, whose Ahuri Theatre is behind the second show, Ralph + Lina. "There are so many people at the table. This way, Smith-Gilmour and Why Not can leverage their own administrative structures and their stability to help groups they support." His show, created with his wife, Christina Serra, with script help from Smith, is a clowning melodrama telling the story of how Serra's Italian grandparents married and moved to Canada. Watson studied with Dean Gilmour at Humber College and all the participants in the project are followers of the physical theatre style and collaborative creation process pioneered by French acting teacher Jacques Lecoq, with whom Smith and Dean Gilmour studied in the 1970s.

The third show is ZOU Theatre's Business as Usual, a noir look at Bay Street routines. For its creator, Viktor Lukawski, the co-op project was a crucial opportunity to keep momentum going on the show, for which he had received a Canada Council project grant. Without an operating company to help him, he was falling into the stop-and-start rhythm that often marks a production as it lurches from grant to grant.

"I have this energy; I have this money; I just didn't know what to do," Lukawski said, noting that without the co-op project his topical show would not have been staged for another year, by which time recent Wall Street suicides would have faded from the public mind. "It would not have had the same energy."

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The three plays are being performed in repertory, extending their run to six weeks from the usual two weeks, while helping the artists trim costs by sharing expenses such as professional lighting design. The total budget for the three shows is about $100,000, much less than the approximately $150,000 that might have been needed if each had been mounted separately. The format does force the artists to keep their shows short, and juggle rehearsal schedules, but it also leads them to hope they will find power in numbers.

"It's definitely an experiment," Watson said. "There are drawbacks and there are positives. We still need to convince people to come to see the shows – it's hard enough to find people to see one show; now we have to convince them to see three. But our voices are louder together and we have more of a pool to draw from."

In their late 20s and early 30s, Watson, Lukawski and Nina Gilmour are all at the make-it-or-break-it stage in their careers, the point when many artists give up and seek a more stable income. The co-op project may help them cross that divide by offering the mentorship that Dean Gilmour believes is rare in Canada's theatre community, where the young are largely left to go it alone after graduation.

"In our theatre culture here, mentorship is not part of it; there is no idea of passing the torch," he said, contrasting it with Lecoq's approach. "This became an opportunity to bring together ideas of mentorship and invest in young companies. It's great to go through teaching people and then 10 years later produce their work in good conditions."

As for Nina Gilmour, she warns that parents can be the toughest mentors of all: "They don't cut me any slack."

Death Married My Daughter, Ralph + Lina and Business as Usual continue at the Theatre Centre, 1115 Queen St. West, until May 18. See for details.

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