Disposable Theatre

This essay first appeared on the Feb 15, 2021 episode of Stageworthy.

Honest question. What is with the disposable nature of plays in the Canadian theatre? Yeah, I can only think of a couple of plays – one in recent memory – that have had a life outside of their initial performance. On average, we produce a play once on one of our major stages, say for example, in Toronto, Theatre Passe Muraille, Tarragon, The Factory.

And then for the most part that play is then disposed of and forgotten and never really heard from again. And we’ve been doing that, pretty much since the 1960s, when the Canadian theatre scene really began in earnest. Every so often a play like Kim’s Convenience comes along that is so undeniably good that it gets a life after its production.

But for the most part, it seems that in Canada, we produce a play, it runs for a few weeks, and then when it’s over, it’s gone and we never hear from it. But for American and British plays, those will often tour or get a Canadian production or be performed by community theatre groups. But aside from Kim’s or the drowsy chaperone or come from away, when was the last time a Canadian play has gotten a production outside of Canada.

I remember a number of years ago, Howard Sherman, who was then the head of the American theatre wing, posted that he found it curious that he knew plays from Britain and of course plays from America, but he could not name any shows from Canada. Of course, a lot of Canadians helped out and named their favourites, but at the time, even he found it odd that he couldn’t name a single Canadian play.

Why do you think this is? What is it that prevents the plays that we create here from going on to be performed in the US or Britain or elsewhere, but what’s even more concerning to me is the fact that we rarely see them produced at home. So often a play is produced, and like I said, it runs a few weeks and it closes.

And it doesn’t get to breathe to grow. And it certainly doesn’t get to become a hit the way shows from elsewhere get to. And I do understand that part of that is logistics. In Toronto, we have only so many theatres dedicated to producing new work, and there’s only so much time that could be dedicated to a given play in each season. And because of that, a production can only run a few weeks.

But that keeps us from having a show that gets to be a big hit. Because if a show does well, there’s really no mechanism in place that lets a show go on to another life. Nothing that lets a show get picked up to continue on under another theatre’s umbrella and run for longer or anything like that. I guess for me, the sad thing is that Canadian theatre will never be able to get worldwide acclaim or even respect unless we find a way to give a play life after its first production.

Not that a play has to travel to Britain or the US to be successful, but at the very least, should we not have some path to further productions in Canada to give our shows the same shot at being remembered that shows in Britain in the U S. Why don’t we value the theater we make here enough to give more of our plays, a future?

Don’t our homegrown playwrights and actors and directors deserve that? Don’t they deserve better than just being disposable?

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