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Is Newfoundland Theatre Dead?

The Rock is a 'powerhouse of comedic political satire' too often ignored by the Toronto-centric press

In the winter of 2007, Eleanor Wachtel hosted a special edition of CBC Radio’s Arts Tonight where she spoke to the two of most recent theatre critics for the Globe and Mail: Kate Taylor, who served from 1995 to 2003, and Kamal Al-Solaylee who took Taylor’s place. True to Globe tradition, most of Taylor and Al-Solaylee’s knowledge and experience centred on Toronto, with brief forays to Montreal, Calgary, and Vancouver. This being a discussion of theatre highlights during their tenure, the Stratford and Shaw Festivals were also heavily mentioned.

I wasn’t surprised that less than a minute was spent on Newfoundland (somewhat touched, actually, since four provinces went wholly unmentioned). What did surprise me was Taylor’s grand revelation that theatre artists in Newfoundland were all comedians and had wisely, she joked, moved into the more lucrative field of television. Theatre in Newfoundland, if one were to extrapolate from Taylor, was dead; a lifeless shell in the wake of Halifax having swooped in and stolen the talents of Codco and Mercer to fuel the nation’s hunger for comedy both intelligent and actually funny.

The accomplishments of our televised brothers and sisters aside, it is a laughable notion to declare Newfoundland theatre dead. Indigenous drama in this province is still in its infancy by global standards, but in those three and a half decades the contributing artists to Newfoundland theatre have stretched its borders in terms of form, topic, process, and audience.

Newfoundland’s first playwrights bore the moniker well: they were writers through and through, their scripted work as much at home on the page as it would be on the stage, and all of it firmly rooted in the place in which they worked. Michael Cook, Grace Butt, Tom Cahill, and the much loved Al Pittman were true dramatists; writers who approached drama as, first and foremost, the laying down of words. Their themes, with exception of the much earlier Butt, were in keeping with Newfoundland’s short history as a province: the pros and cons of Confederation, our new relationship with Canada, Smallwood resettlement, the in-shore fishery and its challenges in the emerging globalized economy. Among these plays, some remain eerily relevant. Cook’s The Head, Guts, and Soundbone Dance, a prophetic piece written in 1973, a full twenty years before the moratorium, examining the fate of Newfoundland without cod. And Pittman’s West Moon, a poetic meditation on a resettled town, its dead arising on All Soul’s Night to find the living long gone.

One might have guessed that these writers would set an early precedent for how Newfoundland theatre would evolve. The process of Newfoundland dramatic writing, however, would undergo a huge shift in the ensuing years, with the emerging dominant form of collective creation. Written by a company of actors, occasionally with a director, the work emerged from collective writing sessions, often based around performative methods, and character and group improv. The Mummers Troupe, Codco, and Sheila’s Brush were the creators of many of these seminal works. They established the province as a powerhouse of comedic political satire, and mined the very rich and previously theatrically untapped grounds of Newfoundland folk story tradition. If you include the earliest work of Rising Tide, then indeed this period of collective creation and the companies and infrastructure arising from it (most notably the Mummers inertial launch to the now indispensable LSPU Hall, and Rising Tide’s seemingly single handed creation of, and mind blowing success with, Newfoundland theatrical cultural tourism) can stand without argument as the most significant and reverberating theatrical endeavours in the province’s history. The list of plays themselves emerging from the Newfoundland collective are equally as influential: Rising Tide’s Joey and Daddy What’s a Train, The Mummers Troupe’s They Club Seals Don’t They, Sheila’s Brush’s many adventures into the Jack Tales, and of course Codco’s Cod on a Stick, and Sickness, Death and Beyond the Grave.

If the seventies were marked by the earnest explorations of Newfoundland’s first dramatist and the black satire of the collective movement, then it could be said that the eighties and early nineties were shaped by the lovechild of the two; the black comedy. Arguably, it would be this decade where the Newfoundland voice finally emerged with gusto, where playwrights working solo forged a theatrical vision that was a structured and crafted as their dramatist predecessors, and loaded with the wit and venom of their collective creation counterparts. Ray Guy, Janice Spence, Ed Riche, and Greg Thomey defined this new voice in Newfoundland writing, delivering plays that were as well crafted as they were raw, as loaded as they were funny. Guy’s Young Triffie’s Been Made Away With is a notable classic. In it he fashioned a Newfoundland both funny and cruel, outrageous and yet, somehow, accurate. Though far gentler, Thomey’s Hanlon House, Spence’s Catlover, and Riche’s List of Lights, share in Guy’s acerbic wit, and paint a picture of this place, with hard edges and bold strokes, that reverberates to this day. The province has become known for its dark humour, in no small part because of these writers and the Resource Centre for the Arts Theatre Company that produced them.

In 1990 John Taylor scored a major hit with My Three Dad’s, his first show; a comedic and autobiographical exploration of identity, as a young man traverses America in search of his birth father. Taylor did what many had done before him and what many have done since; script himself a juicy role. His show exemplifies one hard and fast rule about the professional theatre in Newfoundland; those who continue to work regularly, continue to regularly make the work. Newfoundland, in general, is not a place amenable to the actor for hire. Actors, in it for the long haul, must write.

And write they did. The seventies saw actors scripting in collectives, the nineties saw them go it alone. Seemingly countless actor written and performed one person shows emerged in this decade. From the comedic powerhouses of Rick Mercer and Andy Jones, to the experimental adventures of Liz Picard and Berni Stapleton, it seemed at the time every actor on two legs had a one person show in the offing. The best of these stand as the best province has to offer. Mercer’s triplet of searing political satires, that served to launch him as a national hero. Jones’ inimitable stand-up/lectures. Stapleton and Pickard’s futuristic feminist spectacles. The one person play as an oeuvre internationally holds appeal for its affordability and ease of production. In Newfoundland, the one person show was often the biggest and most lavish production to be seen. Pickard’s The ALIENation of Lizzy Dyke stands out; a three hour spectacle incorporating slides, film, puppets, tap dancing, and soap bubbles.

The decade beginning in the early to mid-nineties also saw an explosion of new multi-character full length plays across the province. Artists as diverse as community veterans Bryan Hennessey, Frank Barry and Des Walsh, to the newer voices of Joan Sullivan, Pete Soucy, and your’s truly, crafted pieces for the ever expanding professional production base. And as one would expect in any maturing community, the work continued to diversify. From Walsh’s lyrical work for Rising Tide, calling up comparisons to the early dramatists noted above, to the cruel bite of Barry’s Three Dogs Barking and Wreckhouse.

With a wave of returning young professionals fresh out of mainland training, the work also started to diversify in practice and process as well.  Jillian Keiley initiated the formation of Artistic Fraud of Newfoundland and her own brand of music based theatrical spectacles. Danielle Irvine and Anna Stassis formed the short lived but massively ambitious Place of First Light cultural tourism initiative on Bell Island. As the years clocked on, the fully professional year round production companies would turn more and more of their energies in the summer tourist trade. The indigenous work created by writers for these festivals, most notably Rising Tide’s Trinity Festival and Theatre Newfoundland Labrador’s Gros Morne Festival, would continue to increase, broaden, and become more challenging.

Despite the scant resources, and the relatively limited opportunity for production compared to major mainland centres, especially for the experimental work and  contemporary practice, the plays keep coming. And the playwrights keep coming. The community is peppered with new dramatic writers of tremendous import and promise, from the internationally lauded novelist turned playwright Joel Hynes, to the incessant energies of Sara Tilley and Phillip Goodrich.

So, Kate Taylor got it wrong. Though one can’t really blame her. The work created in Newfoundland was, until recently, created almost exclusively for Newfoundland. Infrequent export of shows such as Rising Tide’s Joey, Theatre Newfoundland Labrador’s Tempting Providence, or Berni Stapleton and Amy House’s A Tidy Package, kept the idea of Newfoundland theatre alive nationally, for those who were watching closely. But as these and others tracked the good word out and about, Newfoundland artists on home turf created and disseminated their work with an ever increasing mark of quality and intelligence, for an ever growing local audience. The vast majority of this work was created with little to no outward speculation on a larger and lengthier life elsewhere in the country or beyond. Such success if it came would no doubt be welcomed, but the artists who chose to stay and work here did just that; worked here.

While no longer living in their own nation, Newfoundland’s artists have, and continue to, create as if they are. And this, more than perhaps anything else, defines the unique nature of the work that happens here, and the artists who make it happen.

Reprinted from Riddle Fence (Issue one, Fall 2007). For copies, please contact [email protected]