FORGING A NEW PATH – Suzanne Hermary
The thoughts herein are my own and do not necessarily reflect the views of the organizations with whom I work. I’m fairly new to the Board of the group I work with, so most observations are coming from the perspective of a community theatre volunteer, but a volunteer with professional theatre experience and training working with lovers of theatre – amateurs in the true, original and entirely respectable sense of that word.
What do you do when COVID closes your smallest show of the season and the hotel where you held your dinner theatre shows goes into receivership? You start looking for new ways of sharing theatre. Earlier this year, my theatre group was running our final show of the season, Fully Committed, a solo tour-de-force in our 50-seat black box theatre and opening weekend’s attendance was really weak. It was especially painful to postpone the rest of the run because our actor, the director, stage manager and sound designer had been working closely on the show for eight months to get the quick wit, rapid-fire cues and 27 characters sorted out and running smoothly. The good news is that with some more rehearsal it can and will be remounted, but when is the big question right now.
Over the holiday season, we attempted to mount Miracle on 34th Street but Zoom rehearsals due to cast isolations, a postponement until late January, and other AHS regulations eventually put that idea on hold..
Thankfully, our dinner theatre season was closed by the time this show went up and COVID shut down the world, but it’s little consolation—the last independent hotel in town, where we held our shows because they had great service (including a prime rib buffet and the best steak sandwich in town) went into receivership, shutting their doors. Sadly, they were also the ticket seller, not just for our own productions, but all of the touring shows that were presenting at the Memorial Centre we operate – rentals that covered the costs of managing this large and aging facility. The Centre’s 700 seat auditorium is too big for most community theatre shows and is usually rented for dance competitions, school productions and tours, though it could now serve well for socially distant audiences, too. Over the holiday season, we attempted to mount Miracle on 34th Street but Zoom rehearsals due to cast isolations, a postponement until late January, and other AHS regulations eventually put that idea on hold… hopefully we’ll be able to put it on next Christmas. Meanwhile, we hoped to host the Heartland One-Act Festival, but it has been cancelled for this year, too. I guess it’s time to look at Zoom plays.
I’m a new board member with the theatre group, joining the board in October 2020, though I started working with the company a couple years ago. I was nominated from the floor back in September and suddenly everyone was excited about the prospects of having me as VP of Productions in our organization’s structure – essentially, leading the process to select our upcoming seasons while having zero experience doing that.
My own production of January 2020, Willow Quartet, by Ontario playwright Joan Burrows, was a challenge to get on the stage as it deals with grief and major life changes, though in a healthy, dramatic, but realistic and hopeful way
However, I’ve long been frustrated with the types of shows that have been produced in the company’s dinner theatre, which I tend to think of as a rotation of ‘Comedy, Farce, Murder Mystery, Comedy’ with a healthy dose of Norm Foster thrown in. My own production of January 2020, Willow Quartet, by Ontario playwright Joan Burrows, was a challenge to get on the stage as it deals with grief and major life changes, though in a healthy, dramatic, but realistic and hopeful way. Drama is just not something this group has done much in recent years. And I find that personally frustrating, because I connect more with drama, with stories having a deeper substance. Maybe it’s also because Comedy is the hardest thing to direct and I don’t trust my directorial toolkit enough yet.
Anyway, I appreciated the huge support I got at the election, but I wonder if we’re ready for things to change as I hope they will as I lead the decision-making process. I’m not the Artistic Director, selecting the productions, I work with a season planning committee to review feasibility of works with our resources, and to get the opinions on what’s appropriate for our community. We are in the centre of a Bible Belt, with many conservative and religious communities surrounding us guiding a lot of decisions to stay in a narrow vein of acceptability. What was surprising to me at last year’s Community Theatre Summit at the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity was how many small-town and rural theatre groups were focusing on much more powerful or challenging works and succeeding without the blowback that seems to hit us hard. I believe we can find a balance between our friendly, fun and feisty past seasons and something new, where Canadian works, women-led works, works featuring more diverse casts (with the potential for a lot of required outreach to ensure multicultural community members believe they will be welcomed, included and valued) and maybe someday, I hope we can get back to putting on musicals. Sigh. The last major ’50-people-onstage’ adult-driven community theatre musical Red Deer had was Jesus Christ Superstar in 2001.
Big shows draw big audiences, but they also have big budgets and we have been through the financial wringer a couple times in those two decades, with 2020 just adding to the frustration. A few other companies in town have done smaller-scale musicals over the years, often locally-written, and the schools put on big musicals, and the college used to put on big musicals when we still had a theatre program… yeah, that was another thing killed in 2020, but by institutional leadership, not COVID.
Oh, and the ability to have an audience…. and to rehearse in the same room and to be allowed to sing and dance…. does it feel like every grand idea has a brick wall?
Musical theatre is my bread and butter, my home, my degree. Two and a half years ago, knowing no one has the budget for such things in our economic downturn, I started a monthly Broadway Open Mic night to grow the demand and love for the art form. It’s been super successful until February, and prior to the newest regulation changes, we held an October edition which was maybe fuller than that space should have been…. but what’s clear is that the talent is here, now, we just need to find funders to make something magical happen. Oh, and the ability to have an audience…. and to rehearse in the same room and to be allowed to sing and dance…. does it feel like every grand idea has a brick wall? That’s 2020 (and 2021) for you.
So, what do I do in an attempt to move forward? I look at the works that have already been approved. I’m not tossing them aside without due consideration – work has been done on these already and it’s not like any transition won’t need to happen gently over time. I also post on Facebook asking for play recommendations from any of my Toronto and New York friends…but who responds first? My local grade 3 teacher, whose niece is Lucia Frangione, a Red Deer playwright now based in Vancouver… and when I’m put in touch with her, she puts me in touch with two other well-known Alberta playwrights…and so I borrow all their plays and other recommended readings from the Theatre Alberta Library…. I’ve got about 20 works to read and I’m confident that I’ll be able to find some heartfelt works that will still resonate with our community while finding a bit of balance and progress. Let’s hope my intentions for a more well-rounded theatre offering will guide us in new directions, thinking outside the box of what we have been and looking to our 50th anniversary season as an opportunity for growth. Whenever that’s allowed to happen.
Suzanne Hermary is a musical theatre performer, director and arts administrator in Central Alberta. She works with artists of all genres in her role as Coordinator with the Red Deer Arts Council. She is also an avid traveler who loves to explore world cultures and cuisine, helping others to do the same as a travel agent.