Playwright Howard Barker, in a 2012 interview with The Guardian, said, "a good play puts the audience through a certain ordeal."
In these unprecedented times (I’ll pause for a collective eye roll), we may feel all too accustomed to ordeals, but I think that right now Barker’s claim has special value. He goes on to declare, with thespian boldness: “I’m not interested in entertainment.”
Well, at Theatre NorthWest, entertainment is sort of our bread and butter. But it’s a particular kind of entertainment — the kind you don’t get sitting on the couch, three seasons into your second quarantine watch-through of The Office. It’s the kind of entertainment that’s also a communal experience, an ephemeral series of human connections played out on a stage. It’s entertainment that puts you through… not always an ordeal, but at least something.Something wonderful and ineffable.
Over this past year, theatre itself has been put through an ordeal. In a twist of dramatic irony, theatre has become ephemeral in a whole new way. Countless shows across the world have been cancelled, many in the middle of a run. I myself was performing on our stage last March when the proverbial crap hit the fan and UNBC Musical Productions was forced to cancel our second weekend of The 25thAnnual Putnam County Spelling Bee.
And then came the summer, and the disappointing absence of a Judy Russell Broadway blockbuster, a sorely missed tradition for so many in our community, whether onstage, backstage or in the audience.
The fall brought a glimmer of hope. Health orders at the time allowed for a series of limited-capacity stage readings. TNW was grateful for the opportunity to safely bring in new groups of artists from the community, like Nechako Community Theatrics, to present plays that would otherwise not have graced our stage.
But as Robert Frost reminds us (or Ponyboy Curtis, if you like), “nothing gold can stay.” This endeavour was put on hold after November’s new restrictions were announced and now the theatre is quiet. Too quiet.
I was hired as TNW’s assistant general manager at the end of December. Now when I come into work, I walk past our empty stage and I’m filled with a dull grief. I pass through a certain ordeal, you could say. I remember the many times I have seen this stage decorated with set-pieces, full of light and life. I remember the times I have performed here and the magic I experienced every time I did.
Many theatre organizations have begun streaming or recording plays in the absence of live performances. This year even saw the birth of the world’s first crowd-sourced TikTok musical, Ratatouille, starring Wayne Brady and Adam Lambert, among others.
As has been repeated ad nauseum, this is certainly a time for innovation. But TNW is not among those presenting digital content. There are many factors contributing to this decision, most of which are a little too technical to delve into here. There are unions to consult, a lack of filmographic experience and equipment, and the health risks of bringing more individuals into our workspace, to name a few. But perhaps the most overlooked reason we are not producing digital content is this: we are a theatre.
I do not besmirch any of the current or past attempts to approximate the joys of theatre in its conspicuous absence. I myself am involved in a forthcoming digital performance project from UNBC Musical Productions. But we should remember that these projects are something other than theatre.
Watching a reproduction of a performance on a screen might give us the quick fix we crave, but it will never be the full theatrical experience. It will never be the right type of ordeal, one shared with friends and strangers in time and space, where actors and audience members are engaged together in that great unspeakable something.
Do you remember that feeling of live, in-person theatre? Do you remember the strange pull in your gut or the goosebumps on your arms? Maybe you don’t and I just need to FaceTime my doctor. But if you do remember, don’t forget.
Hold onto that feeling, stay safe, and be well until a better time comes. We’ll be here when it does.
- Solomon Goudsward is the new assistant general manager of Theatre NorthWest. He is also a local actor, musician, and writer. He has performed frequently with UNBC Musical Productions and once with Judy Russell Presents. His writing has been published with Thimbleberry Magazine and Dimensionfold Publishing. His first play, Smoke Sturgeon, was set to debut at Theatre NorthWest as a stage reading in November 2020, but was postponed due to that month’s provincial health order.