I’ve received a lot of phone calls and emails in the past few months from artists interested in starting their own theatre companies. “How did you do it with Verb?” they ask. It’s a difficult question to answer. The simple truth is that it’s incredibly easy to start a theatre company; running it is another matter entirely.
How did we do it?
To be honest, our first season was a challenge, but we anticipated that. Plus, we had no expectations, which made every success a triumph and every failure an opportunity to learn. It was fun and exciting and terrifying, but the newness of it all kept us going.
Last Sunday, we closed Season Two. Col and I sat at the back table of the Ironwood Stage and Grill and breathed a sigh of relief when Sharon Pollock sang her final verse and the audience applauded. Sharon Pollock. How the hell did we get Sharon Pollock to sing for the first time on stage? For that matter, how did we get Sharon Pollock at all? How did we get Ksenia Thurgood, Aaron Coates, Kathy Zaborsky, Brent Podesky, and Aviva Zimmerman to join us on this adventure that was the 2010/11 Season?
Col has been using the term “lightning in a bottle” a lot lately, and I’m very fond of the expression because I think it captures the essence of the best things about theatre. Exciting, dangerous, beautiful, terrifying, and fleeting. I find we so often close a show and move immediately on to the next without taking the time to reflect on that which is most magical about the art - I’d like to do that now. I don’t know if you’ll find this remotely interesting, but if not, I’ll never know.
Last spring, Col and I were sitting around at some pub - the Unicorn maybe - with Jess, carefully composing what would become our second season. Many of our questions revolved around financial planning. Most people aren’t aware that newly formed companies aren’t allowed to apply for funding from the province’s main granting body, the Alberta Foundation for the Arts, for two years after incorporation as a not for profit society. This means no operating funding, and no project grants. The AFA wants the company to prove it has the tools to sustain itself, which seems fair enough. When we incorporated Verb back in 2009, we had no idea what a challenge that would prove in our second season. Could we afford the royalties of previously published scripts? Could we afford to work with union actors? What about other artists - stage managers, designers, directors? The biggest challenge would be finding performance venues. With space at a premium, and rental rates at an unprecedented peak, how could we manage?
As it happened, we couldn’t. That is, we couldn’t manage to get all the performance space we needed. We had theatres lined up for all but one show, and could not possibly afford to rent a more expensive space for the final production. It would have to go. What to put in its place?
Maybe we should consider a production that doesn’t need to be performed in a theatre - an outdoor show, or a play that would be served by environmental staging in a found space. Perhaps a creation project. We brainstormed, pitched projects, had meetings, and probably went through four or five potential candidates for that final production before I finally gave voice to a nagging thought that had been bothering me for a while. What about Marg Szkaluba?
I knew the script well - it was written by a prof at the UofL, where Col and I both studied - and I had even seen a wonderful production. The character of Marg is a true playwrighting master stroke. She’s compelling, funny, sad, and powerful. Her story has potential for tremendous resonance.
And - importantly, for us - the play is set in a bar. The play could be performed in a bar.
But what about casting? Ay, there’s the rub. The challenge with Marg is that the play makes reference to historical events (like when CBC television started broadcasting in colour). We did some math and discovered that Marg was probably born in the 1930s. Say 1935. In 2010, that would make Marg seventy five years old. We started talking about it. Who could play the role? I remember saying, “In my wildest dreams? Sharon Pollock.”
As it happens, Sharon is turning seventy five this year. Also, she had never sung on stage before. This would be her musical debut.
The reason I tell you this story is to explain my feelings about Season Two as a whole. The reason Col and I both felt overwhelming relief at the end of the season is because of the enormous number of risks we took in the programming and execution of it. And, though the term “risk” has negative connotations, and though we certainly made choices that were less successful than others, I find the act of taking “risks” to be one of the most important things a theatre artist can do. And I’m proud that we did it. Some were financial risks - like testing out our new pay what you can ticketing option - but most were artistic risks, big choices that could either explode like a bomb in a playground, or explode like a firework amongst the stars. In 2010/11, we shot for the stars: we programmed a play in which actors from the homeless community would need to explore the most personal parts of their lives on stage; we asked a non-singer to star in a one-woman musical; we picked a play in which audience’s expectations of structure are destroyed; we staged a play in a bar; we staged a play in a church; we experimented with exploring our own design skills; we asked five professional actors to forgive our growing pains; we asked mother of Canadian theatre and real life grandmother Sharon Pollock to do a shot called a “Cowboy C*cksucker” (she did). We had an adventure.
We owe a great deal to the artists who have blessed us with their talents this season, as well as our various partners (Downstage, The Ironwood Stage and Grill, Club Sapien, The Mustardseed). It’s been a wild ride, and I wouldn’t trade it for all the productions of CATS we could have produced with a larger budget. If you saw some of our shows this season or have thoughts about what you liked or didn’t about our programming, we’re always happy to hear your voice. Please comment below.
In the meantime friends, Season Three is already on the burner - those of you who attended Marg got a sneak peek in your programs - but I can guarantee this: it’s even riskier than Season Two. See you then.