Click here for a link to FFWD’s original article about Verb Theatre, or read below. Thanks to Andrew Torry for the profile!
Trials and Triumphs
New theatre companies in the city face many challenges but persevere.
Published July 21, 2011 by Andrew Torry
It’s a question many theatre artists ask themselves at one point early in their career: Do I go where the work is, or do I stay where I am and create my own opportunities? Many emerging artists opt for the former because taking the bull by the horns can be fraught with challenges. But every community needs its artistic pioneers, and it’s because of those trailblazers that Calgary is home to companies like Theatre Calgary, Alberta Theatre Projects and Downstage Theatre. Those spearheads are the reason the city is far from being a cultural wasteland. The initiation of a theatre company demands vision, buoyancy and courage.
Jamie Dunsdon and Mike Unrau are two such architects. Dunsdon founded Verb Theatre in 2008 and is the company’s current co-artistic director. Unrau is the co-artistic director of Theatre Encounter, another relatively new company that showcased its first production in 2007.
Establishing a theatre company often starts when an individual recognizes a need in the community, a gap they believe they can fill. Early theatre pioneers may have blazed the trail, planting a theatre company where there weren’t any to begin with. Those following in their footsteps often refine the trail, helping to make it a rich and varied experience.
Dunsdon started Verb because she thought non-theatregoers found much of the theatre being offered in Calgary to be too esoteric. She wanted to start a company that would make theatre accessible to even those least likely to attend a play. Over time, she admits, the company has incorporated new missions into its mandate, but the original essence remains a guiding principle. Last year, Verb presented a performance featuring actual people who live in poverty.
Unrau saw a different need in Calgary’s theatre community. He saw the opportunity to bring to Calgary a more experimental and edgy performance style. Theatre Encounter presents classic western European literature refashioned and performed with its true essence through provocative language and movement, which Unrau admits can sometimes be controversial.
Both artistic directors set out on their quests eager to accomplish their goals, but their journey has not been without trials.
For Dunsdon, the main challenge is financial.
“Most granting bodies won’t let you apply for at least two years once you are incorporated,” Dunsdon says. “And during that time, you aren’t allowed to apply for individual artist grants either. We’ve had to do a lot of fundraising and we’ve created a lot of partnerships to get through the last two years. A hundred dollars means the world to a small company. A thousand is a dream.”
Unrau says one of his company’s biggest challenges has been finding suitable performance space that is affordable. Theatre Encounter also struggles to sell tickets because they offer very unconventional productions. “People often want to see feel-good comedies,” Unrau says. “Our work challenges convention and social norms, and we feel this is important, so it is taking time to warm people up to seeing something different.”
Those growing pains are often accompanied by small victories along the way. Theatre Encounter is slowly building its audience base despite some initial difficulties. Unrau cites the company’s recent production of Everyman as an example where audiences left the theatre “mesmerized” and speaking highly of the almost entirely movement-based performance that featured only five lines of dialogue.
Dunsdon is walking on air because Sharon Pollock recently received a Betty Mitchell nomination for Best Performance by an Actress in a Musical or Comedy for her role in Verb Theatre’s production of Marg Szkaluba (Pissy’s Wife).
“Sharon’s brilliant. This woman, this legend of Canadian theatre, agreed to take part in this little independent show, having never sung before onstage. And she did it! Two hours! At 75 years of age!”
Those leaps forward and small triumphs are what these companies need to raise their profile and buoy themselves to march onward. Unrau hopes Theatre Encounter will one day be performing not just in Calgary, but across Canada and the world, collaborating with other companies devoted to experimental theatre. Dunsdon hopes Verb will blaze the trail for new cultural trends in Calgary.
“I feel like Verb is at the front of something right now, like we’re surfing in front of a wave. Hopefully in 10 years that wave will have come and we’ll be riding in front of the next one.”