I must confess theatre going is a passion for me. I lust after it; I write about it; I review it and sometimes even act in the plays. I only tell this because I thought becoming a juror for the Floyd S. Chalmers Play Awards would be a natural extension for me. I had no idea how much more work it would be because of the criteria for judging used to give out an award to a Canadian playwright, and the extra meetings called, for voting.
The criteria was it must be an original play, produced in metropolitan Toronto for the first time, by any professional theatre organization in Canada, and it must play for at least ten performances. That meant more than 70 plays were eligible, in addition to the hundreds of other plays to be covered for reviews and features. At first glance it meant more pressure because time was an element; some plays would be gone after the ten performances and the Toronto premiere. Actually that turned out to be an advantage, because so many had a brief showing was experimental in nature and might not be recognized under ordinary circumstances. There is no doubt theatre always benefits from new blood, as well as the theatre audiences who tend to bypass the shorter runs.
Jurors have no choice, in order to fulfill their mission; they must see all of the seventy plays. It even became more interesting as we gathered together to vote, and watched the internal jockeying back and forth as many of us disagreed with each other. We really had to justify our decisions, fight for our beliefs, and perhaps make some painful compromises, until the list could be narrowed down to the nominees and finally winners. It got quite tense at times. Knowing this, theatre goers should feel more confident about their choices, since even the "professionals" can disagree so energetically. What is amazing is the process.
I was pleased with most of the choices, because there was formidable competition. It was rewarding to be part of the process that recognized a first time playwright, young Andrew Moodie for Riot. The other three winners were established playwrights and some former award winners. I became most interested in interviewing Andrew Moodie. How did he feel about winning the $10,000 prize for his first play, although he has long been an actor on television and on the stage?
The play was produced by Factory Theatre and directed by Layne Coleman. Riot focuses on the life of six Torontonians sharing a house in the days leading up to the Yonge Street riot after the verdict of Los Angeles police officers who beat Rodney King. Riot was praised by our jury as possessing "crackling energy and a vivid and robust sense of pace." The play also won acclaim during last month's World Stage Festival. I asked Andrew Moodie to describe his feelings about the award and the prize. He told me "I was stunned. I can hardly believe it." He also said he had written the character for himself in Riot that was more emotionally challenging than he thought. He added "It completely exhausted me emotionally. Being both playwright and actor actually made it even tougher" -- and as for the $10,000, all he could think of was paying off his debts. He admits he loves acting more than writing, which can be lonely. However, he felt motivated to use his writing as a sounding board for Canada.
He said: "I have become quite disturbed by comments I hear from other Canadians about whether Canada is worth fighting for. Not only have most people suffered from social spending cuts, but the Arts community has been reeling about cuts to culture and their future. He told me he was born in Ottawa and "I will never stop fighting for Canada. But people must feel part of the decision making, have more input."
He feels his writing can provide a venue for many voices, as he uses different characters to present many sides of an argument. They come across as complex because they come from different backgrounds and life experiences. Now he hopes to do the same thing with another play that will be included in the Factory Theatre's new fall season. Although the title is French, Oui the play is in English and will deal with the repercussions of the recent referendum in Quebec. He feels Canada should remain united, but thinks we may have missed some vital opportunities, some "historical" moments may have been overlooked and he fears we may not get another chance.
It will certainly be interesting to see how his characters play out all the different sides of the referendum question. Winning the Chalmer's Award has also helped Factory Theatre, they have a hot new playwright who will add panache to a deserving theatre. They have struggled hard in their belief in the need to expose new, experimental work as well as that of established playwrights.
According to Artistic Director Michael Springate of Factory Theatre, it has been a tough year with government cuts, having to close for three months as they reorganized. It was a time when even expenditures for soap and toilet tissue were carefully screened, and many of the staff forgave their pay as they worked at other jobs at the same time. Springate states: "It was a bad year, but still most productive and rewarding. Sometimes I felt I had given my life to the theatre, but now I realize the theatre has given me life."
So it is a disturbing footnote to learn two days after the prestigious ceremony for the awards at the Royal Alexandra Theatre, the Chalmers have withdrawn further support. The community was stunned to hear one of the most generous families in the history of Canadian philanthropy had decided to sever their ties with the Ontario Arts Council and the Ontario Arts Council Foundation. The Ontario Arts Council Foundation has administered the huge sums donated by the Chalmers family for over 24 years. Of the Arts Council Foundations' current assets of $12.5 million, the Chalmers family has donated $11 million.
It is with concern and unease we go to press still not knowing about the truth about the many unreported details of the heartbreaking decision. I am sure there will be many talks throughout the next few weeks, hopefully to uncover some of the reasons for this fracture and possibly some chance to heal and make amends.
Certainly we will keep in touch in order to check the rumors that are swirling around the community. This is not the time to repeat unsubstantiated rumors or accusations from both sides. We will keep asking the questions and certainly intend to keep you posted. Now I am truly exhausted and saddened.
In the meantime, the best of luck to all the theatres as they plan for the fall season, with hope. In time, many new benefactors may come forward and strong boundaries will be established to ward off future misunderstandings or lack of communication. Certainly we need to treasure and respect our theatre community and the philanthropists who have willing stood up to be counted. Private giving on every level is vital.