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Photo courtesy Ghost River Theatre and the cast of Window

Calgary’s surrealist theatre celebrates 25 years

By Thomas Johnson, April 10 2018 — 

Ghost River Theatre (GRT) is celebrating its quarter-century mark on April 13 at the West Village Theatre. Founded by Doug Curtis as an ad-hoc theatre troupe in 1992, GRT became a syndicated group in 1999. In the years following, the troupe toured around the world thanks to the raving acclaim they received for the mind-bending nature of their art. GRT has produced 39 original productions since ’92 and, under eight years of Curtis’s leadership, established itself as a progressive, surrealist alternative to traditional theatre.

Curtis created Eye For An Eye in 2001, a musical about Wiebo Ludwig, an Albertan vigilante oil activist. Wiebo, who was impressed by the play, invited the crew up to his farm for a luncheon near Hythe, about 500 kilometres northwest of Edmonton. Curtis, in turn impressed, wrote yet another play about Wiebo and their picnic. It was aptly titled Picnic. Due to his waning health, Curtis sadly stepped down in 2007. The theatre’s 25th birthday party will be a means of honouring his legacy and impact on the success of the company.

“In some ways it was a sad departure and in some ways Doug left an incredible legacy,” says GRT artistic director Eric Rose.

After Curtis’ resignation, Jason Rothery took the reigns and helped establish an updated model ensuring a prosperous future for GRT. In 2009, leadership switched to Eric Rose and David van Belle, whose co-direction yielded some of GRT’s most astonishing work. Notable pieces include The Highest Step In The World (2010), a solo act that integrated suspension technology and video projection to weave three narratives into a visionary whole. Another highlight was The Last Voyage of Donald Crowhurst (2014), a sprawling epic focusing on the titular sailor, whose harrowing attempt to circumnavigate the globe ended in tragedy. Rose points to GRT’s warped, psychedelic depiction of Crowhurst’s downfall as his proudest moment at GRT and anticipates their next large-scale project, GIANT, which is based off Andre the Giant’s towering mythos.

As for GRT’s future in general, Rose is optimistic. Financial struggles are an occupational norm for theatre groups across Canada, though GRT accepts these obstacles readily and are poised to tackle them.

“As artists, it’s our job to persevere and to figure out how to do what we do best with our resources and to lobby for those resources,” Rose says. “Who the hell doesn’t need art? It’s how we connect with each other. It’s about challenging what it means to be a Calgarian and what it means to live in this city.”

The anniversary festivities will be highlighted by music from around Calgary, reenactments of pivotal scenes from their wide oeuvre, tastes, congratulations, dance and a large, furry easter egg familiar to those who attended GRT’s occupancy here at the University of Calgary.

“I think too often we pass these anniversaries off and maybe shy away from celebrating something that’s significant,” Rose says. “The Canadian theatre and culture community isn’t really that old — 70, 75 years old — and that Ghost River, a not-for-profit theatre company, has been able to create a significant body of work over that time and invite and offer authentic theatrical experiences to Calgary, is definitely something that needs celebrations.”

Ghost River Theatre’s 25th anniversary celebrations will be held at the West Village Theatre on Friday, April 13 at 6:30 p.m. Find more information at their event page here. Hugs as well as donations are accepted at the door.

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