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"Men Express Their Feelings." // Illustration courtesy of Meags Fitzgerald.

Downstage Theatre looks at social issues in new season

By Troy Hasselman, November 5 2019 —

Downstage Theatre — a Calgary-based theatre company, is going to be focusing on some prescient issues in their upcoming season, including safe-injection sites, climate change and masculinity.

The company was founded 15 years ago by Simon Mallett. Over the years, the company has developed a new mandate that focuses specifically on relevant social issues and is doing so through collaborating with community members that are impacted by such issues. The first play to première for the season will be their production of Safe Site on Nov. 16–17. The play tackles the issue of safe injection sites and was made in collaboration with members of the community that have accessed these sites.

“Safge Site.” // Illustration courtesy of Meags Fitzgerald.

“It’s a really important conversation in Calgary,” Downstage Theatre Artistic Director Clare Preuss says. “What was really important to Downstage is that there’s a breadth of participation as far as who is telling the story and who’s making the story. We found a community support group called Grateful or Dead. Grateful or Dead became a real central hub in gathering folks that wanted to participate in this, we would go to their meetings and just talk to people. These are folks that are currently accessing the supervised consumption services, or in the past have accessed supervised consumption services, or are allies that want to support people they love and care about that are accessing these services. We started creating the show over the summer and we had a really cool work-in-progress showing in the park in September. At the end, amongst the participants and public there was a real sense of ‘We need to take this to the next level. We need a full production right away,’ because it’s happening right now.”

When it is performed, Safe Site will not only be performed in the Motel Theatre at Arts Commons but will also be performed in other parts of Arts Commons like offices and meeting rooms. The play will also include aspects of conversation, poetry, music and installation art for a unique theatre-going experience.

“It’s an adventure piece, you get a map and get guided from one experience to the next,” Preuss says. “What’s great is that the people creating and performing it, a lot of times a part of their individual pieces encompasses conversation. Not only are you experiencing a theatre piece, you are asked questions directly. You are able to ask people with first-hand experience of accessing the site what their experiences are of supervised consumption services — they’re very open to talk about their lives and what brought them to different life experiences. It’s full of poetry and song, installation art and conversation. It’s quite an exciting experience and quite unique and very engaged. The core of nine performers are very dedicated and are great at creating and there’s a whole group of professional facilitators working with them.”

“10 Minute Play Fest.” // Illustration courtesy of Meags Fitzgerald.

Downstage will also be participating in two different festivals this season, with the first being the 10-Minute Play Festival which will take place on Jan. 11 at the Grand Theatre in the 20th anniversary season of the festival.

“It’s in the Grand Theatre this year, which is exciting,” Preuss says. “The whole thing sells out quite quickly so it’s packed to the rafters and we’re always highlighting six indie, new, fresh companies and they get 24 hours to create a play from scratch. It’s a 10-minute play, the night before they get a line and a prop. They’re basing their whole show around the line and prop which is based around the theme of the night.”

To close their season in May, Downstage will be participating in The Shakeup which involves a collaboration with University of Calgary Master of Fine Arts Directing candidate Brittany Pack in a performance that will include set design from U of C students. The festival will also include staged readings and plays recorded as podcasts.

“The Shake Up.” // Illustration courtesy of Meags Fitzgerald.

“The Shake Up is exciting,” Preuss says. “MFA Directing candidate Brittany Pack will be directing a play called DJ Jaw Bone and that will be one of the real focuses of the festival because it’s going to be a full production. We’re going to have a live performance at the festival that will be recorded and put in a podcast form so people can listen whenever they want. We have a couple other staged readings, we’re going to do a staged reading of a Dada play in collaboration with newcomers who are coming to Calgary who are artists in their country of origin.Part of that cast are newcomers and part of that cast is folks who have lived in Calgary for a long time. We’re having a sneak peak of Ellen Close’s new play and she’s our playwright-in-residence this year. The cool thing is that you pay one ticket price and you see as much as you can in that day or night so it’s a pretty good bang for your buck. You get to see a lot of new artists, new plays and fresh takes on plays themselves.”

Downstage will also be staging a play that deals with climate change as part of the bi-annual Climate Change Theatre Action event. Downstage will be staging their work Lighting The Way in a one night only event on Dec. 29 that will include staged readings of seven plays and a long table discussion.

“Long table discussions are a really interesting format for people to be able to share and take in each other’s thoughts,” Preuss says. “There’s a long table in the middle of the room and seating around that long table and seating around that seating. You can either sit at the long table or sit at the outskirts, when you’re ready to be part of the conversation you go sit at the table and it’s a very dynamic, physicalized conversation. The idea with these plays is to really focus on what we’re envisioning and what we want for the future and acknowledge where we’re at with climate change. The Plays that we’re going to do are wild. Some are very absurd and really tilt this notion of how we save the planet or if we can or talk about humanity and the species that are populating the planet. It’s definitely a piece that will stir up a lot of conversation, I would love to see young people and university students there engaging in in the conversation and I think it’s going to be a really great night.”

“Lighting the Way.” // Illustration courtesy of Meags Fitzgerald.

In February, Downstage will run the world première of Sunny Drake’s Men Express Their Feelings, a comedy that focuses on themes of masculinity, culture and sexuality within the backdrop of hockey culture.

“Sunny Drake is one of my favourite playwrights,” Preuss says. “He’s hilarious and super-poignant and has a really good way of looking at important social issues with a sense of levity and buoyancy. It’s focused on hockey culture — there are two dads and two sons and their two sons are teenagers on hockey teams and there’s a misunderstanding between the fathers that leads to violence and all four of them are sequestered into a locker room to sort out this misunderstanding. There’s a lot of humor around the two dads even understand what their feelings are and what their emotions are. There’s also talk about what it means to be a leader and if someone is bullied or to be a bystander to bullying. There’s also talk about sexuality in hockey and how people are treated and how women are treated by men in hockey and also how men treat each other if there’s any sexual fluidity within the players. There are a lot of topics that get looked at in 90 minutes and it’s done in a funny, bracing way. We want to stir up conversation but we want it to have enough nuance that everyone is included in that conversation.”

There is a pay-it-forward system for anyone short on cash and wanting to see one of their plays. Downstage gives away up to 25 per cent of tickets for each of their performances and tickets can be secured through emailing them and enquiring about tickets.

“No questions asked — you don’t have to prove your income, you just email us at info@downstageyyc.ca,” Preuss says. “Within a month of the performance being opened, we give away up to 25 per cent of all of our tickets at no costs. You just say ‘I want to see the show, these are the dates I want to see it,’ and if there are still tickets left then we will give you those tickets. You show up the day of the show about 15 minutes ahead of time, and we give you your tickets. You can be any age, there’s no limit.”

Downstage as well has a student ambassador program for any students looking to get involved with the company.

“I think this program is so important for students who have an interest in becoming theatre artists or becoming a part of a theatre-loving community,” Preuss says. “You don’t have to be an artist at all, you can either sign up to be a full ambassador for the season, or on a show-by-show basis if there’s a certain show you’re especially excited about. Your job is to share information about the show on social media or through talking with your friends. There’s other opportunities like ushering and there’s sometimes paid opportunities as well if we want support staff involved in the project. We offer tickets, invitations to opening night and we have a pizza party in December.”

More information about the upcoming Downstage season and tickets can be found on their website.

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