Alberta Theatre Projects

Few existing plays celebrated Canada's history, so ATP commissioned new works. Campbell's The History Show was the first of over 30 such scripts produced in the first four years. When ATP's mandate expanded to include an adult season, commissions for new plays continued.
alberta theatre projects - <em>Playing with Fire</em>
Shaun Smyth starred in Playing with Fire, the Theo Fleury Story (photo Trudie Lee Photography, courtesy Alberta Theatre Projects).
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Meg Roe and Alessandro Juliani in Stephen Massicotte's Mary's Wedding (photo Trudie Lee Photography, courtesy Alberta Theatre Projects).

Alberta Theatre Projects

Alberta Theatre Projects (ATP) was created in 1972 when its co-founders, director Douglas Riske and producer Lucille Wagner, along with playwright Paddy Campbell, envisioned busing school-children to see plays about Canadian history at a historic site. Calgary schools and the federal government backed their dream and ATP became the first Canadian theatre for young audiences to have its own home - the Canmore Opera House in Heritage Park.

Few existing plays celebrated Canada's history, so ATP commissioned new works. Campbell's The History Show was the first of over 30 such scripts produced in the first four years. When ATP's mandate expanded to include an adult season, commissions for new plays continued. Local playwrights whose careers were advanced by writing for ATP in its early years include Campbell, W.O. Mitchell, Sharon Pollock and John Murrell.

As ATP grew, the limitations of the Canmore Opera House began to outweigh its charm. Few theatres have experienced a more dramatic change than did ATP in 1985 when it moved from a 165-seat log cabin to a 450-seat playhouse in the Calgary Centre for the Performing Arts (now the EPCOR Centre). Riske and Wagner advised architect Ian McIntosh in early planning, but in 1983 their posts of artistic director and producer were combined into one job. Michael Dobbin became producing director, and it was he who supervised the move into the Martha Cohen Theatre, named for one of Calgary's outstanding philanthropists. The program for children did not survive the move.

What most distinguishes ATP from other resident professional theatres is its strong commitment to contemporary theatre ("we don't do dead playwrights") and to new works. The first playRites Festival was held in 1987. Led by the artistic associate for play development, Bob White, it is a six-week event, held annually from late January to March. Its centrepiece is four fully-staged productions of new Canadian plays in repertoire. Ancillary events include public readings of plays in progress, many of which go on to the main stage in succeeding seasons, and Brief New Works- performed as free noontime events. Blitz Weekend, during which most events can be seen, attracts theatre professionals and critics from across the country and beyond. It has also become an important catalyst for other new play events in Western Canada (eg, Theatre Network's Nextfest and Workshop West's Springboards in Edmonton, as well as Centre Stage's Festival of Short Plays in Red Deer).

Brad Fraser's Unidentified Human Remains and the True Nature of Love , Sally Clark's Moo, Michael O'Brien's Mad Boy Chronicle and Eugene Stickland's Some Assembly Required are examples of scripts premiered at playRites that have enjoyed productions in other Canadian theatres, in the United States and abroad.

PlayRites Becomes the Country's Largest New Play Festival

In 1997, Alberta Theatre Projects and the Banff Centre combined their programs for new play development. The Playwrights Colony (now playRites Colony), established 1974, brings writers, directors, dramaturges and a resident company of actors to Banff each summer to develop works in progress.

After a dozen years with the company, 1987-99, Bob White, the curator, engine and guiding force of PlayRites, left his "artistic associate" post to become ATP's artistic director from 1999-2009. The decade saw an enhancement in the company's prestige and profile across the country and abroad, as a leading home for the new Canadian repertoire and challenging contemporary scripts from elsewhere. When White left ATP in 2009, his replacement was Vanessa Porteous, long associated with ATP as a dramaturg and director. She is only the fourth artistic director in the company's 40-year history, and the only female. By the end of her 2012/2013 season, the company will have produced more than 350 plays, at least 258 Canadian (74 per cent Canadian content). Since 1987, thanks to PlayRites, at least four productions a season are Canadian premieres, with the rest revealing ATP's decisive bent for the Canadian and its exclusive investment in the contemporary.

By now ATP's PlayRites archive includes the work of such Canadian playwriting stars as Joan MacLeod, Brad Fraser, Linda Griffiths, Colleen Murphy, Wendy Lill, Sally Clark, Sky Gilbert and Guillermo Verdecchia, among many others - close to 100 by the end of the 2012-2013 season. And it has presented, too, the work of such well-known companies as The Ronnie Burkett Theatre of Marionettes, The Old Trout Puppet Workshop, and Crow's Theatre.

Alberta Theatre Projects shares the Epcor Centre in downtown Calgary with Theatre Calgary, which embraces a more typical regional theatre repertoire that includes the classics, and One Yellow Rabbit, a performance theatre company of the experimental stripe.

Further Reading

  • Joyce Doolittle and Zina Barnieh, A Mirror Of Our Dreams: Children and the Theatre in Canada (1979).

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