Centre Stage: Building Audiences That Want to Take Chances

Category: stage 134

In our series Centre Stage, Grid City asks Fredericton theatre personalities to help shed some light on the city’s vibrant theatre scene.  This week we hear from Dr. Robin C. Whittaker, Artistic Producer, Theatre St. Thomas.

RobinWBW-2What is your favourite city performance venue?

The Black Box Theatre, hands down. The performance possibilities are endless (we just hosted a ‘blind’coffee house with anonymous off-campus student performers behind a scrim!); we’ve also presented plays by Shakespeare, Brecht, and former STU students Step Taylor and Ryan Griffith. The space has been known as the best studio theatre space east of Montréal for two decades, and with good reason. World premiere and experimental works by STU students and alumni have appeared here, as have productions of modern classics and new works from New Brunswick’s own regional theatre, TNB. The Black Box’s capabilities—always fulfilled by Technical Director exceptionnel Chris Saad—and the space’s special relationship with our theatre community have ranked it among the city’s leading arts venues since it opened in 1994.

Tell us about one production you caught over the past year that stuck with you.

Theatre New Brunswick’s showing of Iranian Nassim Soleimanpour’s White Rabbit, Red Rabbit at the TNB Studio space. The premise—of an unread (by the actor) script that he performs in front of an audience was engaging and often (seemingly) dangerous, particularly when audience participation ensued. It was a clever and daring choice by our regional theatre company and then-TNB artistic director Caleb Marshall to perform (or ‘experience through’). If the actor hadn’t encountered the script before that day, who is really in control of the performed moment?

With a few companies rolling out their coming seasons, what upcoming production is on your radar as a must-see?

I’m looking forward to the Next Folding Theatre Company’s world premiere of STU Alumna Emily Bossé’s Cocaine Plane! Emily has costume-designed the last two Theatre St. Thomas shows for us, and I directed her in Solo Chicken Productions / Theatre St. Thomas’s world premiere of Rabbit-town last June. The public reading of the play last year showed great promise from this emerging Fredericton writer.

Producing a play for the stage presents a number of unique and exciting challenges. Which aspect of production do you enjoy the most?

These days, directing. I started in theatre as a playwright and I became a director out of necessity. I then stopped directing for years and now that I’ve directed five shows in less than four years—Vanceboro (NB Acts / McAdam Railway Station), The Coronation Voyage (TST), Rabbit-town, and The Taming of the Shrew (TST)—I’ve completely reinvented my approach while collaborating with many of our city’s extraordinary talents, on campus and off. That’s what is most important to me: introducing stories that are new to, or are about, New Brunswickers. My position as drama professor at STU and faculty advisor / artistic producer of TST make this possible.

For a small city, Fredericton has a great variety of theatre happening with each of the several companies representing a unique aspect of the city’s theatre scene.  What’s one major challenge you feel every company faces in producing theatre in Fredericton?

It’s not unique to our place or time, but I think the challenge for Fredericton in this decade is to continue to build audiences that want to take chances on new and exceptional works of theatre, while encountering the most thought-provoking works of the past. This is a province brimming with post-Broadway musical theatre in our middle and high schools, so that is what young students and their parents find around nearly every corner. But the most vibrant theatre cultures—from the Greeks and Romans, to Elizabethan and Victorian London, to the Canadian urban centres in the 1970s—prized most highly the relevant new works that speak to local concerns in ways that appeal globally. I think this province has yet to have that moment in a watershed way, even as other provinces did. But make no mistake: the talent has been here for years. At TST, our students are uniquely position in that we can introduce Fredericton to challenging and thought-provoking works that can be linked, for example, to our Drama Production concentration in our English Department (where I teach); we can also support new theatre creators who go on to form their own companies in Fredericton and elsewhere. That we can do so with our Black Box Theatre is one great way to overcome this challenge.

Dr. Robin C. Whittaker, Assistant Professor of Drama, Department of English, St. Thomas University, Faculty Advisor and Artistic Producer, Theatre St. Thomas

Read Robin’s blog at www.stureviews.wordpress.com/

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