This is an obituary.
Let me quote Soulpepper’s own company history, a history that traces the progress from a “dream” to “making the dream a reality” to the birth of “a new company”:
Soulpepper Theatre Company began with twelve actors who wanted to explore the great stories of classical theatre and inspire the next generation of artists and audiences. … A few years out of the Stratford Young Company, these actors were craving a return to the classics and saw that there was a void in the Toronto theatre scene. Why in one of the theatre capitals of the world was there not a world class classical theatre company? At a series of boisterous and passionate dinner parties over many months, the foundations were laid to form a theatre company which met that very need.
By opening the season with [Schiller’s Don Carlos], the Soulpepper founders wanted to make clear that they were up for the challenge, ready to tackle even the toughest of texts and make them exciting and engaging for Toronto audiences.
The first season at Harbourfront was a huge success. The critics and audiences raved. Soulpepper had delivered what Toronto audiences were craving.
Fifteen years later, the company enjoys great success in its beautiful venue in the Distillery District. But the dream its website describes in such evocative terms? That dream is over.
The new season, just announced yesterday, may be logistically ambitious. It may be unusual among Toronto companies in not being exclusively driven by brand new work, preferably written by Canadian authors. But what it isn’t is the kind of season “a world class classical theatre company” might put together.
Fifteen plays, not one written before the last century — and no, an adaptation of Dickens’s Great Expectations does not count, even if it features Victorian outfits. And whereas in past years, Soulpepper at least refashioned itself as the home for modern US and English drama in Toronto, with a repertory dominated by Miller, O’Neill, Orton, and Stoppard, with a steady dose of Mamet thrown in for good measure, the new season barely goes near works by playwrights who are no longer among us: good old Joe Orton and Schnitzler are the sole exceptions. Oh, and there’s a mash-up/adaptation of Beaumarchais’s play and Rossini’s opera about The Barber of Seville, to appease curmudgeons like me, I suppose.
Instead, Soulpepper now appears to have reinvented itself as a company devoted primarily to contemporary theatre. They will mount a production of famous intellectual heavyweight Alan Ayckbourn’s trilogy The Norman Conquests and resurrect a little known and unjustly forgotten theatrical masterpiece, Tony Kushner’s Angels in America.
I want to be clear: I do not begrudge Soulpepper their success. I think their training program is a wonderful idea. I continue to admire Albert Schultz’s enterprising spirit and his impressive achievement of bringing together such a talented ensemble in such a lovely venue. But at this point, Soulpepper is basically a smaller version of the Mirvish empire. If the company started out 15 years ago hungry for a challenge and committed to making old texts exciting and engaging, they have now transformed themselves into a largely commercial undertaking offering an extremely conventional, incredibly safe repertory of plays staged with slick production values in polished and entirely conventional performances. I can see how some of next season’s plays will be a logistical challenge; but this is not the repertory of a company keen on challenging either itself or its audience artistically. This is the repertory of a company that wants to sell tickets.
This shouldn’t be upsetting, of course. Making money is a perfectly acceptable goal for a theatre company, after all. And if Soulpepper can do it without staging musicals, more power to them. It’s not the commercialism as such that vexes me. It’s that the new season, and the development leading up to it, merely confirms the extraordinary narrowness of vision that characterizes our theatre scene as a whole.
I have written about this before. I don’t know any other major theatre market that is as radically cut off from the historical roots of the art form as Toronto. If the Toronto theatre scene were an English degree program, our students would read a canon consisting almost entirely of works produced by living and breathing authors, many of whom they would know personally. More than half the professors teaching in this imaginary department would specialize in contemporary Canadian literature; there’d be one or two experts in twentieth-century American and one specialist in modern British literature; and there’d be a Shakespearean. There’d also be a small classics department, staffed by one part-timer. And a course or two, every other year, on contemporary “European” writing. And that would be it. No-one would ever teach or read anything written in the two thousand years between Sophocles and Shakespeare, and no-one would touch anything produced between Shakespeare’s death and the birth of Oscar Wilde. The library would be a wonderful place: airy, uncrowded, and virtually empty.
Perhaps when those Soulpepper pioneers looked at Toronto in the late 1990s, they saw precisely that peculiar landscape: a cultural wasteland with one or two wonderfully well-tended oases. In their own words, they “saw that there was a void in the Toronto theatre scene. Why in one of the theatre capitals of the world was there not a world class classical theatre company?” Unfortunately, now, 15 years later, they seem quite content to leave that void unfilled. And I think that’s a terrible, terrible loss.
(A brief postscript:
Eugene O’Neill is not a classic. Nor is Tennessee Williams. Nor is Arthur Miller. They’re central figures in the canon of modern drama. The fact that staging their plays can be presented as in any way daring is at best a sad testimony to the historical oblivion of the Toronto theatre world.
The problem with all of these modern plays is that they are too new. Many of them are still in copyright. Many of them are owned by estates jealously monitoring performances. You can’t just take A Streetcar Named Desire and play around with it to see what happens. Well, actually, you can elsewhere, but not here. [Do yourself a favour and watch those four clips. I’m not saying they’re successful stagings of Williams’ play — I haven’t seen any of the full productions, so I wouldn’t know. But they illustrate an understanding of theatre that sees familiarity as a problem rather than a benefit. They are all more interested in trying new things and failing than in successfully living up to established models.]
What’s great about actual classics is not that they’re old. It’s that they’re old enough to be available for rediscovery: they are old and difficult and distant and inaccessible enough that they should challenge directors and actors to reinvent them, as radically as necessary, for modern audiences. Classics are classics because they are sufficiently resilient to remain available for such reinvention. It’s not that they speak to us across centuries; it’s that they demand of us that we come up with new ways of making them speak. Respect them, try to serve them, and they die. You can’t be gentle with a classic, nor do you have to be: history isn’t gentle, nor is it respectful. You can’t be well-mannered. Classics don’t call for curators, they call for innovators.
Which is why the very distinction between classical and contemporary, especially in the theatre, is nonsensical. Performance is always contemporary, or it’s meaningless. But if it’s only contemporary, informed only by our own time, connected only to the world around us right now, it’s also thin, rootless, more often than not insubstantial. Classical works challenge us to bridge past and present, other and self, the strange and the familiar, the weird and the comforting.
And right now, our theatres do almost none of that bridging, even when old plays show up on our stages. I think that’s a terrible, terrible shame.)
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