You can say this about Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre artistic director Kelly Thornton: She is not afraid of Virginia Woolf.
A certain amount of fear is to be expected in the theatre world just now. So in announcing a new season, emerging from the long, dark shadow of the COVID pandemic, Thornton must answer the question: How do you balance being cautious and bold at the same time?
The answer is that you try to be logistically safe while taking artistic risks.
For a beleaguered theatre community, it’s been more than a year of cancellations and pivots and optimism and… crushed optimism. So, in one sense, Thornton is exercising abundant caution by stalling the season into a late November start, a slot that typically sees RMTC’s second, holiday-themed show taking to the mainstage. Also, RMTC is jettisoning a homegrown Warehouse season altogether in favour of two presentations from other companies in 2022.
"This season has been carefully considered and crafted around safety," Thornton says in a phone interview.
The later start? Hey, at least it’s a start.
"I have colleagues that are planning a January 2022 beginning," she says. "But we’re hopeful. Broadway is talking about opening in September.
Thornton acknowledges trepidation about the current state of climbing COVID-19 numbers during Manitoba’s third wave, but says, "We’re seven months out, so this announcement is putting a stake in the ground. Obviously we’re very hopeful but also really realistic about we are going to adhere to whatever public health guidelines are in place at that point."
She points out that the season doesn’t include any musicals or any works with large cast sizes, which would be challenging to mount under existing health protocols.
"We need to make sure we are safe with our audiences and with our artists in our rehearsal hall. It’s been really, really carefully considered."
The bold/safe paradox manifests itself in the very first production of the upcoming 2021-22 season.
(Nov. 25-Dec. 18), a stage adaptation of Virginia Woolf’s novel by Sarah Ruhl, directed by Kelly Thornton.
First published in 1928, Orlando is a fanciful story of a poet who changes sexes from man to woman and lives for centuries, from Elizabethan England to Woolf’s own early 20th century. It is also a surreptitious love letter from Woolf to friend, lover and fellow author Vita Sackville-West.
Considering Thornton’s first programmed — and cancelled — holiday show was the ultra-traditional musical The Sound of Music, a gender-fluid journey through centuries of English literary and social history seems like a radical departure. But be assured, it is, in its way, a "romp."
"A lot of the shows that I have programmed this year are about making people laugh," she says. "We need to laugh because we’ve had a hard time and it’s an incredibly witty piece. But it’s also got a lot of meat on the bone. It’s got a lot of wit and wonder.
Thornton says of the main reasons she’s using Orlando as the season debut for audiences is that it requires a lot of stage magic and theatrical imagination that deliver the thrills unique to live performance.
"One scene will rise and then evaporate and then another scene will pop up," she says. "It requires a lot of innovation and excitement, in terms of design. I think the audience needs to be reminded the live theatre is not the same as sitting on your couch and watching Netflix, or even watching a digital performance.
"Live theatre has the capability to take an audience’s breath away with the magic that they see onstage," she says. "That’s the thinking of putting it first."
The Lifespan of a Fact
(Feb. 10–March 5), by Jeremy Kareken & David Murrell and Gordon Farrell, based on the book by John D’Agata and Jim Fingal, directed by Audrey Dwyer
The real-life debate between a magazine fact-checker and a celebrated essayist lasted years. In this theatre adaptation, it takes place over five days as a deadline approaches.
"So there’s a super-heated sense of urgency," says Thornton. "It really unpacks a writer’s responsibility to truth.
"How far can you embellish in order to suit your artistic needs as a writer without betraying the truth all together? It’s great because it’s super-funny and super-smart."
(March 24-April 16), by Audrey Dwyer, directed by Sarah Garton Stanley
A co-production with Canada’s National Arts Centre, this play by RMTC’s associate artistic director Audrey Dwyer is the sole mainstage survivor of Thornton’s first programmed season.
The comedy centres on Julie, a black filmmaker at work deconstructing the racist assumptions that lie beneath Harper Lee’s novel To Kill a Mockingbird, especially as they pertain to the fictional Finch housekeeper, Calpurnia.
"But we show Julie has herself grown up in privilege. Her father is a judge, her brother is a lawyer, and their nanny and housekeeper are a reflection of Calpurnia and Julie doesn’t see it.
"It’s quite outrageous," says Thornton of the 2018 show, which she produced in Toronto at her former company, Nightwood Theatre. "It’s such an amazing, explosive comedy: race, class and gender, all colliding in this household. I feel like Audrey has revealed some uncomfortable truths with some hilarious situations."
The Rez Sisters
(May 5-28, 2022), by Tomson Highway, directed by Tracey Nepinak
After hosting a digital performance of the Manitoba-born Highway’s one-person musical The (Post) Mistress just last month, Thornton programs Highway’s most produced play to end the mainstage season. The story of eight women on a road trip from the Wasaychigan Hill Indian Reserve to Toronto — and the "world’s biggest bingo" — will represent the biggest cast of the season, populated with a Who’s Who of homegrown Indigenous actors, if director Tracey Nepinak has her way.
"Tracey is very interested in doing a Manitoba version, really leaning into local talent to tell that story," says Thornton. "And she’s got some great ideas of who to cast."
As for presenting two Tomson Highway plays in successive seasons, Thornton says it’s due, especially since the play hasn’t been produced on an RMTC stage since 1987.
"Thompson is one of the most celebrated playwrights in the world, so I want to celebrate his voice," she says. "So it’s going to be a big Manitoba celebration, a kind of coming-home story."
During the pandemic, the space at the Warehouse has been converted to a digital studio space, and for the remainder of 2021, it will stay that way.
"It’s been a real gift to the community," Thornton says.
But next year, it will see two "presentations" from visiting theatre companies. Sea Sick (March 3-19), written and performed by Alanna Mitchell, is presented by Toronto’s the Theatre Centre. Addressing the crisis facing the world’s oceans, the play in the centrepiece of Thornton’s second iteration of the Bridge: A Festival of Ideas, this time addressing the theme "Our Only Earth."
The inaugural Bridge streamed online in March on the theme of "Art and (Re)Conciliation" and was curated by Kim Wheeler, an Anishinaabe/Mohawk writer and producer, who will returning as festival curator next year.
"Sea Sick is an incredible piece, so we’re putting it as the anchor production," Thornton says. The Bridge runs March 3-6 in 2022.
Also playing at the Warehouse is The Runner (March 31-April 16), another holdover from Thornton’s originally planned first season at the Warehouse.
Scripted by by Christopher Morris, it’s about an Israeli ZAKA volunteer (a member of an emergency response team) who, in a moment of crisis, opts to save the life of a Palestinian suicide bomber instead of a soldier, and finds his life changed. It was the winner of the Dora Mavor Moore Award for outstanding new play in 2019.
"It’s a really exquisite piece of theatre," says Thornton. "It really confronts the question of: Why are we so divided? Can we not heal those divisions?"
In a way, Randall King was born into the entertainment beat.