Canadian Stage lineup includes Vivek Shraya and Britta Johnson works

Brendan Healy's inaugural season as artistic director shows individuals can make a difference in a divided world


A solo show about pop culture by a groundbreaking trans artist and inspiring works by other bold Canadian and international voices are on the bill in Brendan Healy‘s first programmed season as Canadian Stage‘s artistic director.

“One of the things I wanted to show in putting together the season was that as individuals we can really make a difference in the world,” says Healy, in an interview before this week’s season announcement. 

“So much of the world seems to be operating out of a place of fear, but Canada, and Toronto specifically, seems like a beacon of hope,” says Healy, who was announced as Canadian Stage’s new A.D. last July. “I feel we’re still working out of compassion. As a society we try to make the compassionate choice. And at Canadian Stage, it’s important that we support artists who are doing that.” 

He points to the season’s opener, The Book Of Life (September 17 to 29), Rwandan playwright Odile Gakire Katese‘s collaboration with local director Ross Manson and Volcano Theatre, as an example. 

“Kiki Katese is an inspirational human,” he says. “Not only is she a great theatre artist but she’s an important activist in Rwanda who’s created an all-female drumming circle – typically a male-only activity – that brings together Tutsis and Hutus.”

The Book Of Life is about overcoming the Rwandan genocide, says Healy. “It’s a celebration of life and the human spirit – about forgiving and moving forward.” 

Healy also points to Minorities (October 17 to 27), Chinese choreographer Yang Zhen‘s dance-theatre piece about the social conditions of a new generation of ethnic minorities in China. 

“Yang’s brought these five amazing dancers from various ethnic minorities being persecuted in China, among them Tibet and Mongolia,” says Healy. “It speaks about these young women resisting cultural erasure inside China. And it’s another show that proves individuals really can make a difference.”

Healy, one of the city’s finest directors, is directing just one show in the season, but it’s one he’s especially excited about: the world premiere of How To Fail As A Popstar (February 18 to March 1, 2020), trans artist, author and Polaris Music Prize nominee Vivek Shraya‘s look at finding one’s authentic voice. 

“I’ve admired her for over a decade, and we’ve been wanting to work together for years,” says Healy. “Vivek is totally queer, but the story of the show isn’t necessarily related to that aspect of her. It’s going to bring in an audience that may not have traditionally come to a Canadian Stage show.”

Other highlights include Let’s Run Away (October 31 to November 17), a new solo work reuniting writer/actor Daniel MacIvor and director/dramaturge Daniel Brooks Radical Vitality (February 5 to 9), a series of solos and duets by Montreal’s iconoclastic choreographer Marie Chouinard and Crypto (April 22 to 26), a full-length dance piece by National Ballet of Canada principal dancer/choreographic associate Guillaume Côté.

Kelly V. Kelly (May 15 to June 7, 2020) is a new fact-based musical by Life After composer Britta Johnson and book writer Sara Farb. Healy calls producer Musical Stage Company one of the more solid companies in the city, and composer/lyricist Johnson “a genius, someone who’s going to be the next big Broadway star.”

The Canadian Stage/Studio 180 production of Lynn Nottage‘s Pulitzer Prize-winning drama Sweat (January 14 to February 2), about a steel mill plant, has been programmed to coincide with the closure of Oshawa’s GM plant. 

“In terms of a kind of artistic response to what can happen to a community when something tragic happens, this fits in,” says Healy. “There will be a lot of potential for us to have some important dialogue around that.”

Healy’s also excited to be presenting Susanna Fournier‘s Always Still The Dawn, a double bill of plays about women directed by Liza Balkan and Severn Thompson

“I wouldn’t call Susanna [The Empire Trilogy] an emerging writer, it feels like she’s emerged. But she’s the next big thing, and it’s great when a company like ours can get behind someone like this.”

About the season in general, there’s a lot of dance on the lineup – something Healy’s predecessor Matthew Jocelyn championed. 

“It’s become a feature of the Canadian Stage season, and it’s one I really like,” says Healy. “The combination of theatre, dance and these dance/theatre hybrids like the recent hit Revisor create a great variety and tension for a season.” 

One of the challenges of a company like Canadian Stage has always been its identity. Smaller companies like Obsidian, Nightwood and Buddies in Bad Times, which Healy helmed for six successful years, have a clear audience and mandate. 

“Canadian Stage is a much larger institution than those other companies,” says Healy. “So a really successful Canadian Stage is one that has multiple audiences for multiple communities. If it were only catering to one audience, it would feel dead. The season is programmed by a committee of people, not just one person. I’m bringing forth projects, other people are bringing forth projects, we have vibrant conversations with people from different perspectives. And that’s one of the ways we make sure we’re building a season with multiple dimensions.”

With big changes at major institutions like Soulpepper and Luminato, Healy feels part of a new guard. 

“It’s an undeniably exciting time,” says Healy. “There’s a new openness and spirit of collaboration and curiosity. The expectations people have about their institutions have also changed. Issues of transparency and ethics – it’s a different world right now. That’s for the better. Certain systems and structures have to evolve and change.”

And as for the future of live performance, with more and more people staying at home to binge-watch Netflix shows, Healy is also optimistic. 

“The live experience, the opportunity to be together sharing an experience with others, is more precious than ever,” he says. “What it means is that we as artists have to put that at the forefront of the experience, not take it for granted. A show I directed for Canadian Stage last season, Every Brilliant Thing, illustrated the idea that without the audience the story could not even be told. People weren’t passive receivers, they contributed to the show. I think audiences want to participate, they want to be seen.”

@glennsumi

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