Theatre SKAM and a cast of young people present the award-winning Concord Floral.
JORDAN TANNAHILL is one of Canada’s most exciting and inventive young theatre artists. Winner of the Governor General’s Award for playwriting in 2014, at the age of 26, Tannahill has already built an impressive track record. His plays have been performed across Canada and his video projects have toured internationally including to the 2017 Venice Biennale. Tannahill has also published a book, Theatre of the Unimpressed, that castigates mainstream Canadian theatre and calls for new performance forms. Most recently, he published his first novel, Liminal, that was, in part, inspired by his mother’s struggle with cancer.
I have been a fan of Tannahill’s since meeting him at a playreading event in Toronto. I was moved by his writing for young audiences, especially one of the plays in Age of Minority that went on to receive the Governor General’s Award: rheannaboi95. This play tackles a common topic in Tannahill’s work, that of homophobia and bullying. He is a queer artist and so has understandably been interested in addressing these challenging topics on stage. However, in rheannaboi95 there was no stage; the play was webcast live to audiences who tuned in to catch the one-man performance. The play invited audiences to comment directly in real-time messages to the actor as he portrayed the life of Sunny, a young South Asian-Canadian who has been discovered by classmates posting lip sync videos online. Sunny is proud of his performances of Rhianna’s songs, but has been hiding himself from his family and his peers. The consequences of his actions lead to fear and violence, with an open-ended conclusion that leaves the audience implicated in what happens next in Sunny’s life. The innovative web-based approach appealed to many young people who might otherwise never have had the chance to go to a theatre to see this work.
So it was with great pleasure that I heard that Theatre SKAM will be mounting one of Tannahill’s plays, Concord Floral, in August. While this is not a play for young audiences, it does feature a youth cast. Tannahill was inspired by The Decameron, the 14th century collection of novellas by Italian writer Giovanni Boccaccio. In these works, a group of young people flee the plague and hide out in a villa outside Florence. There, they wait out the Black Death and entertain themselves by storytelling. In Tannahill’s play, the hideout is an abandoned glass greenhouse in a suburban field outside of Toronto. The young people who gather there to party are escaping their various fears of the future, their sexuality, relationships, and the consequences of past actions.
Concord Floral was originally produced in Toronto in 2014 after a three-year development period. In 2015 it won the Dora Award for Outstanding New Play. It has subsequently been produced in Ottawa at the National Arts Centre, at the Vancouver PuSH Festival and as part of the Magnetic North Festival. Every production has a cast of local teenagers, as Tannahill and his collaborators (Erin Brubacher and Cara Spooner) have been adamant that youth performers are required.
Jordan Tannahill and Kathleen Greenfield
This is where Theatre SKAM comes in. Theatre SKAM Co-Founder and Artistic Director Matthew Payne and local director Kathleen Greenfield saw Concord Floral at Magnetic North in Whitehorse in 2016. SKAM is now operating a theatre school program, in which Greenfield teaches the youth classes. When Payne and Greenfield saw the play, they immediately saw it as a great fit for their students and other Victoria youth. As well, it is the kind of site-specific play that SKAM has successfully done many times in the past (in the backs of cars and trucks, at Macaulay Point, and along the Galloping Goose, among other locations).
I got together with Greenfield, with whom I have worked on productions at William Head on Stage, to discuss the play and her vision of the production. Greenfield is a founding member of SNAFU Dance Theatre and has directed a number of that company’s shows (Little Orange Man, Kitt and Jane) as well as Sleeping Giants, the 2016 production at William Head.
I asked her about the appeal of Tannahill’s play. She replies that, for her, the play explores very relevant issues for young people, such as “not having space in adult society and needing a place to be themselves, free of confines.” She tells me that “teens love this play because it’s written in their language and doesn’t shy away from reality.” In fact, the play has become quite popular with young people, even though it is not intended for young audiences. Greenfield tells me of fan groups online who share character portraits and quotes from the play.
She says that her own teenage students at SKAM’s theatre school love the play, “with its blend of surreal and naturalistic elements and its messages about the consequences of bullying.” Characters in the 10-person cast include The Greenhouse, a Fox and a Couch, so the surrealism seems clear. For Greenfield, the play is an opportunity “to explore great writing and to experiment with abstraction. The play is structured like a horror story, in a way, and has shocking and haunting elements.”
The play will be staged on a piece of land near Dockside Green, overlooking Rock Bay. Greenfield hopes that the cast of 10 will surround the audience (who may possibly stand on a revolving platform) with their choral storytelling, and that the lighting may include car headlights coming on as the sun goes down. Her production team includes Patricia Reilly (set), Tori Isaak (lighting), Carolyn Moon (sound) and Pauline Stynes (costumes). The production features a doubled cast of 20, so Greenfield will be working with Assistant Director Kai Taddei. The doubling makes more demands on the production team, with a doubled set of rehearsals, but will free the youth performers throughout the 3-week run to enjoy some time off before school begins again in September. The youth cast are being paid a weekly honorarium and were selected from over 50 young people who auditioned; six of those cast are SKAM Studio students.
I also wanted to hear from Greenfield what she hopes adult audiences might take away from seeing Concord Floral. It seems clear from my reading of the play that one of Tannahill’s intentions is to create an intergenerational encounter. Greenfield agrees, saying, “One of my favourite lines in the play is ‘Life without beauty is unbearable.’ I want adult audiences to really see these young people. I want the audience to see how beautiful these teenage lives are, amongst all the chaos.”
For me, Jordan Tannahill plays a large part in crafting the future of Canadian theatre. His career is one to follow, and the chance to see one of his plays performed in Victoria by Victoria youth is overdue.
Update: The venue for this play has changed. Please see the website below for the latest information.
Concord Floral runs from July 31-August 26 . Tickets are available at www.eventbrite.ca. For more information on this and SKAMpede (July 14-15) go to www.skam.ca.
Monica Prendergast’s newest publication, Web of Performance, a curriculum guide on performance studies intended for youth 16-20, is available for free download or purchase.