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    How history haunts the theatre


    Monica Prendergast

    Echos of past performances reverberate through the years in our theatre spaces.

     

    THIS FALL TOOK ME TO GREECE for the first time. There, at the Acropolis in Athens, I found myself standing in the ruins of the Theatre of Dionysus. This amphitheatre—perched downhill from the Parthenon and other temples that sit on a plateau overlooking Athens—is where Western theatre began. It was there that the great plays of Aeschylus, Euripides, Sophocles and Aristophanes competed in the theatre festivals of the 4th and 5th century BC. The plaque mounted at the entrance to the open ruin told me that at one time statues to the great playwrights stood here as testaments to their great works. I found myself moved to tears walking through and photographing this space. To say it felt sacred to me may seem an overstatement, yet I suspect that anyone who has devoted their life to the theatre would feel the same way.

    There is a remarkable quality of haunting that happens in the theatre. I felt haunted by the presence of those playwrights and actors who first stood onstage at Dionysus. It was there that an actor stepped out of the chorus for the first time to embody a character. It was there that playwrights began to write dialogue rather than a choral narrative, pitting character against character and creating what we call dramatic tension and dramatic action.

     

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    Theatre of Dionysus, Greece, where Western theatre began

     

    I first learned about this theatre space 40 years ago in Theatre 100 at the University of Regina at the age of 17. To finally stand in this space was a timeless feeling of moving full circle through my life, from that starting point as a theatre student until today, as a professor of drama and theatre education, a theatre reviewer, columnist and occasional actor.

    This fall also marks 20 years since my family and I moved from Toronto to Victoria. I have been going to the theatre, and making theatre, in this city over these 20 years. To mark this anniversary, I want to consider in what ways I’ve been haunted by theatre in this city.

    The Belfry Theatre is a converted church, and a beautiful theatre space. During the years that I facilitated the Belfry 101 audience education program, many actors would tell my students how much they enjoyed performing in this intimate space. I recall some fine work seen on this stage, and some that was less than perfect. My memory takes me back to some of the productions that moved me most: watching the great Nicola Cavendish in Michel Tremblay’s homage to his mother, For the Pleasure of Seeing Her Again; or Jenny Young performing Joan MacLeod’s solo play The Shape of a Girl that was provoked by the murder of Victoria’s Reena Virk (and how the audience held the space for her so movingly that night); seeing Celine Stubel taking on leading roles many times and enjoying being able to witness her growth from ingénue to leading lady; appreciating a moment in former artistic director Roy Surette’s direction of Michel Marc Bouchard’s The Coronation Voyage when a character drops a book from one level up into another character’s arms below that was laden with metaphor and meaning put into action; grasping how well artistic director Michael Shamata sees the stage in three dimensions and moves actors within that space with such ease; grumping occasionally when the programming was not to my taste, but always respecting the high level of professionalism in evidence.

    Another theatre that offers haunting memories to me is Langham Court Theatre. This historic space is said to have its own ghost! I have performed at Langham twice and seen many shows over the years. It was at Langham that I first saw Arthur Miller’s play All My Sons and was quietly devastated when the protagonist speaks the title late in the play. His words, “They were all my sons,” reflects his guilt in sending out faulty airplane parts during World War II that led to the deaths of a number of pilots, including the likely shame-induced suicide of his own son.

    It was also at Langham that I have seen musical productions of an impressively high quality—The Drowsy Chaperone, Urinetown, and Cabaret, among others. Langham has also given me the chance to see plays such as Elizabeth Rex and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead that I have read but never seen performed. And for me, personally speaking, it has allowed me to perform in two plays in which the central characters are sisters: Dancing at Lughnasa by Brian Friel and Les Belles-Soeurs by Michel Tremblay. I am the oldest of four sisters, so plays about sisters have always held great appeal. They are a good way for me to exorcise any ghosts that may linger in my subconscious around growing up in a household of girls.

    The theatre spaces at the University of Victoria’s Theatre Department also offer me memories, as both a student and a theatregoer. I appeared in two Phoenix productions during my graduate studies, both performed in the Roger Bishop proscenium theatre (Glace Bay Miners’ Museum by Wendy Lill and The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui by Bertolt Brecht). Each production offered me the chance to work on stage with talented acting students, many of whom have gone on to have successful professional careers. I knew, for example, that Meg Roe was destined for success when I appeared as her mother in Wendy Lill’s play. Roe, then 19, was a force to be reckoned with even at that young age; she was seen here last season when the Belfry brought in the touring production of Onegin. Another cast mate, Jay Hindle, has also worked consistently in the profession, most often in Vancouver at the Arts Club or Bard on the Beach. It is not surprising that every time I walk into the Bishop, I am haunted by these lived experiences. I have yet to work in the University’s Chief Dan George “thrust” theatre space, but once I do, my memories will linger there as well.

    Other theatre spaces that offer me the layered sense of history whenever I enter them include the Metro Theatre and Theatre Inconnu. I still recall the Metro in its early days of being run by Intrepid Theatre, when the basketball marks on the floor of this former gymnasium were still visible. It was exciting to see a new theatre space developing in Victoria, especially in the wake of the sad loss of Kaleidoscope’s Herald Street Theatre not long after I moved here. I was impressed with Janet Munsil and Ian Case’s determination to create a viable Downtown performance space. So many local and touring productions have made use of this space. My memory is marked by seeing Tim Crouch’s remarkable An Oak Tree, or Marcus Youssef and James Long’s fascinating and challenging duel of masculinity Winners and Losers, or the amazing puppet master Ronnie Burkett’s Daisy Theatre.

    Finally, a shout out to Clayton Jevne’s Theatre Inconnu. I have followed this small theatre company during its move from Market Square to Fernwood and then through the years at Little Fernwood Hall when columns created staging challenges in the black box space. Finally, the hall is column-free and Jevne still programs eclectic seasons of plays from here and around the world that always invite me to recall what else I’ve seen in that space, and how these hauntings resonate with what is on offer tonight.

    So the gift of theatre keeps giving, over time and space, from the Theatre of Dionysus to the stages of Victoria. Here’s to the next 20 years of memories made, on and off the stage.

    Monica’s latest book, Web of Performance, is available as a free ebook through the University of Victoria Library.

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