What's Wrong With Canadian Plays?
Howard Sherman, HowlRound.com
Quick, name five modern Canadian playwrights (Canadian natives, put your hands down). Can’t do it? OK, name five Canadian plays that aren’t The Drawer Boy or The Drowsy Chaperone. Having trouble? I bet you are.
I’ve probably seen somewhere in the neighborhood of 2,000 to 2,500 productions in thirty-four years of active theatergoing in the U.S., with occasional trips to England and, yes, Canada. But while I can minimally exceed my own low threshold by citing George F. Walker, Joanna Glass, Michel Tremblay, Morris Panych, Tom Cone and Michael Healy, that’s the sum total of my knowledge of Canadian authors. That puzzles me.
The United States and England may be two countries separated by a common language, but the fact remains that theatrical literature flows fairly freely across the Atlantic, with Irish and the occasional Scottish work thrown in for good measure. If you use theatrical awards as any kind of a yardstick, it’s often hard to tell, based upon nominees and winners in any given year, whether you’re looking at results for The Tonys or The Oliviers. While provincialism may rear its head in certain quarters, there’s no arguing that Miller and Williams are staples of the London stage just as Stoppard and Churchill are revered here—and of course that Shakespeare guy is everywhere, and not just because his works are royalty-free.
But what of Canada? Surely U.S. Customs is not stopping Canadian plays at the border, which seems sufficiently porous to allow U.S. works to make the northbound trek unencumbered. It’s not as if there isn’t a theatrical tradition in Canada (remember that Sir Tyrone Guthrie started the Stratford Festival ten years before founding his eponymously named Minneapolis venture) and thriving theater communities in the major cities of each province. And even if our northern neighbor has mixed English and French heritage, let’s remember that authors as diverse as Samuel Beckett, Marc Camelotti and Yasmina Reza have written their plays in French, all of which have gone on to international success—so language can’t be the barrier.
The love affair between the British and U.S. theater may be rooted in our common heritage, although it’s not as if shows shuttled between the countries constantly since we settled our differences in 1776. But the American stage, which began coming into its own in the early days of the twentieth century, could look to London for a rich, centuries old heritage of authors and actors; a healthy Anglophilia fueled camaraderie. As the glitter of our Broadway evolved the form known as musical comedy, British theatergoers came to love the form as well, beginning a reciprocity that would ultimately expand beyond that particular form. Canada seems to stand outside that mutual admiration society.
It’s not as if Canadian culture has not been embraced by Americans. There are countless Canadian actors who have become big Hollywood box office (some quite venerated, as evidenced by the many awards heaped on Christopher Plummer over the years); Canada’s SCTV and The Kids in the Hall proved as seminal to U.S. comedy and satire as did Saturday Night Live and The Second City; Toronto emerged as a key Broadway tryout town (boosted, no doubt, by a once favorable exchange rate). So where are the plays?
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