This is a column in praise of weird-ass shit. That is, if weird-ass shit means the kind of programming Matthew Jocelyn has brought to Canadian Stage. The phrase was used by Soulpepper artistic director Albert Schultz in a July Globe and Mail article that noted how his company has supplanted Canadian Stage as the best-attended not-for-profit theatre in Toronto. Schultz suggested that in tough economic times, safer fare—like Soulpepper’s revivals of classic plays—was the way to woo an audience. “The way not to get them,” he said, “is to do weird-ass shit.”
Whether Schultz intended that as a swipe at Jocelyn, most people read it that way. In which case, it would be yet another unjustified jab at the Canadian Stage boss, who has been taking heat for his “weird” choices ever since he launched his first season in 2010. The truth, however, is that Jocelyn hasn’t been foisting avant-garde experiments on his audience—he’s been dragging the company into the 21st century.
The “weird-ass shit” he’s presented has been largely the work of major, mature Canadian creators like Robert Lepage, Marie Chouinard, Peter Hinton, and Atom Egoyan. Their art was avant-garde 20 or 30 years ago. That Canadian Stage audiences have been discombobulated by it speaks not to Jocelyn’s bizarre tastes but to the company’s severe creative atrophy when he took it over. Originally Toronto’s version of the all-purpose Canadian regional theatre, by the start of the millennium, CanStage had lost most of that purpose. It had become Can’t Stage. Soulpepper was doing the classics—and, with the benefit of a repertory company, doing them better. Tarragon, Factory, and Passe Muraille were developing new plays. The Mirvishes had the lock on Broadway/West End musicals. Canadian Stage was just good for mounting local versions of hit plays from New York and London—hardly an inspiring mandate.
When Jocelyn revealed his new vision for the company, he seemed to be on the right track. Although he’d spent most of his career in Europe, the Toronto native was well aware of the exciting stuff happening in Canada that flew below or above regional theatres’ radar. This country has some of the world’s most imaginative theatre-makers, yet Canadians seldom get to see them outside of a festival context. Jocelyn took his theatre’s Bluma Appel mainstage, a Broadway-sized cavern that can swallow your average small-cast play, and gave it over to dance troupes like Chouinard’s and theatre artists who paint on a large scale, like Lepage, Hinton, and Vancouver’s The Electric Company.
Indeed, Electric Company and its visionary co-director Kim Collier are the standard bearers for the kind of brave new theatre Jocelyn is offering his subscribers. Their shows Studies in Motion (2010) and Tear the Curtain! (2012) were accomplished fusions of drama, dance, photography, music, and film. They provided as big a wow factor as a Broadway mega-musical and, while a bit more intellectually challenging, were still accessible.
True, Jocelyn’s tenure so far has seen a few flops. Egoyan’s Cruel and Tender and Hinton’s Saint Carmen of the Main, in particular, were big disappointments. But those were failures of ambition, not complacency. He hasn’t completely abandoned Canadian Stage’s reliance on London and New York hits, either, or the occasional foray into celebrity stunt-casting. But even on that score, he’s favoured more daring fare. This season, he’s giving us London Road, an innovative musical-slash-documentary about the Ipswich serial murders that proved a big hit at Britain’s National Theatre, and Venus in Fur, David Ives’s Tony-nominated spin on Sacher-Masoch’s BDSM classic.
The work we’re seeing at Canadian Stage right now may be unconventional, but that’s something to celebrate, not denigrate. And as Albert Schultz well knows, what you call weird-ass shit today could be a classic tomorrow. After all, Soulpepper recently mounted successful revivals of Samuel Beckett’s Endgame and Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, both of which were real mind-benders when they first appeared half a century ago. Soulpepper may be ahead in the numbers game, but it’s had 15 years to build a solid reputation. In just three seasons, Matthew Jocelyn has taken Canadian Stage from irrelevance to the cutting edge. Now he needs his audience to catch up.