Sunday, November 13, 2011

The Abominable Showman, November 13, 2011

Galluccio (photo: Ricky Tozzi)

The elephant in the room
Playwright and producer Steve Galluccio takes Quebec and Canadian theatre 39 steps forward, and no steps back
by Richard Burnett

It is one of the world’s most popular plays of the last decade, premiering in the U.K. in 2005 to rave reviews before moving on to Broadway in 2008 where it won a couple of Tony Awards. But I suspect some folks in Quebec’s and English Canada’s theatre communities wish nothing but ill on the new upcoming Montreal French-language adaptation of The 39 Steps, a farce adapted from the 1915 spy novel by John Buchan and the 1935 film by Alfred Hitchcock.

That’s because playwright, screenwriter and producer Steve Galluccio – along with his 39 Steps production partners, film producer Denise Robert (wife of director Denys Arcand) and Pierre Marchand – have evidently coughed up a good chunk of their own cash (probably in the tens of thousands of dollars) to produce Les 39 marches without one penny of government money. In Quebec and Canadian theatre so dependent on government cash, this is revolutionary (and Mirvish in Toronto doesn’t really count because they only bring in already-established and often Broadway-bound productions).

So in this depressed global economy where federal and provincial government cultural subsidies are at a premium, a successful Les 39 marches could be a game-changer.

To wit, earlier this year Galluccio told me, “Denise Robert and I saw the play together in New York [in 2010] and absolutely fell in love with it. Our next trip to New York we negotiated the rights for French Canada. So we’re bringing it to Montreal in 2012. We’ve hired our cast and crew, our director is Benoit Pelletier and the translation was done by [theatre veteran and Les 39 marches stage manager] Lucianna Burcheri. We start rehearsals in November [2011] and previews will begin in June 2012.”

Then Steve dropped the bombshell: “We will not be presenting the play as part of a festival or theatre season,” he told me. “We’re doing this on our own, likely in several different theatres. So there is risk involved.”

What kind of risk?

“The reality of doing theatre in New York on Broadway is so different than the reality of doing theatre here where everything is spoon fed to you,” Steve explained. “You get money from the government, you put your play on for four weeks and then you go on to your next play. In New York you have to find investors and it may close after three weeks. There are so many plays that close in New York that it’s such a big gamble for everybody.”

"I would imagine some people would be unhappy if we do indeed succeed."

When I asked Galluccio this week about Les 39 marches being a game-changer, he replied, “I would imagine some people would be unhappy if we do indeed succeed. But we wanted to do this independently without any government funding. That’s been my dream ever since I started in theater because it’s heartbreaking to see a play that’s doing very well at the [Quebec theatre] box office being pulled to make room for the next play. That’s the way it works here and there has to be an alternative way of doing things.”

The run of a successful play in Montreal may, for instance, be extended a few days or perhaps even a week or two. But the reality of tightly programmed subscription seasons is there really is no room for a runaway success. “The only time it worked was with Mambo Italiano [at Montreal’s Centaur Theatre] in 2001 when it was extended for three months,” Galluccio sighs. “But you never see that anywhere [else].”

So Galluccio, Denise Robert and Pierre Marchand have decided Les 39 marches will likely have two weeks of previews in L’Assomption before opening July 4 at the 900-seat L’Étoile Banque Nationale Theatre in Brossard’s massive, glitzy Dix-30 shopping mall in Montreal’s off-island South Shore.

“We’re looking at the New York way of doing things,” Galluccio explains. “So two weeks of previews, then the big premiere and summer run at L’Étoile before moving to a Montreal theatre in August.”

At press time negotiations for a Montreal theatre were still underway.

Cash-strapped governments could tell theatres looking for more handouts, “If they can do it, why can’t you?”

Galluccio continues, “And the 900-seat L’Étoile [in Brossard] is a very intimate, Broadway-style theatre, comparable only to [Montreal’s] Théâtre du Nouveau Monde. It is widely frequented by residents of both Montreal and the South Shore which has a huge population and potential [for theatre]. We also saw in our research that summer theatre does not work in Montreal – and I also don’t consider Les 39 marches to be a summer theatre play – because of the city’s traditional subscription season. If you don’t produce a play within this [subscription] system, you will struggle to succeed in Montreal. Also, many theatregoers from the South Shore are [no longer] coming to Montreal for a night out because of the headaches that entails – traffic [crossing the dangerous Champlain Bridge], endless construction downtown and parking.”

In other words, the new strategy producing and marketing Les 39 marches could be a game-changer. Cash-strapped governments could tell theatres looking for more handouts, “If they can do it, why can’t you?”

“I hope that’s not the case,” Galluccio says. “It would be horrible for them to say, ‘They can live without our money, so can you.’”

Not to mention it would make Galluccio, Denise Robert and Pierre Marchand unpopular in many theatre circles. 

But who cares? Is it not time to reward successful plays with the long extended runs they deserve, and risk-taking producers with the financial windfall of a successful play?

I say bring it on.

Click here to purchase tickets for Les 39 marches (July 4-22) at L’Étoile Banque Nationale Theatre in Brossard.
Final note: I was dazzled at opening night of playwright Yasmina Reza’s hilarious 2009 Tony Award-winning play God of Carnage at Montreal’s Centaur Theatre last week. Superbly directed by Roy Surette, this 90-minute rip-roaring production is about two bourgeois couples who meet to settle a playground scrap between their 11-year-old sons. But their meeting quickly escalates into booze-fueled fingerpointing, insults and laugh-out-loud physical comedy so well-acted that the actors didn’t even flinch when they knew a hard-knock tackle was coming.

But this is what I really want to say:  The solid cast – Mark Camacho, Janine Theriault (who, incidentally, co-starred in the Steve Galluccio-penned 2011 hit film Funkytown) and Marcel Jeannin – is anchored by the incredible Ellen David.  

Now, I’ve never seen David in one of her many television roles (she has been a regular on no less than seven television series and won the ACTRA award for Outstanding Female Performance for her lead role in the 2007 film Surviving My Mother which, by the by, was also scripted by the ubiquitous Steve Galluccio). 

But I have seen David act on stage in several terrific plays – including Mambo Italiano, In Piazza San Domenico, The Carpenter (all at Centaur); The Daily Miracle (Infinitheatre); and Equus (at the Segal Theatre) – and I have never seen her phone it in. After seeing her chew up the scenery in God of Carnage, I could not help but think Ellen David is one of the finest actors of her generation. She is nothing less than a national treasure. Do not miss her in God of Carnage, at the Centaur until December 4.

Click here to purchase tickets for God of Carnage at Centaur
Click here to read Barbara Ford’s interview profile of Ellen David in The Charlebois Post
Click here to read The Charlebois Post’s review of God of Carnage

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