Saturday, October 27, 2012

Theatre For Thought, October 27, 2012

joel fishbane

About ten years ago, I wandered into a production of Company, Stephen Sondheim and George Furth’s seminal musical that was hailed as the first plotless musical. It was electric, so much so that the following week I went back to the theatre, stood in the cancellation line and scored a ticket after someone’s date didn’t appear. A decade later, it remains one of the most engaging productions of Company I’ve ever seen. 

So who was behind this theatrical miracle? A regional theatre? Some scrappy independent company? Actually, it was McGill Players' Theatre, McGill University’s student-run theatre company. That’s right: one of the best productions I saw in fifteen years of Montreal theatre was produced by a bunch of twenty year olds, most of whom have gone on to become doctors, lawyers and aging hipsters with degrees they never use.

sitting in that theatre, I was caught up in the infectious joy of the cast

I was reminded of this show last week when once again I ventured to see Company on the third floor of the Student Services Building (colloquially known as the Shatner Building, named for that famed McGill grad, William Shatner). While fairly strong, it wasn’t nearly as good as its predecessor (but kudos to actress Zara Jestadt, who nailed the role of the acerbic Joanne). Nonetheless, sitting in that theatre, I was caught up in the infectious joy of the cast. Company is over forty years old, but for these students it was something new.

McGill has no theatre program – the English department puts on a few shows, but most of the theatre comes from student-run groups like Players' Theatre. This means you don’t get Theatre School Theatre, which is generally theatre more concerned with educating the students than engaging an audience. Every time I go to see a show at McGill, I am struck by the energy of the students. Having discovered the joys of Company – or Waiting for Godot, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf or any number of classics – they seem excited for the opportunity to share it with the world.

My experience with McGill theatre hasn’t just been spent in the audience; once upon a time, I produced three plays at McGill, all while I was an undergrad at Concordia (how an undergrad at Concordia produced plays at McGill speaks a lot to the failings of Concordia’s theatre program in those days, but that’s another story). I cut my proverbial teeth at McGill, producing and directing three plays which I had written myself. 

they approached the stage with the abandonment that comes from knowing it might be for the last time

Many of those actors are today’s doctors, chemists and graduate students. They loved theatre – they simply didn’t decide to make it their careers. Yet they remain some of the finest performers I ever worked with. They were devoted to the work and approached it with wonder and zeal. I don’t pretend this is because the scripts I gave them were so fantastic; rather, the students seemed to understand that after university, they probably would never act again. And so they approached the stage with the abandonment that comes from knowing it might be for the last time.

There was a time when all professional artists were like those students at McGill. Full of passion and wide-eyed optimism, we all thundered onto the stage craving nothing but the roar of greasepaint and the smell of the crowd. Then we moved into the real world and became caught up in the frustrations of the artistic life. Ever cynical, we now complain about the lack of work, the hiring practices, the unions, the scripts, our co-stars. We whine about who's getting attention and who's not getting attention even as we work four different jobs in a quest to pay our mortgages, insurance payments, day care fees and therapists.

No one can fault us for this: it’s one of the consequences of growing up. But one of the reasons I adore McGill Players' Theatre is that they show me the portrait of a Joel as a Young Man. We should always approach the stage as if it were the last time. We were not forced into this life; we chose it. And it’s always nice to be reminded why.

1 comment:

  1. This is a lovely piece, but FYI it is Players' not Player's and McGill DOES have a drama and theatre major.


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