Tuesday, January 15, 2013

After Dark, January 15, 2013

The Paradoxes of Canadian Stardom
Canadians have strange attitudes to their celebrities
by Gaëtan L. Charlebois

My significant other is francophone so we watch lots of French-language television. 

If you watch lots of this kind of TV, you will suspect one thing: there are only about five actors in Quebec. You can flip from Radio-Canada to TVA to V and over and over it is the same five actors on every goddamn comedy, drama or soap on the tube. Then you have the talkshows and there they are again. Then you have celeb shows - like La petite séduction and En direct de l'univers - where the stars are actually put on pedestals (the same five stars, I mean). Yes, those stars also play in theatre (in lead roles) and are supported by platoons - armies! - of magnificent performers who, for mysterious reasons, never show up on TV or in movies (where those five actors also dominate). 

So what is the happy medium? I think Soulpepper is damn close. They have their people and the plays seem to work around them (or don't some would argue).

Yes, this is an exaggeration but, sadly, not much of one. Moreover, some of these omnipresent stars have the longevity of Kleenex during flu season: huge to has-been in a flash. 

On the other side of the linguistic divide, I have been told, there is no culture of stars. On TV, actors come and go. Some stick around a bit and develop a following (Allan Hawco, fr'instance...it helps he's a hunk) but TV moves on. It is like we are suspicious of stardom. One AD told me that was one of her problems: because there were no stars, you couldn't hook an audience. Each city, she said, needed stars, especially in theatre, to draw people in. But, at the same time, I have seen stunt-casting that has failed miserably. (Luba Goy in a play at Just For Laughs comes immediately to mind...ouch!) 

So what is the happy medium? 

I think Soulpepper is damn close. They have their people and the plays seem to work around them (or don't some would argue). Way back, actor Helen Hughes captured the attention of Montrealers and Maurice Podbrey at Centaur began choosing vehicles for her (as he had done with Dana Ivey before). But does this compromise theatre - bad plays chosen for good actors/celebs as was the case of the Lunts? I think not - none of our actors can ever dream of being as big as the Lunts. But there is much to be said for choosing actors on an almost equal footing as the choice of material. 

And that's when we call upon playwrights. If a song-writer can create a work for a particular singer when asked by her manager (as Angelil does for Céline), why can't an AD say to a playwright: I'd like you to create a vehicle for this one. This sounds almost sacrilegious to the creative process but I have done it twice to pretty good success: I was asked to write large-cast pieces for theatre schools. In both cases I met the young actors first. In the first case I thought a bit and said, "She's Alice!" And so was born an adaptation of Alice in Wonderland. (Wonderland!) In the other case, after talking to the actors, I realized they were, for the most part, second-generation immigrants and the play became a pastiche of their stories: kids in a country strange to their parents. (Children, Parents and Other Strangers.) 

Since CharPo was founded I have spoken to several playwrights and none of them - astonishingly - have received commissions. Period. Let alone commissions to create vehicles. 

Allow me to provoke a bit. If our ADs are not in the business of nurturing the careers of actors or playwrights...whose careers, precisely, are they nurturing? Are we moving our theatre away from being a community of artists sharing with an audience to a theatre of Doubt, Red, Intimate Apparel, or whatever play six theatres in the country are doing this year - all okay on their own but slightly...removed, if you will.

I posit that by saying that our playwrights and actors aren't worth more than the latest Pulitzer-winner we are saying, quite loudly, stars are a bad thing. Especially ours.


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