Edmonton's Northern Light Theatre turns the big four-0
Liz Nicholls, Edmonton Journal
Published on: October 16, 2015
Northern Light production of Metastasis: Chain of Ruin in 1995. BRIAN GAVRILOFF / Edmonton Journal file
Lordy Lordy look who’s …
The spirited little theatre that turns 40 this season, mysteriously unwrinkled by time, is in many ways Edmonton’s most surprising company. No other theatre in town has reinvented itself as radically, or as often, through its decades as Northern Light. No theatre has vaulted (or wiggled) free of its audience niche, its mandate, its esthetic — or its logo (there have been five) — so many times, through boom and famine.
For that matter, what other theatre company in town has ever been given a prize cow as a gift? Mooley, a calm stage presence judging by blurry archival evidence, was a present from writer Cora Taylor in 1981.
En route to its striking current identity as the theatre of “the exciting, the unusual, the plays that don’t reach our country or our language,” as artistic director Trevor Schmidt puts it, Northern Light has shed its skin again and again. At times, a company of outdoor Shakespeare and Shaw has become a theatre of the modern European repertoire in translation. It’s veered from mainstream musical revues like Jacques Brel and Piaf to “artist-driven” performance art, from literary adaptations to multimedia dance creations.
Northern Light’s origins were both modest and distinctively odd, a lunchtime theatre in the Edmonton Art Gallery basement (tickets: a buck). Its quartet of founding parents — West Coast actors Scott Swan and Allan Lysell along with thespian sisters Angela and Merrilyn Gann — had arrived in town, intrigued by news of an Edmonton theatre phenom. As Swan says, “we’d heard that John Neville was doing amazing things” in an ex-Sally Ann citadel downtown. He was. They stayed.
Northern Light’s official naming happened at a “spiritual retreat,” as Swan has said wryly, in the basement lounge of the Greenbriar Hotel. Northern Light’s debut production, Love and Drollery, was an original concoction of Elizabethan love songs and poems. The Journal critic of the day recorded the event, somewhat equivocally, as “a lulling mix of speech and song in praise of the lusty Elizabethans.”
Northern Light Theatre production: Love and Drollery, starring Scott Swan and Merrilyn Gann.
Four years later, Edmontonians were watching their first Shakespeare-in-the-park, under a big striped tent on a hill in the river valley, with a dramatic upstage view of the city skyline. And the little company, which regularly sold out the tent in 13-production seasons, was attracting not only hungry young up-and-comers — like Paul Gross, who got his first pro gig in NLT’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream — but the bona fide stage stars who mentored the ensemble. “We held each others’ hands and jumped,” says Swan, who maintains that “it would have been impossible for us to do what we did any place else.”
The buzz was with them. Ann Casson, in town for Back to Beulah, stayed to star in George Bernard Shaw’s Saint Joan at Northern Light, directed by her husband, Stratford star Douglas Campbell. “Shaw had written the part for Ann’s mom Sybil Thorndike,” says Swan, still struck by the startling synchronicity of talent at the time. “And Ann had met Shaw!”
Swan’s stage version of Arthur Kopit’s Wings, arguably the highest-profile Edmonton production of the period, starred Casson. It toured the country. Playwright Frank Moher was lured from his Theatre 3 “playwrights’ colony” gig by Swan. “I asked him ‘are you happy with the ratio of Canadian plays?’ He said no. I offered 50 per cent Canadian work, 50 per cent ‘other’.”
The Citadel and Northern Light collaborated on cross-promotion. “When John Neville was doing Pygmalion, we did The First Night of Pygmalion,” says Swan, who runs an actors’ studio SeaCoast in Vancouver these days, and is often in town to work with the theatre kids at Victoria School of the Arts. “They did Brecht’s Caucasian Chalk Circle; we did Brecht on Brecht. … A wonderful time! Good work breeds good work. In retrospect, I see Northern Light as a school for artists, a way for our artists’ muscles to grow and develop.”
The Northern Light identities that followed were a study in contrast. Jace Van Der Veen’s six seasons in the ’80s ricocheted from The Bacchae to Hedda Gabler to a bio-show about Judy Garland. And there were collaborations: Northern Light produced A Prairie Boy’s Winter in conjunction with the Art Gallery’s William Kurelek exhibition, for example. When the Kaasa Theatre opened downstairs at the Jube in 1982, it was with a joint Northern Light/ Phoenix production of The Importance of Being Earnest (with Walter Kaasa in drag as Lady Bracknell).
Enter Gyllian Raby from Calgary’s adventurous experimental troupe One Yellow Rabbit in 1988. Northern Light did a sharp left into the multimedia realm, in cahoots with visual artists and musicians (The Treacheries of the Blue Angel, Plutocrats, The Corporate Nightmare of Rembrandt Brown). When they did a classic, it was a Brad Fraser/ Geoffrey Hirschfield adaptation of the Jacobean gorefest The Revenger’s Tragedy. Raby’s own high-profile dance/theatre adaptation of the Ray Bradbury novel Something Wicked This Way Comes toured the country.
In his five-year regime in the ’90s, D.D. Kugler took NLT out of formal theatres and into dusty warehouses, like the old Bus Barns (Gordon Pengilly’s Metastasis), or an empty Commerce Place warehouse vault lit by candles and the street lights outside (Vern Thiessen’s Blowfish). The Kugler Northern Light was the out-there theatre in town, cerebral and challenging, more interested in creation than production (one year they did only one show). Schmidt, who arrived from Calgary and got a gig in the cast of Kugler’s Women Beware Women, remembers the period as “an exciting shift toward the sexy, dangerous, and dark” qualities that thread their way into his own programming.
By the time Schmidt inherited the company in 2002, from Sandhano Schultze who arrived from Vancouver’s Pink Ink, he’d been “involved with Northern Light for nine years, in many capacities” — acting, directing, designing, writing. “Sandhano kept it edgy and dark; he did weird and unusual things, Urban Tales, The Carnival of Souls … a Euro-sensibility,” says Schmidt.
For the last 13 seasons, Schmidt has startled Northern Light audiences with plays by playwrights they’ve never heard of, from around the world. He’s taken these “obscure little pieces from elsewhere,” he’s fleshed them out, and reinvented them for here, in both design and references. Ride, by Australian Jane Bodie, is one; Schmidt relocated it from Melbourne to the club scene of Whyte Avenue. Similarly, he Canadianized the New Zealand white/Maori dynamic of Mo & Jess Kill Susie.
The Down Under playwrights “tend to the dark, interesting, quirky … right up my alley,” says Schmidt of his fondness for plays that start out funny and end up sad. “Happy endings are such a departure for us.”
“When I took over, Northern Light was struggling to find its place in the community, in the theatre ecology here. I’d say it hadn’t grabbed its identity fully. We’ve needed both to distinguish ourselves, and to fit in,” he says, of a company that in his time has regularly repaired to the intimacy of the 70-seat PCL Studio Theatre in the ATB Financial Arts Barns. “Naked is different when it’s two feet away,” he laughs. “It’s about risks. If it’s uncomfortable to look, but you can’t look away, well, excellent!”
Northern Light may have hit the big four-0 but a milestone birthday hasn’t exactly made it cautious about stepping off the curb. “We’re the edgiest company in town,” says Schmidt. “We do shocking, dark, often funny (work), controversial in style or subject. It’s not our focus to grow the company huge; we’re a niche market.”
His favourite audience response? “Well I’ve never seen anything like THAT!”