Volume 96, Issue 87
Friday, March 14, 2003

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London theatre sparked by renaissance

By Maggie Wrobel
Gazette Staff

When Gord Downie of The Tragically Hip sang, "Bring on a brand new renaissance, 'cause I think I'm ready," he could have been talking about London's newly revitalized theatre scene.

With established companies like The Grand Theatre and the London Community Players, The Forest City has been home to a tradition of quality theatre for decades. However, in the past, these theatre companies often played it safe by staging dramas and musicals that had been performed many times before.

All of this changed in 1998, with the creation of several production companies that were determined to bring "alternative" theatre to London. Groups such as Theatre Soup, Ausable Theatre, three black ring and Theatre Nemesis (among others) celebrate their fifth anniversaries this year. And, after half a decade of hard work, London audiences are finally starting to pay attention.

"The fascinating thing is that a lot of these groups started way back in 1998 and no one gave up," marvels Jeff Culbert, artistic director of Ausable Theatre and creator of the local theatre Web site www.theatreinlondon.ca.

Londoners appear to be hungry for new theatrical experiences, meaning there is finally a demand for what groups like Ausable Theatre have been supplying for years.

One of London's growing theatre ventures has been the annual Fringe Festival, which is now in its fourth year. The festival allows Canadian playwrights (both local and national) to stage their work at various venues around the city, while audiences get to "theatre hop" and see many shows for one low price.

There are Fringe Festivals held annually across Canada, from Vancouver to Toronto, and Fringe producer Kathy Navackas is one of the people responsible for bringing the festival to London. According to Navackas, Londoners have embraced the Fringe, and interest in the festival seems to be growing continually.

"In our first year, we sold 3,800 seats, and last year it was 12,000," Navackas reveals. "London audiences are definitely willing to take chances and the format of the Fringe really encourages that."

Despite the growing popularity of alternative theatre in London, there still seems to be a lack of venues for these talented groups. Recently, the city closed down the Black Lodge Theatre in the Galleria mall, which was home to the production company Theatre Soup.

Local theatre fan and Western administrative assistant Susan Smith-Goddard, who is currently stage managing a production of the popular 1970s cop show spoof Chelsea and Boggs at The Grand's McManus Studio, is concerned about the lack of venues for alternative theatre.

"I like to try to [come] see everything, [including] mainstream and alternative offerings, and it's becoming increasingly difficult to do so. Unfortunately, playwrights and directors are having to be more creative in finding the space to present their plays," Smith-Goddard says.

However, groups such as Theatre Soup are bouncing back from such setbacks and having the last laugh. A recent Theatre Soup production of Brad Fraser's Unidentified Human Remains and the True Nature of Love had a nearly sold-out run at The Grand Theatre's McManus Studio, which has become a primary venue for "offbeat" theatre.

Thus, London's theatre scene is finally flourishing due to diversity, and, coincidentally, another benefit has accompanied the renaissance of alternative productions: an unprecedented number of talented local playwrights.

For example, second-year Western music theory and composition major Jonathan DeSouza's play, Theseus in the Labyrinth, premiered at last year's London Fringe Festival, and DeSouza reveals he will be performing the one-man play this summer in the Hamilton, Ottawa, Toronto and Winnipeg Fringe Festivals.

Events such as London's One-Act Play Festival, the recent Playwrights' Cabaret at The Grand and Western's Purple Shorts One-Act Play Festival also act as testaments to the amount of talent on London's theatre scene.

Jeff Culbert likens his interest in bringing alternative theatre to London audiences to the interest that Western's radio station, CHRW 94.7 FM, has in bringing quality, unknown music to audiences in the city.

"My feeling is that, if someone is putting something on that people have seen before, it's done – someone's taken care of it. I get a kick out of bringing people something new," Culbert explains.

Perhaps London's theatre scene can be summed up with a twist on an old saying: "If you bring it, they will come."

For information on the London theatre scene, including event and audition listings, check out www.theatreinlondon.ca
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