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|Written by Kevin Johns|
|Sunday, 02 September 2007 19:00|
Just like people, every theatre has a unique identity all its own. From the world’s busiest auditorium, the Sydney Opera House, to the great Broadway stages of New York City, from London’s reconstructed Globe to Toronto’s Pantages, each hall provides a distinct theatrical experience. In Ottawa, it is no different. Architecture, location, audience and stagecraft -- a myriad of different factors play roles in defining the unique personas of the various playhouses in Canada’s capital city. Combining the inimitable personalities of the Ottawa Little Theatre, the National Arts Centre, the Great Canadian Theatre Company, and the Arts Court Theatre produces a quirky family of theatrical personalities.
The Ottawa Little Theatre - The Grandparent
The Ottawa Little Theatre has been entertaining audiences for almost a century, and - having just completed its 94th season - is the longest running amateur theatre company in Canada. Situated near the corner of King Edward and Rideau, its lush red interior (carpets, seats, and curtains) reminds one of another age, a time when beauty was more cherished, and therefore built to last. The theatre provides a welcoming environment, unpretentious yet elegant with a moderately-sized auditorium seating 510. At its best, it is a community theatre that provides professional-quality performances, and as a result its seats are almost always filled.
The theatre boasts over 8000 subscribers, and one would surmise that a large portion of those season ticket holders are senior citizens. In fact, visiting the Ottawa Little Theatre is very much like visiting your grandparents’ house. If you are under 30 years old, you will almost certainly be the youngest person in attendance on any given night. The entertainment will be tasteful, probably light, and seemingly familiar. Even if you haven’t seen the play before, it will feel like you have. You can count on at least one of perennial favourite Neil Simon’s plays per season, and performances that feature senior citizen characters are almost always a hit. Last season’s staging of Simon’s The Sunshine Boys, a tale of two vaudeville performers reunited in old age for one last performance, left many an audience member chuckling the deep laugh of someone who recognizes themselves reflected back from the stage.
Your grandparents’ house often seems like a time capsule from the past. At times, moments of era-induced awkwardness can also be experienced at the OLT. Before each performance begins, everyone rises to their feet, the men remove their hats, and the audience sings the national anthem. This communal display of patriotism is a strange, antique custom, now mainly reserved for professional sporting events and conservative rallies, yet it feels surprisingly quaint and bearable within the confines of the OLT.
Just like at your grandparents’ house, the walls of the lobby are lined with an array of fascinating black and white photographs that tell a story of perseverance. One learns from the faces contained in those frames that overcoming the tragedies of the past has led to the triumphs of the present. To peruse these photos is to learn of the fire that tore through the theatre, leaving it all but gutted, one winter night in 1970. The modern theatre rose from the ashes of its previous incarnation, like many of our grandparents rose from the ashes of two world wars, and pushed on, refusing to succumb.
The OLT receives no government funding, yet it has been able to forge ahead, season after season for almost a century, always providing an unpretentious but dignified theatre-going experience. Seeing a play at the OLT is like eating one of grandma’s warm oatmeal cookies: friendly, enjoyable and comforting.
Arts Court - The Teenager
If the Ottawa Little Theatre is the grandparent in the Capital City Theatre Family, then the Arts Court Theatre is the punk-rock loving teenager. A little bit edgy, a little bit self-aware, and most certainly hip. Want to see a stage adaptation of Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting, filthy toilet scene and all? How about Cougars, a play billed as featuring "coarse language, mature themes, and bad Karaoke"? Or maybe you are interested in seeing what happens when Middle English meets hip-hop with a performance of The Rap Canterbury Tales? The Arts Court Theatre has staged them all, and many more.
Situated across from the Rideau Centre on Daly Avenue, in the former Carleton County Courthouse, Arts Court serves as Ottawa’s municipal arts centre. It hosts dramatic performances, as well as music, dance, literary, and multidisciplinary media arts performances and installations. Over 30 arts organizations work out of the building, and they are responsible for a large portion of local arts programming in the city. The theatre is run by the not-for-profit Ottawa Arts Court Theatre Foundation in partnership with the City of Ottawa. If you are a connoisseur of local talent, or looking for theatre that is just slightly off the beaten path, Arts Court is the place.
The theatre itself is located on the second floor of the building, so you have to walk past the art gallery before squeezing into an elevator that takes you up to the second floor. The walls of the elevator are usually lined with photocopied fliers, pamphlets, and arts-related advertising. By the time you make it to the theatre proper, you have been inundated with the artsy D-I-Y punk rock feel of the building. In the lobby, outside the theatre on the second floor, there are often tables off to the side, selling products for a reasonable price, and beverages can be ordered from a space in the corner of the room.
The studio-sized theatre fits only 150. The reduced scale produces an intimacy between the audience and the performers. Seats are positioned on a grade, so that audience members look down towards the actors performing on the floor, rather than looking up at them on a raised stage. With the usual distancing of performer and audience removed, those in attendance feel as though they are part of the performance. If Antonin Artaud’s theatre of cruelty were to be resurrected in Ottawa, the Arts Court Theatre would likely be the place.
You go to a punk rock show, or you see a play at Arts Court, not to escape from reality for a while, but to engage with humanity and to remind yourself that, in the face of everything, you are still alive.
The National Arts Centre - The Parent
Every family needs a parent, and - when it comes to theatre in Ottawa - the NAC leads the pack in terms of size, budget, and prestige. Billed as the nation’s "pre-eminent performing arts organization," the NAC features international talent, alongside the best of Canadian performers and artists. Sure, hanging out with Dad isn’t very cool, but if you want to see professional, Broadway-style productions like RENT, Chicago, or Phantom of the Opera, you’re going to have to suck up to the old man at least a little.
Located in the heart of downtown Ottawa, theatre-goers entering the building to attend performances at the NAC are treated to an amazing view of the Rideau Canal, the War Memorial, the Parliament Buildings, the Château Laurier, and the Old Train Station.
Along with Southam Hall (the 2,323-seat main stage), the NAC also houses three additional stages. The Theatre seats 897 and is used mostly for theatre and dance events. Many of the English- and French-language theatre performances are staged there. The 300-seat Studio is used for smaller theatrical productions, and The Fourth Stage, which seats 150, is used for a variety of community programming.
It is in the majestic Southam Hall that you will witness large theatrical productions, musicals, the Ottawa Symphony Orchestra, the National Arts Centre Orchestra, and the Opera Lyra Ottawa. With its balcony seating, breathtaking scope, and uncomprible beauty, entering the hall feels as though you have stepped into one of those great theatre houses of old, which you rarely nowadays see outside of the movies.
Performances at the NAC can be expensive, but thanks to the Live Rush program, students are able to purchase tickets at a reduced price. Whether you are genuinely wealthy, or just playing posh for the evening, there is always something wonderful about dressing up in your finest clothes and witnessing a work of art alongside thousands of other people.
It’s the mainstream of mainstream, the un-hip dad of Ottawa playhouses, yet there is a reason Dad has that big house and nice car. He’s worked long and hard to get to where he is and to attain the respect of his peers. The mainstream isn’t always the mainstream because of financial backing and pandering to the media. Sometimes artists rise to the top of their field simply because they are the best. That is what you are going to get at the NAC: quality professional theatre.
The Great Canadian Theatre Company - The Older Sibling
If the OLT is the grandparent, Arts Court the teen, NAC the Dad, then the Great Canadian Theatre Company (affectionately referred to as the GCTC by most) is the well educated older sibling who just finished grad school and can’t stop talking about Michael Ondaatje and Alice Munro. He’s a little pretentious, but so genuinely excited by Canadian art that you are willing to let it slide.
Spilling out of Carleton University’s Sock and Buskin theatre troupe in the mid 1970s, the GCTC has gone on to become Ottawa’s pre-eminent promoter of Canadian theatrical content. The GCTC not only stages strictly Canadian productions, but also works directly with Canadian theatrical artists through a development program that workshops new plays and supports emerging talent.
The GCTC troupe has performed in various locations over the years, including the community fire hall in Old Ottawa South, before finding a home on Gladstone Avenue in 1982. For over twenty years, the theatre on Gladstone was the home to memorable Canadian productions.
The 2007-2008 season marks a new era for the GCTC. Thanks to grants from the Greenberg family, the Department of Canadian Heritage, the Province of Ontario and the City of Ottawa, this year’s theatrical season marks the opening of the GCTC’s new Irving Greenberg Theatre Centre. The centre has a 265-seat main theatre, as well as a 90-seat studio, and is an energy efficient and environmentally friendly building.
Theatre-goers should be excited to see how the new centre will affect performances by the Ottawa Theatre Family’s older brother. One thing is for sure: regardless of location, the GCTC will still be the place to go for intellectual, challenging and stimulating Canadian theatre productions.
The strength of a family comes from its diversity. No one person can do everything. Neither can any one theatre. It is by developing a unique identity and perfecting a particular area of interest that quality theatre is produced. The Ottawa theatre community has done just that.