The current Gladstone Theatre season may merit a prize for diversity. One show features someone called Queen Susan and an “anthropomorphised army.” Another spotlights the songs of Gordon Lightfoot. A third is David Mamet’s classic drama about sexual harassment and political correctness, Oleanna.
This enticingly mixed bag is thanks in large part to the varied interests of The Gladstone’s seven resident companies. The resident groups are producing eight of this season’s whirlwind lineup of 23 plays, with the first resident show, Plosive Productions’ The Ugly One by Marius von Mayenburg, already finished. The balance of the season comprises mostly shows by other local companies.
The Gladstone audience “really loves variety,” says Eleanor Crowder, co-lead artist with Bear & Co., one of the resident groups. “They revel in the fact that they might be seeing a good rock musical one week and a very intimate psychological thriller the next.”
A resident model means the companies can collaborate — a word Crowder uses more than once in describing the resident structure — on designing upcoming seasons. That helps ensure audiences get the blend that Crowder believes they crave.
“It’s an audience which looks for experiment because many of them have been coming to that building since it was GCTC (the Great Canadian Theatre Company) and was a rather edgy theatre at that point. Some of The Gladstone season is quite edgy and some isn’t.”
For those who haven’t followed the sometimes-convulsive history of The Gladstone, the building was home to GCTC from 1982 to 2007. When that company pulled up stakes for its new home on Wellington Street West, local businesspeople Marilisa Granzotto and Steve Martin bought the site, renovated it extensively and reopened it as The Gladstone Theatre in 2008.
Financial woes ensued, and local companies Plosive Productions and SevenThirty Productions took over programming in 2011, joined soon after by a loose assembly of others, some of whom later morphed into resident companies.
The building was sold in 2015, with the new owner signing a lease that would keep it as a theatre venue.
The Gladstone Theatre Inc. was incorporated as a not-for-profit in 2015 and welcomes about 25,000 patrons each year.
Don Fex, The Gladstone’s facilities manager and artistic director of Theatre Kraken, one of the resident companies, says that, post-2011, “it was hard to cobble together a full season of reliable companies that were going to produce year after year and really take ownership of the space… there were a lot of dark weeks and it was just enough (revenue) to keep the lights on.”
Having resident companies producing multiple shows has yielded stable income that, along with rentals, has allowed the theatre not merely to keep the lights burning but to make facility improvements and create a chock-a-block season with just a few empty nights between now and September, 2020.
That pell-mell season demands hustle, with minimal turnover between shows.
“Literally one company is out Saturday night and the next company is moving in on Sunday and opening on Wednesday,” says Fex. “It’s amazing when you see the level of art that comes out of the building with such a quick turnover… It’s that level of activity and diversity in the programming that keeps the theatre very much alive and pumping.”
While the resident company model has existed at the theatre for a few years, this is the first season the arrangement has been publicly marketed, with special pricing for subscriptions to the resident season.
Along with a boost to programming and revenue, the resident model means “(we) can work out interlocking schedules a year or two in advance, so we can plan long-term and it gives us time to put together good productions,” says Crowder. “We often share set elements and work with some of the same designers.”
As opposed to having to scramble for venues — a long-standing dilemma for local theatre groups — knowing their schedule well in advance also lets companies more easily plan for other projects.
Crowder’s first show of the current season is Lightfoot in Song, an acoustic concert running Oct. 24-Nov. 2 (preview Oct. 23). Like her company’s previous tributes to Leonard Cohen and Joni Mitchell, this one seems well-suited to what she calls The Gladstone’s “lovely, warm, intimate space.”
Thanks to Lightfoot’s decades-long presence on the Canadian folk scene, Crowder says that “We have choruses (from his songs) in our heads or four or five lines, but because they’ve been so ubiquitous we usually haven’t listened to the whole of them if ever and probably not in a long time. So this is a chance to explore Lightfoot as text, to really play with the words and see the themes and threads through his work over the long term.”
Tickets and information on the 2019-20 Gladstone season: 613-233-4523, thegladstone.ca