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How Matthew Jocelyn tried to revive Canadian Stage but instead ended up scaring audiences away

Stage FrightAs the crowd settled in for an early June performance of Édouard Lock’s Untitled at the Bluma Appel Theatre, Matthew Jocelyn, the artistic and general director of Canadian Stage, stood under the spotlight, urging his audience to renew their subscriptions. Some serious name-dropping ensued. The company will be staging Red, about the life of the painter Mark Rothko, which won a Tony last year, as well as Clybourne Park, a Pulitzer Prize–winning play inspired by A Raisin in the Sun. And Atom Egoyan—who was in the audience that day—will be directing his wife, Arsinée Khanjian, in the war-themed British play Cruel and Tender.

Awards, celebrities, allusions to well-known works: there was an unmistakable whiff of desperation in Jocelyn’s populist appeal. Last year, he came to CanStage to make it a hub for, as he puts it, “the great theatre and choreographic artists who work in this country.” But his radical, rapid revamping of the ultra-safe company has alienated audiences. He opened his first season with Fernando Krapp Wrote Me This Letter, an obscure German play, and continued into movement-based and experimental works. By the end of the 2010–11 season, the company had experienced a six per cent drop in subscription rates, and the house capacity numbers were even bleaker. A few short-run plays came close to filling the Bluma for six to 12 performances, but some long-run shows ranged from 45 to 60 per cent capacity, and that factors in tickets sold through heavily discounted specials and other promotions. After two successful decades in Asia and Europe, Jocelyn’s return to his native Toronto has been met with more jeers than cheers.

The attempt to revive Canadian Stage is long overdue. Toronto’s big theatres have lagged in architectural and artistic excitement, left behind by film (Lightbox), opera and ballet (Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts) and art (renovation and rejuvenation of both the ROM and the AGO). Once upon a time, a regional Canadian playwright or director couldn’t be said to have “arrived” until he or she worked in Toronto, but Vancouver, Calgary and Edmonton have usurped our natural place as the nerve centre of theatrical innovation. As a company, CanStage has been in artistic decline for years. Martin Bragg, Jocelyn’s predecessor, ended his 12-year tenure in 2010, stepping down at the end of his contract. His penultimate, and representative, season featured such crowd-pleasers as Shirley Valentine—the kind of heartwarming one-woman show that Jocelyn wouldn’t cross the street, let alone the Atlantic, to program.

During Jocelyn’s decade as the head of the Atelier du Rhin in Alsace, he transformed that company into the only organization in France to produce opera, theatre and contemporary dance under one roof. He also brought in corporate sponsorships and oversaw a glitzy renovation. When he was hired at CanStage, the hope was that he would couple his international connections with a nationalist agenda to create a vibrant, culturally relevant performing arts centre producing original work.

Unfortunately, the execution of last season’s productions rarely matched the intellectual ambition it took to program them. Director Peter Hinton’s take on Michel Tremblay’s already-dated story of Québécois identity, Saint Carmen of the Main, looked great but was soulless and poorly acted. At the smaller Berkeley Street Theatre, The Middle Place, based on the lives of Toronto’s homeless youth, came off like a clichéd after-school special. Even the stronger plays, like David Greig’s The Cosmonaut’s Last Message, received plodding productions: I saw a Friday night performance at which a big chunk of the scant audience bolted for the exit doors during intermission. Jocelyn dreams of attracting new, younger audiences, the same crowd that frequents Queen Street art galleries or lines up for TIFF. Last year, he hired an audience development manager specifically to focus on C-Stage, a program designed to seduce the under-30 set with free memberships and $12.50 tickets. For the opening night of Fernando Krapp, he planted mock protesters outside the Bluma with placards reading “Live Theatre Is Krapp,” meant to appeal to a youthful taste for irony. So far, these tactics haven’t translated into ticket sales. Meanwhile, to CanStage’s conservative subscriber base, the changes intended as a breath of fresh air felt more like an unexpected winter blast.

The effects of such a grim reception are showing on Jocelyn’s face. In the promo shots released when his appointment was announced in February 2009, the then-51-year-old exuded an air of European sophistication mixed with the nerdiness of a glee club teacher. That’s been replaced by the housebroken demeanour of someone forced to accept the realities of selling theatre in Toronto in 2011. Part of the problem may be that Jocelyn made his name in Europe, where public funding allows for artistic risk taking without much worry about commercial appeal. He shares a philosophy with the mid-century French theatre director Jean Vilar, who believed in bringing high art to mainstream audiences. “Who doesn’t deserve to eat caviar? Who doesn’t deserve to drink champagne?” Jocelyn says.

Without a doubt, Jocelyn must improve the quality of his productions; his programming choices have been undeniably arrogant. But artistic transitions have bumpy starts. CanStage needed a rude awakening. Risk-averse programming has turned off curious audiences and divorced the city from exciting theatrical experiments. Knee-jerking back to a Martin Bragg–like season would be a mistake—the thought of returning to a slate of middle-brow comedies and dated musicals is much too sad for me to contemplate.

Among his more popular selections for the 2011–12 season, Jocelyn has managed to squeeze in Dark Matters, an exploration of physics and human emotion from the Frankfurt-based Canadian choreographer Crystal Pite, and Beckett: Feck It, a words-and-music tribute to the Irish master. We’ll see how they go over. Two years after his return to Toronto, Jocelyn has yet to buy a home; he says his ideal living space is a loft. This time next year, he might be making a down payment. Or he might be buying a one-way ticket out of here.

 

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