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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.

  • cultureshot

    This is kicking someone when they’re down.

  • ssmallt

    Maybe. But maybe he should have done better research before such an ambitious overhaul. If you don’t get the city, you won’t get the audience.

  • Joran

    a true megalomaniac, you must learn these plays in France have never had success out!!

  • LC

    I use to have a subscription….. However I really don’t what to see a whole season of the dying & death. I have’nt been back in a few years …… This season is looking no better… :(

  • Sick of Krapp

    I stuck it out for two seasons, and decided this year not to renew. Agree with all the comments in the article. There has to be a middle ground between “Shirley Valentine” and “St. Carmen of the Main”.

  • Global Theatre Fan

    Toronto Life how dare you publish an article like this by a self centered journalist who is incapable of writing anything worth reading for years now. I urge everyone to cancel their subscription and to boycott Toronto Life. Matthew Jocelyn should be supported in trying to educate Toronto theatre audience which is mostly stuck in the XIX century badly acted theatre or would like to be entertained only…he is a man with the mission only stupid blind and uneducated brains can try to bring him down…shame on you Toronto Life and I hope Kamal gets fired from his sad little job

  • Konstantin

    Something strange happened here.
    Recently I have posted comment on the article above. In my comment I think that I was very polite and civilized. Somehow my comment that was concerned only with the state of theatre art in Toronto was deleted by editor.
    In the article above I have simply felt some very dark emotions and cynicism that was not well meant or directed in any constructive direction.
    I have simply asked Kamal Al-Solaylee why he hates Matthew Jocelyn. The answer could be simple: No, I do not hate him.
    Instead editor decided to delete my comment.
    I am politely asking editor what are the parameters for right to edit or delete comments. I am sure that is all well stated in policy. I believe that my comment was objective and did not attacked Kamal personally.
    I am asking for explanation.

  • Konstantin

    Dear Editor,
    I am really amazed with the fact that 2 days after my request for explanation you are remaining silent.
    You have removed my comment that did not included a single offensive word. Comment that expressed concern with particular kind of journalism; comment that expressed genuine concern with the state of professional theatre in Toronto.
    My comment was addressed to particular kind of relation toward Matthew Jocelyn. My comment addressed very personal and in my opinion very offensive tone towards man who is trying to bring back the sense of art into the most important regional theatre in Canada. Plays that are chosen in last season and particularly this season are carefully structured. Why is the sense and notion of intellectual side of theatre so offensive for your writer? The issue with this article is bigger than the article itself.
    I am requesting again to bring back my comment and explanation why it was removed at the first place.

  • Konstantin

    So, for the readers of Toronto Life here is the comment that was removed by Editor.
    After reading this article (if we can take it as serious journalist writing) I have felt nothing but the great sickness in my stomach. It is obvious that any attempt to create and (re)create truthful artistic expression will be welcomed by cries of ‘consumers’ that they cannot take it. Theatre is the mirror to the world. New season of Canadian Stage is exactly and precisely that. Mirror to the world of ‘consumers’, mirror to the civilization of prosthetics which is crippling human souls. If you do not like what you are seeing in the mirror, I think that is not the mirrors’ fault.
    From where is coming this hatred towards Matthew Jocelyn?
    Dear Kamal why do you hate Matthew Jocelyn?

  • Austin Terrace

    <atthew Jocelyn does have a very strong, very different artistic vision. However, you can exercise your brilliant artistic vision all you like, but if it's not what your audience wants to see, then you'll be exercising it in an empty theatre, and you won't be exercising it for very long.

    In most cases, the plays themselves aren't the problem. It's the direction. How is it possible for the direction to be so consistently wrong that it's detrimental to both the script and the actors? Not just detrimental, but cringe-worthy and even confusing.

    It's very sad, when you consider how much work everyone has put into those productions, to see how few people come to see them. I usually go on a Saturday night, and, judging by the audiences when I was there, I'd say that "40-60% capacity" is a big exaggeration.

  • Troubador

    I don’t blame M.Jocelyn. He’s up against tough odds. He’s trying to produce plays with a talent base that just isn’t up to snuff. I’m sorry to say but Canadians (Torontonians more specifically) have been telling themselves for too long how wonderful and talented they are. Most of the theatre people Jocelyn is working with are tired old warhorses who have been going through the motions for so long, audiences no longer care. The whole administration and creative staff at CanStage needs to go. Canadian actors and directors need to re-new their commitment to more intense study of their craft. I’ve gone to too many plays where name-brand actors and directors are clearly walking through the production doing the same old tricks. It doesn’t need to be this way.

  • Theatregoer

    I run a large theatre-goers group here in Toronto. Sadly, I have to say this article is right on. Thank you for your honesty in writing it. It definitely reflects my thoughts on recent CanStage productions.

    I’ve taken my group to see a number of shows at CanStage since Jocelyn arrived and I’ve had members walk out in disgust at intermission. I would have walked out myself if I wasn’t hosting the shows for my group.

    I am now fearful to post CanStage’s shows. I have three upcoming ones currently posted and one of them has already received negative media reviews.

    My members love a range of theatrical experiences — not just tried, true traditional works. But, much of what CanStage is offering is bizarre. Some of it is literally trashy like Saint Carmen of the Main, some of it sub-standard like Fernando Krapp Wrote Me This Letter and some of it horrifying like The Test.

    Our group enjoyed Edouard Muybridge: Studies in Motion and I heard good things about Red (we didn’t attend), but the rest of the lineup? I get the shivers when I think about it.

 

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