People in this arts town don’t like theatre much, unless it’s a big, well-known musical.
I asked Bessie Wapp (pictured below) who was named Nelson’s official cultural ambassador by city council last year, about this. As a musician, singer, and actor she has done it all in Nelson for many years. She responded by email.
“It seems that it is harder to get big audiences out for a play than for the big, well-known musicals,” she wrote. “The big musicals have recognition factor. Not only have we heard of them before, we might even know some of the songs. So right off the top there is fuzzy feeling for a lot of audience members.
“As well,” she continued, “the cast in a musical is generally quite large, and everyone’s friends and family come out. Because of these two factors a disproportionately greater amount of promotion and education is required of a smaller production to inspire potential audience members to risk their valuable relaxation time and dollars on it.
“As well — and I don’t even want to mention it — if there’s a weak actor in a play it really matters. In a musical there’s so much else going on it doesn’t necessarily take the whole thing down. Yup. The producers of straight theatre don’t have it easy. (cue: strings)”
Richard Rowberry, who produced the summer theatre festival that ran in August at the TNT playhouse, puts it another way.
“Nelson audiences are not very sophisticated,” he says, “so the musicals and the comedies and the easy listening are always more popular, but that is probably the case elsewhere too.”
(I should add that I do not intend to denigrate musicals here. Nelson is very good at them, and they are a great showcse and training ground for our actors, singers, and dancers.)
Rowberry says his summer festival sold roughly two thirds of its seats, and he sounds pleased by that. He says for Nelson that is pretty good. The TNT playhouse, where the festival took place, seats about 60 people, and over three weeks the festival ran four productions for six nights each.
One of those productions was so good that Nelsonites should have been breaking down the door for tickets. But it was not a musical, and as a play it was pretty experimental (and by that I do not mean pretentiously abstract or weird). And it was the premiere performance of a piece written by someone from Nelson, so it was not well-known.
Adriana Bogaard wrote and directed The Passage, and also did the lighting, sound, and sets. Because Bogaard is very, very good all all those things, the piece came off as a unified vision that for me was haunting enough to experience twice, which I did, on the first and last of The Passage’s six-night run.
The first night it was the lighting that affected me: much of the action on the stage takes place outside in the dark. Most of the light comes from a lantern held by the play’s only actor, Jen Viens (pictured at left) and from backlit projections. What happens to the characters in this play is scary. The audience feels that fear because so much of the action happens in the dark.
The second time, accustomed as I was by then to the shadows and light, it was the quality of Bogaard’s writing that struck me: so economical, so revealing of character, so forthright, so poetic, all of it spoken by Viens, who played the main and a handful of minor characters.
But it was not just the words. The way Viens moved on stage told us a lot about the physical exertion and toll of the months-long journey across northern Canada in the 1890s that is the subject of the story. There is a memorable repeated scene in which she is as much dancer as actor, forcefully and rhythmically digging a hole with a shovel.
That fact that so few people saw The Passage is unfortunate. This was a unique piece of professional theatre that could easily run in a big city and do well.
Bogaard, who is 29, studied theatre with Geoff Burns at L.V. Rogers in the 1990s and has directed and designed theatre in Nelson and other places since then. She is currently going into her third year studying costume and stage design at the National Theatre School in Montreal. All we can do is hope she will come back next summer.
There is more to an arts-and-culture town than paintings in the restaurants and sculptures on the street.
In our case we have extraordinary professional mentors (in this case Geoff Burns but there are several more) who develop young artists like Bogaard to a high level in music, theatre, and dance and send them out into the world. This is the sort of thing that puts Nelson on the map in other places across the country, and we should be prouder of it than we are.
The two photos above are both file photos.
Nelson Star reporter Bill Metcalfe writes opinion columns occasionally.