Recently, at the Storefront Theatre, I attended the screening of Kat Sandler’s hit play, Cockfight, in the same place where the rough, raw, and rowdy stage drama premiered over a year ago. Bell Canada’s Fibe TV1 filmed the piece, and this was our first chance to see the dark, comic work transferred to the screen. It was one HELL of an evening and the audience loved every freakin’ minute of it, watching the flick and socializing in the lobby. It was terrific to have the cast in attendence—Benjamin Blais, Brenhan McKibben, Jakob Ehman, Caroline Toal, and David Tompa. Paul Gardner, representing Bell’s Fibe TV1, was also on hand for an evening of stupendous fun.
Kat Sandler, who both wrote and directed Cockfight, was in her glory, as well as Jeff Hanson, who helped choreograph some of the wildly compelling fight scenes.
Over the past three years, the whole independent theatre movement suddenly exploded in Toronto, triggered by an over-abundance of talent and a limited number of theatres. The inability of actors, writers, and designers to get hired caused them to come together and put on shows anywhere, in any way they could. This included staging work in storefronts, warehouses, even historical sites.
Fortunately, some corporations and groups are responding to this phenomenon. Fibe TV1 is a group of community channels owned by Bell Canada. For Cockfight, Fibe TV1 partnered with local community producer, Jackie English, who wanted to find ways of distributing local theatre to a wider audience. English selected plays she felt would fit with Fibe TV1, and in conjunction with the teams of each play, everyone collaborated to translate the works to the screen. Fibe TV1 helps communities share local stories, and all the content produced is available through their video-on-demand channel CH1217. Fibe TV1’s stated goal is to bring stories about Toronto to the city’s community, but the filming of these celebrated productions suggests the possibility of wider distribution via the Internet.
For me, this filming of a Canadian play is more than an attempt to archive a production. It suggests the possibility of marketing and distributing Canadian theatre talent far and wide, so that it might eventually be viewed globally.
Writing as a freelancer for the Financial Post, interviewing businessmen and entrepreneurs coast-to-coast, I found that Canadians rarely see the need for public relations, branding, advertising, and marketing, even within this country, let alone beyond our borders. The idea of promoting drama is nearly non-existent in the arts. Fortunately, the filming of our drama opens the possibility that outside producers will spot it, and this will help profile this country’s obscenely abundant talent pool.
In the 1970s, in the early days of Factory Theatre Lab and Tarragon Theatre, new playwrights, such as George F. Walker and Michel Tremblay, garnered enough coverage in the media to have their works produced in the United States and elsewhere. Now, Canada is globally connected by the Internet and social media, and news may spread rapidly even without Canadian involvement.
Still, until theatre artists make an effort to ally with technologists, I suspect the indie movement will spend its energy, and fail. Theatre schools gleefully fleece students of their money and don’t bother to train them to market their skills in the real world, or to ally them formally with business students and computer scientists. The result is, you have an astonishing venue like the Storefront Theatre located in a neighbourhood filled with thousands of young professionals who hardly know the theatre is there, and that it has shows they would keenly enjoy and easily afford.
Today, while the wireless phone is ubiquitous, artists don’t understand the phone is a tool to recruit and maintain an audience. They still don’t see that you’ve got to have a fabulous website even before you have a stage. In a city full of diverse entertainment choices, artists must realize that it’s not enough to put on a show. They’ve got to motivate an audience to come, especially in the depths of winter.
Hopefully, this filming of Cockfight is just one of many initiatives that will help Canadians celebrate and promote their very special gifts. And perhaps this country’s tourism industry will realize people don’t just come to Canada to see snow and trees, but to marvel at the spectacular entertainment available in every nook and cranny.
All photos by Burke Campbell