The prosperity of Calgary’s oil and gas industry has led to an influx of fortune-seekers from other provinces and other countries, transforming the city into a multicultural melting-pot metropolis. The issue of co-existing with newcomers of different cultures, languages and religions is the subject of the latest presentation from Downstage Productions, Heaven.
“The play’s about a dejected human rights lawyer who’s lost faith in the fact that he’ll never be able to fix the world, and a lot of the personal ramifications of the disillusionment he’s feeling,” explains director Simon Mallett. “It’s a very dark comedy. There’re a lot of very serious issues and questions being raised, but it’s also very scathingly funny at the same time.”
In keeping with Downstage’s creative mandate, the George F. Walker-penned play combines adept storytelling with an exploration of political and social issues. Mallett feels that the issues addressed in Heaven are particularly relevant in this day and age.
“It’s actually a play that I read five or six years ago and fell in love with the first time I read it, both in terms of what it does theatrically and in terms of the kinds of questions that it’s asking, which I think have become very relevant,” explains Mallet. “If you look at Calgary and the huge influx of population, either internationally or from other areas of Canada, it kind of raises questions about the inherent challenges associated with a multicultural society and what kind of problems it can potentially carry with it.”
Aware of the potential for any particular social or political agenda to override a story, Mallet assures audiences that Heaven is first and foremost a compelling story. Serving as Downstage’s artistic producer, Mallett has a lot of input into each of the company’s productions and always strives to create good theatre when choosing scripts.
“There’s a lot of really compelling work that fits in with our mandate,” says Mallett. “It’s never our intention to sacrifice the artistic side of things and the storytelling element for the sake of getting the political and social mandate. They really do go hand in hand with our work.”
A graduate of the University of Calgary’s master’s of directing program, Mallett is also an accomplished playwright. He resurrected Downstage several years ago with the help of three other U of C students, transplanting the group from his native Ontario. Mallett has both written and directed productions for Downstage and he relishes the dual roles.
“Because the work Downstage does is very much in keeping with my own artistic mandate, my writing is a way of writing work I’d be interested seeing on stage and helping to create,” says Mallet. “I do enjoy writing, certainly. For me it’s telling the story and sharing the ideas and that sort of thing, whether that’s through writing or directing. Directing is where the majority of my training and experience lies. Writing and creating as a group is something I’m really interested in doing.”
Despite their small profile, Downstage has flourished in Calgary’s theatre scene. The group garnered 13 Calgary Alliance of Community Theatre nominations this past year, honouring the best in community theatre, and the Enbridge Emerging Artist Award at Theatre Junction’s Random Acts festival. Mallett is optimistic about the company’s future.
“I don’t feel like our mandate ever forces us to compromise,” notes Mallett. “The fact is there’s more really amazing work that I’d like to do. There’re at least several more years of plays on the tip of my tongue that I know that we can do right away. That’s all really compelling work.”