“Dying art?” more like “Dying industry.”

By Kevin de Vlaming

Desperate circumstances have a way of giving rise to unique solutions. Calgary’s struggling fringe theatre scene is stepping up to the challenge of keeping a community of emerging performance artists alive in the face of impending extinction. As melodramatic as that might sound, Rick Hilton, artistic director for the Curiously Canadian Improv Guild, would argue that there is no hyperbole in saying that the performance arts community in Calgary faces a largely under-publicized state of emergency.

“In Calgary, the lack of venues and space for the performing arts is at a crisis level,” says Hilton. “In every other city, like in Vancouver or Edmonton, there are emerging artist theatre spaces for fringe performers. There’s such a lack here–I would be surprised to find anywhere else in North America with a lower theatre-seats-available-per-capita measurement than Calgary.”

This crisis might come as a surprise to those familiar with the successful theatre groups entrenched in the performance spaces down at the Epcor Centre. Groups such as Alberta Theatre Projects, Theatre Calgary, and One Yellow Rabbit have done impressively well for themselves over the years. In fact, Calgary has a long history of producing talented performance artists who go on to succeed professionally. Two of the founding members of the Kids in the Hall got their start locally with the Loose Moose Theatre Company, and Norm Hiscock, another Moose veteran, went on to become head writer for the animated series King of the Hill. The problem, according to Hilton, is that new talent is more likely to leave town for brighter theatrical pastures than stick around in a city where it’s an uphill battle just to find a moderately-sized room to perform in.

“The existing groups down at the Epcor have some sort of strange stranglehold on the spaces there,” says Hilton. “They won’t let anybody else use them at an affordable rate. We’re faced with a circumstance where we’re forced into taking action, just to hold on to the talent here in Calgary.”

The solution which the Curiously Canadian Improv Guild has come up with, alongside several other local theatre groups, is the formation of a new theatre society. The Guild, together with counterparts Dirty Laundry, THEATREboom, Urban Curve, Ghost River, Green Fools and Obscene But Not Heard, has become part of a performance artists’ cooperative modeled after the Varscona Theatre Alliance, a collective operating in Edmonton. The Calgary cooperative, which has been meeting and planning for the past six months, has dubbed itself the Slaughterhouse Seven Theatre Society.

“Our purpose in joining together is to form a greater voice for the community,” says Hilton. “This allows us to work together on fundraising, and to pool our efforts in building, finding, or renovating a space for all of us to program.”

Hilton reports that all of the groups have recognized the depth of crisis facing Calgary’s theatre scene and are coming together in new ways because of it. The companies involved in the society have also begun to share talent with each other, with artists from each entity crossing over to appear in performances put on by the other member-groups. It is Hilton’s hope that this attitude of cooperative willingness will translate into a successful joint effort to raise awareness about the issues presently facing local performance artists.

“The Garry Theatre was turned into a furniture store, and the Betty Mitchell at the Jubilee was turned into a boiler room,” says Hilton. “Those were huge losses to the city. That’s three to four hundred seats that just disappeared. The more visibility we can raise about our situation, the more we hope to be able to shake the tree and have a more powerful influence over the decision-makers in this city, to force their hand into providing new venues for emerging artists.”

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