Co-founder tells tales of wild theatre

By Amanda Hu

Blake Brooker has seen many things over his long theatre career: singing Nazis, Scottish skinheads high on acid and a giant yellow rabbit. Inspired by the need to encourage experimental drama in Alberta, Brooker, his compatriot Michael Green and some other close friends founded the One Yellow Rabbit ensemble in 1982.

Named after a childhood talisman, the One Yellow Rabbit Performance Theatre has moved out of a semi-obscure art gallery to the Big Secret Theatre in the Epcor Centre and has received endless accolades and awards from near and afar. Over the years, Brooker has dealt with hangovers, more than one nasty lawsuit, copyright violations and a RCMP investigation of Ilsa Queen of the Nazi Love Camp.

This year, OYR is celebrating its 25-year anniversary with the Silver Jubilee on Thursday, where the ensemble will perform some of their favourite scenes from the company’s memorable productions, with the help of OYR alum Bruce McColloch from the Kids in the Hall and Toronto rockers the Rheostatics. As the cast and crew prepares to celebrate, Brooker reflects on the long and controversial history of OYR with sheer amazement.

“One night, you go to the bed and the next day you wake up and boom, it is 25 years later,” Brooker says. “It is like being a lifer in a prison or even in a marriage.”

Time hasn’t flown by for Brooker without various highs, lows and alcohol-fueled trips. Some of the highs even came from unexpected moments.

“The inspiration for OYR came after we woke up in Medicine Hat wearing someone else’s pants after a three-day bender date with tequila and lemon gin,” he recalls. “[Another night,] after a closing night in Edinburgh, we went to a rave with three skinheads and took nine hits of purple acid. The skinheads swapped clothes with the OYR actors–everything except underwear and each person went as the other. I do not think our poor Scottish friends ever recovered after that.”

Jokes aside, Brooker makes sure to note it is a privilege for the OYR ensemble to be able to take their work over the globe while checking out the foreign beer.

“Festivals are particularly competitive with the other theatre ensembles and you try to bring your A-game to impress the audience,” he says. “Our tours improve us, even at the cost of the health of our livers.”

Brooker recalls the exotic cities the OYR actors visited such as Glasgow and Guadalajara. Though they present new excitement, he says nothing could compare to Calgary’s unique nature.

“I believe Calgary gets a bad rap due to its conservatism and cowboy thing, but when you scratch the surface, the city is experimental and playful,” he explains. “Honestly, how many people in other cities dress up in drag for two weeks?”

He credits many of OYR’s successes to Calgary’s unseen side along with the company’s countless opportunities to inspire discourse and force the audience to think critically.

“All writing challenges are similar,” he explains. “It is more about asking questions than posing answers. What are the topics one chooses? Where are the areas of investigation and mediation? Have you been to a Home Depot lately to try find something specific? Now that is what I call a struggle.”

As the company continues to pose the big questions, audiences and theatre pundits seem to be responding favourably.

“Nickelback is big, Shania Twain is big, but One Yellow Rabbit, not so much,” says Brooker. “Our mandate is still to keep things fluid with constant change over the next 25 years.”

Leave a comment