Staging an Uprising

Theatre isn’t the first medium people think about when pondering how to inspire political discussions and debates, but Downstage Theatre and Performance Company is structured around this very concept. The group’s mandate is to provide quality socially conscious and politically charged theatre to patrons in Calgary.

“I love working on and seeing all kinds of theatre, but what’s creative about theatre is that it has the opportunity to provoke conversation and stimulate dialogue and to be more than just entertainment,” says Simon Mallet, Downstage’s artistic producer. “Part of that is because the very act of going to theatre is a social activity where you’re interacting with other people and so there’s an opportunity for that to be an entertaining experience. Also, you have the opportunity for people to talk about it and question the world around them.”

Though they offer productions year round, the Uprising Festival is the epitome of political theatre in Calgary. This year’s festival — the second under the Uprising moniker — will feature three plays that deal with diverse and different themes.

Potentilla investigates the complicated relationship between an incarcerated murderer and a young actress working on a play in the prison. The Opposite of Dismal is a play spearheaded by Col Cseke and Aviva Zimmerman, two of the people who worked on this summer’s Oedipus Evolving with Mustard Seed’s drama group. Dismal will see them working with many of the same cast members to share some of the cast’s positive experiences and favourite memories.

The third and final play, whiteNOISE, focuses on the rise of white pride in Alberta. University of Calgary graduate Devon Dubnyk spent years researching and collecting information on white supremacists in Calgary. His play focuses on the fictional character of Nathan who becomes interested in Calgary’s Aryan Guard and is eventually recruited.

It’s an issue Dubnyk feels strongly about, especially with the recent attack on anti-racism activist Jason Devine and one of his friends in Devine’s Calgary home.

“We’re really trying to scare the shit out of the audience and say, ‘Look, this is happening. Don’t be apathetic about it,’ ” says Dubnyk. “It’s an ugly, ugly reality and in my eyes, it’s the ugliest thing going on in Calgary right now. It’s very easy for people to look away from that, and not address that. They want to look away from it and say that’s not happening and be in denial about it. But the scary thing is, these people are organized, right? They are storming into people’s houses, who have kids, and beating the shit out of them. They could have killed those guys.”

The desire to challenge the beliefs and values of the audience is a clear theme throughout the festival and it’s a characteristic that sets it apart from the other cultural offerings in Calgary.

“There are a lot of festivals that take place in the city, but I think this one does have a unique voice and offers something that appeals to people who do seek exciting theatrical experiences and who are willing to be challenged on their thoughts and beliefs,” says Mallett. “The quality of work is really high and the people will be excited by what they see. It will leave them with a lot of questions and a lot to talk about.”

Downstage has also collaborated with the Consortium for Peace Studies at the U of C to introduce a program to inspire and encourage writers interested in political theatre. They solicit entries from across Canada and the winner gets their play workshopped during the festival and a prize of a $1,000.

“Both us and the Consortium for Peace Studies committed more resources to the competition and created the Uprising National Playwriting Competition,” says Mallett. “The playwrights get quite a bit out of it and we get exposed to a lot of wonderful new work so it’s a win/win for everyone.”

With all that’s going on in Calgary, Uprising is bound to create the kind of discussion they are looking for.

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