As in-person Canadian theatre slowly re-opens, Intermission’s Editors will be sharing personal reflections on the realities of being back in the theatre. These are not criticisms or reviews. These are not blog posts. They are memories of being caught in the middle of a theatre renaissance. They are an archive. They are history.
My heart’s racing. I’m sweating, swept up in the panic that’s been steadily spreading through my body for the past twenty-six minutes. I race down a hallway, not knowing where I’m headed, trusting those I’m following.
I’m late. I, along with the other five confused individuals who found themselves at the wrong venue, am going to disrupt the show. A show that was a last minute addition in my brief tour of Edmonton theatre. I don’t even know what it’s about, and now I’m about to interrupt it.
It’s every theatre artist’s worst nightmare. The intrusive creak of the door, amplified by the high, curved ceiling and accompanied by a shaft of light that’s guaranteed to blind at least one performer. The awkward shuffle through the darkness towards the nearest empty seat; the loud exhales of discomfort from your fellow patrons as they hike knees to chests in an attempt to let you squeeze past.
Like I said: nightmare. And it gets worse.
I know these people. I used to perform with Grindstone Theatre when I was in my undergrad. They know I’m coming. They’re expecting me. I’m expected.
But I went to the wrong venue, and now I’m late.
I steel myself as the programming manager stops in front of the auditorium door, pausing with her hands on the curved knob. Suddenly, she throws the door open, releasing a burst of music — keyboard, drums, and guitar fill the hallway. This is it — time to pull focus.
I step into the auditorium, make eye-contact with a figure seated next to the door. Byron Trevor Martin, the show’s director and co-creator of the show — I’ve been caught. He’s masked, it’s dark — I can’t see his expression. But then, quietly, I hear it.
“Hey! Glad you made it.”
It’s a strange feeling, having your tension quite literally melt away. Those simple words filled me with confidence — I’m late, but I still came! I showed up, and that’s what really counts! I saunter down the stairs towards the nearest empty seat and pour myself into a chair. I’m only half paying attention to the music pouring from the three-piece band just off stage as I paw slowly through my bag in search of my notebook. I laugh unconsciously, barely catching the words, “infectiouss… diseeeeaaaaseeesss” as they waft through the auditorium.
I freeze. Slowly, I look towards the stage. A woman in a lab coat stands onstage singing in a nasal monotone, her thick black glasses starkly visibly beneath a blunt blonde fringe. Deena Hinshaw, Alberta’s beleaguered Chief Medical Officer, is onstage singing a ballad about finding the cure for infectious diseases.
Is this a play about the pandemic?
See, Grindstone Theatre understands: sometimes, you just need to laugh at how stupid it all is.
Perhaps my earlier emotional turmoil has drained me of my feelings, but I feel as though I should be more upset. I’m not upset — not at all, this is hilarious — but something about it feels… wrong. I didn’t know what the show was about before coming to see it. Is it too soon? Am I allowed to laugh? Is this… okay?
I sneak a look around the auditorium — the actor playing Deena (surprise! It wasn’t the real Deena Hinshaw) is crawling on her desk now — to see if anyone is frowning, shaking their head, sharpening their pitchfork. But nobody is phased. They’re all staring straight ahead, fixated on the ridiculousness happening onstage. Eyes are wide — Deena is holding beakers, doing a choreographed box step — and shoulders are shaking. Peals of laughter fill the air. I missed the beginning of the show, so maybe I missed something important. Every play, movie, or series I’ve heard about that has focused on the pandemic has been an utter flop, an untimely response to a cataclysmic event we’re still in the midst of.
It’s not the first time in the past two years that I’ve found myself wishing I could look ahead and see how it all turns out.
I’ll admit it: I have a personal connection to Grindstone Theatre. Way back in 2012, as a lowly non-BFA drama student in Edmonton, unable to get an audition at pretty much any theatre company, the Grindstone welcomed me in with open arms. Despite my lack of experience, they whisked me into workshops and had me performing within a month. To this day, it means a lot to me that they gave me a chance and a space to try, fail, and grow as an artist. I’m here specifically to see the show for work. I have a response to write.
I want this show to be good. Luckily, it seems are though the viewers who showed up on time aren’t phased by the topic. Clearly, in the twenty-six minutes before I arrived, we established that this is fine.
Before entering the theatre, I would have said that no, Alberta was not ready for a show about the pandemic. Within sixty seconds of sitting down, I want to scream it from the roof of the Garneau Theatre: yes, they are. This is not some deep, dark think piece about what we’ve lost. Who’s to blame. Oh no. This, like modern-day politics, is farce.
In the deft and frankly, unabashedly stupid hands of Grindstone Theatre’s creative team, I will spend the next hour and a half laughing harder than I have in years. The plot of this story is nowhere near realistic — it’s perfectly absurd.
Picture this; a young(ish) Jason Kenney, frat member and wearer of sequinned letter jackets emblazoned with UCπ.
(A moment to translate for non-Albertans: the UCP, or United Conservative party, is a far-right leaning political party led by Jason Kenney. UCπ, or Upsilon Cappa Pi, is the name of Kenney’s frat. Clever? Stupid? Why not both?)
Sound ridiculous? Well, hold your horses, the rodeo (or horse party, as it was repeatedly referred to in the show) is just beginning.
A pandemic of mononucleosis. Frat parties. Hyper-exaggerated portrayals of Alberta’s favourite (and least-favourite) politicians. Terrible wigs.
Everything is deliberately inflated, made ridiculous so we can laugh along without being crushed by the impact of reality. It’s impossible not to laugh: the anger and tension I predicted are nowhere to be found. We’re too busy laughing together at foppish Justin Trudeau’s simpering ballad to Ottawa, Janis Irwin’s aggressive posturing, and Tyler Shandro’s knee socks and white-blond fro (if you’re familiar with Alberta politics, you’ll understand why these choices were so perfect).
I feel like a conspirator, as though only we in the room are in on some fantastical joke. Seeing Rachel Notley, Alberta’s beloved (at least in Old Strathcona) NDP leader and ex-premier as a cardigan wearing, scheming ex-summer student council president plotting to overthrow Kenney fills me with glee. We all know she’s no villain, but gosh is it funny (Notley herself seems to agree — she saw the show and loved it).
There is no gritty undertone meant to extract deep emotional responses from the audience. No great message demanding we look inside ourselves and dissect our feelings. See, Grindstone Theatre understands: sometimes, you just need to laugh at how stupid it all is.
Side-splitting laughter. The sort of laughter that comes from sheer release. All of the pent-up frustrations of the past eighteen months — anger with the country and its leaders, with the industry, the world, the new atrocities that seem to arise every day. This isn’t a show that will fix any of these things, but my sides ache from laughing and it’s the first time I’ve shared this sort of laughter with this many people doing something I love and for right now… that’s enough
We aren’t laughing about the events of the past two years. We aren’t even laughing at Jason Kenney himself. We’re simply laughing together. In a room, full of vaccinated people. Enjoying a very, very funny show. Enjoying a long-awaited release.
It isn’t until the final song that I realise I’ve been cheering for Kenney throughout the show, something that not even the most conservative Albertan has done for months.
As the final notes of the last song wind down, check the time — the first time I’ve checked since I sat down. When was the last time I sat through an entire show without wondering when it’d be over? I can’t remember. I don’t want this show to end. As the cast begins to deliver their bows, I clap perhaps too loudly. This feels like a release, the easing of tension I didn’t know I needed. It’s what I didn’t know I wanted when I came to this show from a company I like. It’s simple.