From its new musical incubator to a jam-packed 50th anniversary season, Theatre Aquarius is leading Canadian theatre into a new era

Hamilton’s a pretty happening town.

Contrary to the beliefs of some elected officials in Toronto, the city’s not just an annex for Torontonians priced out of the TO housing market. Hamilton’s a worthy destination all its own, with some of the best of what Ontario has to offer — show-stopping craft beer, scenic overlooks, tempting local cuisine.

But perhaps the most exciting facet of Hamilton is housed inside Theatre Aquarius, in the form of the just-launched National Centre for New Musicals (NCNM). Funded by the Hamilton-based Incite Foundation for the Arts, the Canadian musical theatre incubator will nurture new projects through their development periods, shepherding them to their eventual homes on stages around the world. It’s an ambitious project, and artistic director Mary Francis Moore and executive director Kelly Straughan have their eyes set on success well beyond the Canadian border.

“We’re building the scaffolding for the program,” Moore said in an interview. “We recognize that there are other theatres in Canada developing new musicals, and developing new work. But we’re not looking at pieces with the aim for us to produce it, necessarily. We’re not looking at pieces, saying, ‘oh, there’s 18 people in it, so we can’t afford to do it.’ We’re interested in the ideas behind these pieces — we want to create a space for those projects, and match projects with folks who can help them through their development.

“If it’s something we feel like we can produce at Theatre Aquarius, great, but if not, we can pick up the phone and call theatres in Vancouver or Edmonton or New York,” she continued. “There is a hunger for new musical theatre. There’s a need for this work.”

It’s true — the National Centre for New Musicals will fill a gap in the Canadian theatre ecology. While groups like Musical Stage Company are similar in how they escort new projects through their development process, the NCNM is unique in how it will educate the national theatre community on the financial ins and outs of producing new work.

“We’re really excited to have [Come From Away producer Michael Rubinoff] involved,” said Straughan, “because more young producers need to understand the commercial model of musical theatre. There’s not an existing program that teaches you how to produce this work. Ambitious ideas are really expensive, yes. But it’s important we support them all the same, and that’s something we and our funders are excited about.”

The NCNM signals a new chapter for Theatre Aquarius, entering its 50th year in operation for its 2023-2024 season. This year’s programming is rife with showstoppers, from Jake Epstein’s solo musical Boy Falls from the Sky to Crow’s Theatre’s critically lauded adaptation of Uncle Vanya. Steven Gallagher’s new musical Pollyanna will premiere in December, and Tom Wilson and Shaun Smyth will premiere their new musical Beautiful Scars next spring. It’s a jam-packed season that goes above and beyond what some might expect from a regional theatre in southwestern Ontario, but according to Straughan, that level of care in programming is exactly what regional theatres in Canada should be doing. 

“Regional theatres offer a very unique service to the community,” she said. “Some of the best talent in the country is here. You can see people on our stages who are also at the Shaw Festival, and Broadway. We bring professional theatre to this region, which is a really exciting piece of what we offer our community. If our doors were to close, you can feel what would be lost. We’re always trying to hit both parts of our identity: we’re a professional theatre, and we’re a valuable member of the community.”

Moore agreed, invoking the “Hamilton pride” that makes the city such an exciting place for Theatre Aquarius (and subsequently the NCNM) to call home. 

“It’s a real vibe here,” she said, chatting fondly about Collective Arts Brewing and the myriad local coffee roasters in the region. “We’re really proud of Hamilton, and we’re leaning into it.”

According to Straughan and Moore, the National Centre for New Musicals will only continue to solidify Hamilton as a prime destination for exciting new work — and after the success of last season’s Maggie, the duo are confident this enterprising experiment in theatre production will succeed.

“Do you know how exciting it is to watch a program go from its first read-through with music stands to one of the biggest stages in the world?,” asked Moore. “How amazing is it to be an investor in that? Or an audience member? Canadians have not been schooled in that model, and there’s a real treat to be unearthed in it.”

Theatre Aquarius’ 50th season kicks off on Sept. 27 with Jonas and Barry in the Home by Norm Foster, which Straughan calls Theatre Aquarius’ “love letter to Hamilton.”

“Our audiences will love it,” she said. “Hamilton loves Norm Foster. And he loves them right back. It’s going to be fun.

“There’s just a lot of really cool energy in the building right now,” added Moore. “Theatre Aquarius is an exciting place to be in this moment.”

You can learn more about Theatre Aquarius here.

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Written By

Aisling is Intermission's senior editor, a breaking news reporter at CP24, and a former reporter for the Toronto Star. She is former president of the Canadian Theatre Critics Association. She likes British playwright Sarah Kane, most songs by Taylor Swift, and her cats, Fig and June.