When Dennis Foon and Heather Redfern took the stage on Tuesday, June 18th, we were invited to sit in on their laid-back, free-flowing conversation about theatre in Vancouver. Their conversation moved through a range of topics, such as boundary-pushing political theatre, power-reversals in children’s theatre, and the difficulties theatre companies face with funding becoming scarce, and artistic talent migrating out of the city. In light of these difficulties, Eva Sajoo, the Spur Public Fellow, asked the panelists what is the relevance of theatre in today’s society. Effectively, “What would we stand to lose” if we lost theatre?
Another way one might think of answering this question is to answer another question, “What makes theatre so enduring as an art form?” Theatre was born in Athens as early as the 4th century BCE, with players chanting lines in a chorus, and it has remained a part of Western society despite the arrival of mass media, TV shows and film. Even with competition from these new art forms, and without much funding, Vancouver theatre continues to push boundaries, engage new audiences, and thrive in festivals such as the Fringe Festival, PuSh Festival, Theatre Under the Stars and Bard on the Beach Shakespeare Festival. So what is it about theatre that has given it such a varied and unshakeable presence here in Vancouver?
In part, it may be that theatre offers the unique experience of seeing, feeling, and sometimes even participating in what Foon calls “a cross section of society.” The challenge, Foon elaborated, is to connect the audience with this cross-section; to engage them, and to impact them. Both panelists spoke of the intensely spiritual and political impact that theatre can have on us, and its exceptional ability to remain relevant throughout the centuries. Theatre has remained relevant in Vancouver by constantly evolving, by pushing the boundaries of where theatre can be experienced, and by pushing the boundaries of who can experience it. In Vancouver, you can experience classic Shakespearian drama as well as some university student performing a comedy act in a dimly lit dive bar. Theatre in Vancouver can be political, it can carry a message, it can make you laugh, it can make you cry, and it can offend you so much that you walk out mid-show. It can connect with you on a deeply human level, as it is an experience grounded in human emotion, human engagement, and human representation.
So what would we stand to lose if we lost theatre? Cicero believed that theatre, specifically comedy, was “the imitation of life, the mirror of custom, the image of truth.” But whether comedy, tragedy, rehearsed or improvised, theatre is the imitation and representation of ourselves, and if we lose theatre, we lose the unique experience that theatre offers: to suffer with and celebrate the human condition.