Theatre Network's first official season in the rebuilt Roxy Theatre is underway
By Cory Schachtel | December 1, 2022
In 1938, the Roxy Theatre, designed by prominent Edmonton architect William G. Blakely, opened its doors under the soon-to-be-iconic vertical “ROXY” sign. That sign remained even after the theatre burned down in 2015.
Earlier this year, the rebuilt theatre with a brand-new sign opened its doors to a spring gala, a radical retelling of Shakespeare and some Fringe shows. But this week, Theatre Network, which purchased the theatre in 1989, opened the first official season in the new space. And after seven years operating elsewhere, Artistic Director Bradley Moss wanted to start season 48 by making full use of the building.
“When we started the design process, the Morris Foundation folks, who had been donating pretty consistently to us and supporting us, met with us and said when you build the new building, you’re going to need programs and resources to populate it. And their focus is mental health and addictions, so they wanted to investigate a way to develop shows or stories about that. Through that, we parked a bunch of money over at the Edmonton Community Foundation and created the Morris Foundation/Theatre Network Commissioning Fund, and this is the first play that’s gone through that whole cycle, from commissioning to development to now a premiere on the stage.”
The play is The Innocence of Trees, by Eugene Stickland. He’s worked with Moss on plays before, but in 2019 the pair had their first lunch in a few years, during which Stickland brought up Canadian painter Agnes Martin, and how much he loves her art. Moss then mentioned the purpose of the newly minted Morris fund, and Stickland replied that Martin had once checked herself into a hospital for schizophrenia. “And we both went, Oh, we think we’ve got the play we want to work on.”
What followed was a mountain of research, Moss says, including Stickland trying his hand at replicating Martin’s abstract works that consist mostly of inhumanly drawn straight lines. “He would send me postcards saying, ‘To make those grids, it’s a lot harder than you think — and I’m doing it with a ruler!”
As someone who worked for group homes in Vancouver, Moss understands well that the developmental years between mother and child are critical for someone’s mental health. But you don’t need to be an expert to understand the shocking trauma — even for the time — Martin suffered. “In the play, we really lean into when her mother would leave her, basically tied up like a dog outside in the yard, and she wasn’t allowed in. The other kids were allowed in, but she was told no, you stay away.”
Martin grew up in Saskatchewan, seeing the straight lines of the prairie horizon every day. She found success in New York — some of her work is in the Museum of Modern Art — and ended up in New Mexico, “where she found peace and tranquility, where she could paint again, and have a whole other second career, and sort of a sunset moment” in a landscape similar to Saskatchewan’s (in flatness, if not temperature).
Maralyn Ryan and her granddaughter Emma Ryan play elder and younger versions of Martin, respectively, and the two characters talk to each other across time in the play’s attempt to understand what the artist saw and portrayed on canvas. “There’s a moment with the young girl where we show the painting that she created called ‘The Tree,’ and she talks about how it came to her in a vision through the voices, which is true — she would sit and listen to the voices, and they would tell her to paint this very small little grid. Then she had to do all this math, figuring out how to make it six feet by six feet. The older [Martin] has got her back to it, but the audience sees the great painting, and then we superimpose the actual tree, and what we’re conjuring is what the younger artist is now seeing: the world in a new way.”
The new theatre has a deeper stage, four projectors and a second venue (The Lorne Cardinal) downstairs, and Moss is happy to make use of all the “bells and whistles.” But the building redesign also offers theatre goers a more immersive experience outside the theatre, and even outside of showtimes. Upstairs, the Roxy’s Miller Art Gallery houses Martin’s On A Clear Day, a 30-piece collection of her prints loaned by the University of Lethbridge, photographs by Donald Woodman (a friend Martin met in New Mexico), and a multimedia exploration of Martin’s career with music cut from the show. It creates a tactile experience people can have anytime, even if they don’t see the show, although Moss says “it’s kind of cool seeing people look at it when they come in, before the show, and then look at it differently as they leave.”
Moss may be directing a new show developed in a new house, but it still feels like home. “The stage is where the old stage was, but we’re not going to do it the same way anymore. The building is challenging us to think new, do new, program new. It’s going to push the company to grow and evolve in new ways. And that’s a process, but it’s exciting.”