Edmonton is a theatre-mad town. Per capita, there is more theatre in this northern city – some 3,900 kilometres from Broadway – than there is in New York City. A Christmas Carol, a staple at The Citadel Theatre, brings in audiences each winter; it’s as ritual to many as celebrating the holidays themselves. And while 115,000 theatregoers fill the seats of the Citadel’s five venues each season, the fact remains: Audiences are aging.
Therefore, as the Citadel celebrates its 50th anniversary season starting this fall, the challenge – according to artistic director Bob Baker – is ensuring that the live experience is introduced to millennials. But he is hoping that the programming he has lined up will resonate with younger audiences.
“Theatre can bring a fresh, immediate energy and sensibility to the classics, so that a new generation can appreciate them,” Baker says.
As a look forward, Baker, who is entering his 17th season with the Citadel, explains that the theatre put out a call for local artists to submit ideas for its 50th Anniversary Made in Edmonton Cabaret Premieres. In addition to regular programming, the theatre is commissioning, helping to develop and presenting six cabarets, each with an Edmonton connection. Baker explains that the Citadel is not a roadhouse: “I don’t want to just bring shows to the Citadel, I want to make sure that we’re also exporting shows – creating and generating them.”
One of the cabarets selected is Rapid Fire Theatre‘s We’re Not Afraid. The interactive performance will take place Feb. 4 to 6, 2016, at the Citadel’s newest venue, The Club – a space that may remind some of the Citadel’s original 102nd Street performance space, which is now The Starlite Room.
The title of Rapid Fire’s cabaret alludes to the Edward Albee classic Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, which was the first play ever put on by the Citadel in 1965, and will be remounted on the stage of the Citadel’s Shoctor Theatre from Jan. 23 to Feb. 13, 2016, starring Canadian actors Tom Rooney and Brenda Robins.
It’s a fitting nod to the history of what has become a cornerstone of Edmonton’s vibrant theatre community.
The first scene: A young Joseph Shoctor is parked behind the old Salvation Army Citadel. This complex character with a degree in law and a passion for the arts takes centre stage in the history of The Citadel Theatre. Here, on 102nd Street, just two blocks south of Jasper Avenue, he spots a “For Sale” sign on the old Salvation Army Citadel. It’s easy to imagine that Shoctor, a former Victoria Composite High School student and then a member of two community theatre groups – Edmonton Little Theatre and Circle Eight – would have felt a thrill at the potential of this building and his role in filling this empty stage.
Shoctor had been producing shows on Broadway. Before his return to Edmonton, a call came in to CFRN’s morning show: The local caller wondered why Shocktor was in New York and not starting a theatre in Edmonton. The host, Irv Shore, passed the question on to Shoctor, who thought, “Yes, why not?”
By the 1960s, there were regular audiences and a sustained interest in establishing a permanent, professional company. Shoctor, viewed as less of a financial liability as he was equipped with a law degree, found success in securing the purchase of the building despite other theatre groups’ interests in the space. He had long been a part of the local scene and was offered a list of theatre supporters to use for a mailing list. This original location would eventually become The Starlite Room – a music venue that maintains the do-it-yourself feel on which Shoctor certainly capitalized.
The Citadel Theatre formally launched on Nov. 13, 1965, about a month after the building was purchased. An audience filled the seats for the opening night of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? directed by and starring a member of the University of Alberta’s drama department, Bernard Engel. While this play was a bold choice, especially as the theatre’s first performance, audiences were ready.
Enter three of Shoctor’s friends, each playing supporting roles. James Martin, Ralph MacMillan and Sandy Mactaggart offered up significant amounts of cash for a risky arts venture in this northern city in 1965.
By 1976, just 11 years after opening its doors, and after the creative influence of four distinct artistic directors, the Citadel would move from the happened-upon Salvation Army space to a facility designed specifically for this growing theatre.
The now-landmark rust-red and glass complex sits across from the southeast corner of Sir Winston Churchill Square – a piece of land gifted to the Citadel by the City of Edmonton – marking the largest professional theatre in North America. Its Robbins Academy is considered the most comprehensive theatre program for creative development in the country.
“We’re big, but we’ve had to be flexible and versatile too,” Baker acknowledges. “When the economy dumped in 2009, it affected everybody. We’ve managed to maintain growth. It says something about the theatre community, the audience and the orders of government that have continued to fund us.”
As the Citadel has grown, stars such as Roy Dotrice and Martha Henry have performed on its stages. The theatre has attracted world-renowned directors – including John Neville, credited with establishing the Citadel nationally, and Robin Phillips, credited with regaining that prestige after a series of trying years – and has fostered local talent, including Baker himself. While making a mark on the world stage, Baker explains that, during his term, he has seen an increase in the number of local artists employed.
Its 50th year may be remembered as the year a longstanding question was answered: Where is the front door? Baker reveals the answer. “We’re putting a grand new entryway and a marquee on the corner that faces Churchill Square. We’re blasting out the corner of the building. We’re putting in huge sliding doors. Above that, we’re putting in a eight-foot square digital stream that will advertise the shows we’re doing and advertise community events.”
The Citadel’s first 50 years are bookended by Shoctor’s yes-why-not attitude – something Edmontonians might now recognize as a make-something spirit – and Baker’s conscious commitment to local and to building new audiences. While telling a very Edmonton story, these first 50 years mark a stronghold of professional theatre in this northern city. When the marquee and entryway are complete this theatre season, the Citadel hopes, as Baker explains, that people know they can “just walk on through and everyone is welcome.”