In the before time of February, the Walterdale Theatre ran a production of 1984. Three weeks later, with the ominous undertones of that story still fresh, the world changed, and the company’s season was cancelled.
The next production was to be 5 @ 50, written by Edmonton-born Brad Fraser and directed by Louise Mallory, about a woman who loses control at her 50th birthday party. It was 10 days from opening when the theatre, and world, went dark.
That marked the first time in more than 40 years that the building sat empty for an extended period. Since 1974, the Walterdale Playhouse, with its fire-hall façade, has hosted countless productions and helped launch many careers in Edmonton’s theatre community.
“It was heartbreaking,” says Artistic Director Monica Roberts, who was already planning the second season of her two-year term. As a community, theatre people are an optimistic bunch, but there’s a specific type of pain that comes with not getting to do what the theatre’s volunteers, writers, directors and actors feel they’re meant to do. “You spend four or five months, perhaps even a year, nurturing, creating and developing these strong artistic bonds, and then the excitement of sharing a new project is just ripped away.”
The theatre moved its playwright workshop, From Cradle to Stage, online, cancelled its summer musical, and Roberts says they even discussed “cramming 5 @ 50 into September.” No luck.
But creatives gonna create, so with Alberta Health Services recommendations, Roberts reached out to her directors. “I threw that creative challenge to them: Can you find scripts that have three people or fewer, scripts that can keep a two-metre distance between actors? And I asked them to pitch different kinds of stories, with different designs, and to really look at the limitations as an opportunity to explore what the new face of theatre could be.”
The result is a semblance of normal, with rehearsals starting on three productions, to be seen by audiences in separated seating in the spring. In the case of 5 @ 50, Louise Mallory took a hyper-current approach, adapting the script into a post-pandemic birthday party, asking what it would be like for six women to gather today, with masks and without hugs.
Of course, the COVID cloud still lingers, threatening cancellation again. Roberts hesitates when asked if she sees light at the end of the tunnel, sharing her pragmatic perspective instead. “These new parameters allow us to take a creative, empowered approach. We don’t have to compromise, we just have to shift our thinking. It’s a small experiment — it may fail miserably, but at least we’re trying. And I think that’s therapeutic unto itself, when you at least have hope, and are trying to shape something for yourself and for your community.”