Whitehorse's theatre community: a place where people make things happen

Whitehorse isn’t generally regarded as one of Canada’s leading theatre centres. But the Yukon’s capital is host to a surprisingly rich group of performance makers, bound together by an unflagging sense of community.

The Magnetic North festival heads to the Yukon in 2016, and there's a rich community ready to embrace it

Magnetic North's Theatre In The Bush ( www.gbpcreative.ca)

EDITOR'S NOTE: This article regrets excluding mention of the Gwaandak Theatre, the Yukon's only Indigenous-centred theatre company, which tours regionally and nationally and are in their 15th season. Their newest production, Map of the Land, Map of the Stars, is a part of the Magnetic North Festival noted in the article. CBC Arts strives to reflect the diversity of Canadian artistic communities, and apologizes for this oversight. You can read more about the Gwaandak Theatre here, and look forward to future coverage on the Theatre at CBC Arts.

Whitehorse isn't generally regarded as one of Canada's leading theatre centres. But the Yukon's capital is host to a surprisingly rich group of performance makers, bound together by an unflagging sense of community. A highly educated population combined with a need to chase away the winter doldrums has led to the development of a small but dedicated group of artists hungry to create their own work at the same time they warmly welcome outside productions.

Though local enthusiasm for theatre is high, creating performance in the region comes with a particular set of challenges. Despite the diverse range of talent, the professional pool remains small. Casting can be tough and often involves flying south to Edmonton or Vancouver in the hopes of finding the right person for the role. Limited local opportunities also mean operating as a full-time artist is a near impossibility. Most folks support themselves with additional jobs, which makes coordinating rehearsals tough.

Like the talent pool, the audience also remains finite. With a population hovering around 24,000, there's a limit to how many bums will ever end up in seats. Touring is essential for artists intent on reaching a wider public. At the same time, flights to and from the region are costly, so travelling shows need to operate with small casts and minimal sets.

Petite productions are also a function of limited access to resources artists in other Canadian cities take for granted. Working in Toronto or Montreal, designers can easily find the perfect prop or costume piece with a leisurely afternoon stroll through their local thrift store. But the region lacks easy access to such elements. Many items need to be constructed from scratch or ordered from afar, sucking time from the schedule and money from the budget.

Despite these barriers, Whitehorse has become a mini-magnet for creators from across the country, with the Yukon Arts Centreand the Pivot Theatre Festival often providing touring artists with their first chance to see the city. This month, the region takes things up a notch with the arrival of Magnetic North festival. The annual event alternates locations between the nation's capital and another Canadian city each year, bringing some of the country's hottest shows to far-flung places.

Each edition programs touring shows alongside the host city's local talent. This year's offerings from Whitehorse include director Brian Fidler's site-specificTheatre in the Bush, which invites more than a dozen creators to present performances and interactive installations on different parts of his sprawling wooded property, interdisciplinary artist Arlin McFarlane's solo meditation on trauma and neuroplasticity My Brain is Plastic, and Nakai Theatre's truly home-grown tale Dogtown: The Musical, which tells the true story a community rallying around an abused pup condemned to death after biting the wrong person.

Magnetic North's My Brain Is Plastic (Magnetic North)

While huge productions and massive audiences aren't up for grabs, Whitehorse draws artists in by offering things often absent in other centres. Fidler made the move north more than two decades ago. A native of BC's lower mainland, he'd initially intended to spend a single summer there, pumping gas and fixing tires at a service station on the Alaska Highway. But following what he dubs the "classic story" of northern migration, he fell for both the region and the woman who would go on to be his wife, settling in Whitehorse soon after he finished his studies.

Besides the dual draws of landscape and love, Fidler cites an unexpected element that ignited his passion for an area synonymous with deep, dark winters.

"At its core, I'd say it's about the light," he says. "The midnight sun in the summer months is so extraordinary. The rate of growth for everything is accelerated and it kind of picks you up and takes you with it. It makes you feel so alive at all times of the day."

"For the other half of the year, it's really about the people," he adds. "Everyone pulls together, whether it's through storytelling or just supporting each other with whatever they need. The sense of community is incredible."

Like Fidler, McFarlane loves the local sense of interconnectedness.  After completing her studies at the University of Victoria, the Montreal expat was offered a series of jobs north of the 60th parallel and decided to relocate there. That was more than 30 years ago and she's never regretted the decision.

"We all know one another and help each other out," she says. "Because of the small population, we also have a lot of government support and personal contact with the folks at those agencies, which makes a big difference. If you want to talk to somebody about your funding you can just call them up."

David Skelton, who helms Nakai Theatre, is a relatively recent transplant, arriving in Whitehorse in 2006. A Toronto native, he'd been hired to work on a number of local shows before he took up full time residence. Drawn to the stunning scenery at the same time he was getting fed up with commuting in the Big Smoke, he jumped at the chance to move north when he was offered the job.

"I was blown away by all the wilderness around the city," he says. "There was also the closeness you have with everybody and how supportive people are."

The combination of community spirit and can-do attitude mean local artists continually find ways to subvert the inherent challenges of working in the region and make things work for, rather than against them.

"One of the things I love most about creating here is that it's a place where people just make things happen," McFarlane says. "That amazing sense of possibility is a big part of what keeps me in this place."

Magnetic North Festival. June 9-18. Whitehorse. www.magneticnorthfestival.ca

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