PEI

P.E.I. theatre to put on fewer plays 'written by old dead white men' in favour of contemporary offerings

Watermark Theatre in North Rustico, P.E.I., this week announced a "new vision" that better reflects current society.

In future, half the plays put on each season will be contemporary

Gracie Finley, left, and Leah Pritchard, right, in the summer 2017 Watermark Theatre production of Mrs. Warren's Profession, a classic play by George Bernard Shaw that was first performed more than 100 years ago, in 1902. (Submitted by Watermark Theatre)

Watermark Theatre in North Rustico, P.E.I., this week announced a "new vision" that better reflects current society.

The theatre was conceived 13 years ago, first as The Montgomery Theatre under Duncan McIntosh, and then as The Watermark. Its mission was to produce classic and modern-classic plays by the likes of Tennessee Williams, Oscar Wilde, Neil Simon and George Bernard Shaw. 

"Theatres across the country have taken this time during this pandemic, and in consideration of the Black Lives Matter movement, and really just evaluated why we do what we do," said artistic director Robert Tsonos, who spoke with Mainstreet P.E.I.'s Matt Rainnie. 

"Almost all of the plays that we produce are written by old dead white men." 

Tsonos notes the plays were beautifully written and are classics for a reason, and audience numbers at the theatre have been strong the last few years. That just wasn't good enough any more, he said.

"They're not inclusive of all Canadians, there's very little diversity involved, and so I really thought that it was time to open up our mandate to include more contemporary plays." 

'Trying to find people from diverse communities'

The theatre usually produces two plays every summer, Tsonos said, and moving forward one play will be classic and one will be contemporary. 

Robert Tsonos has been the artistic director of Watermark Theatre in North Rustico since 2015. (Kevin Yarr/CBC)

He said new plays are constantly being written and produced around the world, so he will be checking out what's being offered on Broadway in New York City as well as in Toronto and Montreal, and putting calls out to playwrights for new plays. 

"The new immigrant stories are always interesting — stories that are as diverse as the playwrights that we have in this country," he said. "It's really their voices that I'm trying to amplify." 

It feels fantastic, it feels liberating.— Robert Tsonos

Tsonos said the theatre wants to update not only its plays to be more diverse and inclusive, but also the organization itself, including the board of directors and hiring practices. That's already started with the recruitment of one BIPOC board member.

The theatre is also looking for a new administrator and "will be diligent about trying to find people from diverse communities," Tsonos said. 

"It should permeate through our entire organization," he said.

The theatre is also making its public washrooms gender-neutral, he said. 

The Watermark in North Rustico began as The Montgomery Theatre, committed to presenting plays written and performed during the lifetime of famed P.E.I. author L.M. Montgomery. (Watermark Theatre/Facebook)

"It just feels like the time is now to make those changes — and not to make small, incremental changes but to make big changes, because I feel like that is what we are being asked for and I feel like that is long overdue.

"It feels fantastic, it feels liberating." 

How will audiences react to plays they might not have heard of before? 

"There's a great reaction so far," to the news of the mandate change, he said. 

He said the theatre has also been working on becoming more environmentally sustainable, adding insulation, changing out lights and adding a heat pump. It will also re-evaluate how it builds and disposes of sets, costumes and props. 

As for 2021, "I'm very confident we're going to have a summer season," Tsonos said, but likely with limited audience numbers. They plan to announce in March the plays they will produce this summer. 

More from CBC P.E.I.

With files from Mainstreet P.E.I.

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