What do I love about the Calgary theatre community? We are open, supportive and accepting of all our artists, through their growth, reinvention, successes and failures.
Jane and I moved to Calgary in July 2000, just in time for the Stampede parade. Calgary was going to be a fresh start as Jane had been hired to teach Voice at Mount Royal College. Early in the fall, Jane did a voice workshop at Theatre Calgary and connected with many of the artists from Theatre Junction, which led to her coaching a few shows in the old Betty Mitchell Theatre.
When we were out at opening nights, she would introduce me as “my husband Neil, the playwright”. Up to this point in my life I was Neil the techie and sometimes designer, who also wrote plays. It was a great boost to my confidence and my craft to take on this new role. And so I became Neil the playwright, and kept all my techie life separate for quite some time. I had landed myself a gig as a scenic carpenter at F&D Scene Changes, which at the time had minimal crossover into the local scene.
I discovered Alberta Playwrights Network and have been involved with the organization off and on ever since. Monday nights meant three hours of playwrights and playwriting facilitated by the wonderfully supportive Gordon Pengilly. Then I got to work on my craft with Sharon freakin’ Pollock! And by working on my craft I mean drinking beer in Marda Loop and pounding the table over whatever bees where in Sharon’s bonnet. I connected with Johanne at Lunchbox who offered me my first professional contract on one of the weirdest plays they must have ever done - involving chocolate, shrunken heads, and Spiderman underwear. Ask Jo, Trevor, Shannon, Robert or Marcie about it sometime.
Calgary has a culture of re-invention and acceptance. This first time I saw Mark Bellamy, he was in fishnets at Stage West. I’ve seen so many peers go from actor to director, director to puppeteer, designer to filmmaker, choreographer to artistic director, painter to producer, playwright to critic and vice-versa. Everyone just seems to react with, “Oh, you’re doing that now too? Cool. Good for you. Are you free next March to do a show?”
It was somewhere in here that I went to the Betty Mitchell awards as Glenda Stirling’s date. It was the first time Di Goodman came over to talk to me. I felt like I’d made it, or something. Anyway, so we’re at the Betty’s and I’m watching my friends and colleagues celebrate each other, shows that I had seen and loved won awards, Kelly Reay won for directing that year I think. Sage was busting out. And although I was proud of everyone, I realized I didn’t have a horse in any of these races.
So I started to chase design work - set, props, lights, even costumes. I worked regularly with Downstage and Simon, who also introduced me to Jeremy at New West in Lethbridge. But there was a young whipper-snapper called Anton who was soon going to bust out as the Downstage resident designer. Who just spent the summer at (ahem) Stratford? WTG ADG! So proud of you.
I’m also proud that my play John Doe/Jack Rabbit was one of Deitra’s first design gigs and she did an amazing job. Still does. I’m still really proud of our collaboration on GZT/H&M’s Gruesome Playground Injuries. D-Train went from ACAD Student and Auburn server to almost overnight becoming one of our best and busiest designers in town. Nobody even blinked. And that on load–in day, this playwright got to play the role of stage carpenter, because all three of GZT’s TD’s are lighting guys and no one could figure out how to layout the floor. Good times.
And so if you’re new to Calgary, or looking for a change - don’t sweat it. As the Soup Dragons once put it, you’re free to be what you want… any old time.