By Troy Hasselman, October 8 2019 —
Calgary’s Sage Theatre is celebrating 20 years of challenging, innovative theatre that’s championed our city’s emerging artists, with world premières and the IGNITE Festival all highlighting the company’s track record.
Sage Theatre Artistic Director Jason Mehmel owes the longevity of the company to its willingness to take risks and innovate with intimate, character-driven work that serves as a launching pad for the careers of Calgary’s artists.
“I think the secret for me is that there’s a baseline of what Sage offers that adapts well to different situations, and that kind of flexibility has kept us going even though the particular way we’re doing something might not be the same way we did it 20 years ago,” Mehmel says. “That offer is that on one hand, it’s really intimate and engages you with empathy in characters that are really unlike you in your experience, fostering our locals artists throughout the professional work of those different stories, challenging our artists to engage in those really complicated stories.”
One of the most notable contributions of the Sage Theatre to the Calgary arts scene is the annual IGNITE Festival for Emerging Artists, which has played a central role in the development of numerous artists in our city.
“I’m an alumni of the IGNITE festival myself, I think it was our second or third year where Kelly Reay had taken over Sage Theatre and Geoffrey Ewert and Adrienne Smook had taken over the IGNITE Festival and modelled it after NextFest in Edmonton, which is a big emerging artists festival,” Mehmel says. “They felt there was an opportunity in Calgary for something that didn’t exist. I think the thing that distinguished IGNITE festival for me is producing emerging artist work and fostering a relationship between the emerging artist and the rest of the community. We’ve also branched out into dance, music and improv. Not just theatre.”
In celebration of the 20th anniversary of Sage Theatre, the company will be revisiting three of its past scripts, and presenting a new script from Oct. 16–19. Mehmel has tried to emphasize plays that have a relevance to our current moment, rather than simply revisit past works that are popular or acclaimed. Past plays that will be revisited include the Soviet-based political-comedy Slavs, originally a co-production with the U of C drama department, the empathetic drama Scorched and King Kirby, a biography-play that follows Jack Kirby, creator of such iconic Marvel characters as Captain America and Thor.
“Slavs is a political-comedy set in the fall of Soviet Russia. That might sound like you need a bit of vodka to get through it, but it’s pretty hilarious because you’ve got these broad characters dealing with the fall of what they’ve known for years,” Mehmel says. “Because we went through a provincial election and are going through a federal one, it feels really appropriate to have these characters debating their next steps amongst themselves. Scorched is a show that is one of the best plays I’ve read, because of the emotional impact it brings. That notion of bringing empathy and community to our character and situation that we don’t often have a chance to examine. This play has characters doing unspeakable things that you completely understand by the time you’ve fully met them. King Kirby, in terms of speaking to where we are today, focuses on the characters that Jack Kirby created when he worked for Marvel Comics — the headliners of the most profitable movie franchise of all time. The fact that people don’t know who Jack Kirby is, to me has always felt like something that’s missing.”
The new project A.I. AM, written and directed by U of C School of Creative and Performing Arts head Bruce Barton takes a look at themes of artificial intelligence and identity.
“A.I. AM is something we’ve been working on for the last year with four amazing actors,” Mehmel says. “Bruce is writing and directing it, but the content that he’s been building has come out of work he’s done with those actors and it’s come out of that question of artificial intelligence. The theatrical twist is we’ve got these four really great actors focusing on the minutiae of the physicality of their characters as they all try to remember who they are, with the idea being one of them is human, and being human is a bad thing where they are. This will be the first time anyone has seen the whole thing — we’re finishing it for the reading. When it gets produced, the hope is that every night the person that is human will be different and there will be four different scripts.”
The season will also include the Western Canadian première of Sean Dixon’s The Orange Dot, which follows two city workers as they wait for supplies to cut down a tree. This play will run at the Joyce Doolittle Theatre from April 23–May 2, 2020.
“There’s amazing, theatrical qualities to it, but it lives in a spoiler-ish territory so it’s hard to talk about,” Mehmel says. “It’s a ‘realistic’ play, it starts with two city workers meeting at a big, old dead tree with a big orange dot on it and they’re there to cut it down and they’re waiting hours for the equipment they need to get there and they’re on their phones having coffee, having conversations about things they see on the news. It goes from small talks to something a little deeper. There’s this slow growth of mythology that permeates around the script, and as it does things change for the characters. You start to lose the realistic and things become mythological and big shift happens due to that mythology.”
Looking forward, Sage Theatre hopes to stay innovative and help grow the arts scene in Calgary.
“On the one hand, what it is that keeps us going is trying to tell stories that we think are helping us explore where we are now,” Mehmel says. “I feel a certain responsibility to choose work that continually explores that question. In the next five, ten, twenty years I hope that we’ll continue to explore that question. There are people working for Sage now who were alumni of the IGNITE festival. I’d like to see where that notion of the IGNITE alumni can go and how we can foster beyond brokering that mentor relationship. We have done world premières like Blood: A Scientific Romance and Legistating Love, but that’s not baked into what we do. New work isn’t the specific reason for what we do, but I’d like to look at the process of making new work and see what it’s like to make the process from scratch with a team.”
Script readings will occur at the Pumphouse Theatre from Oct. 16–19 at 7:30 p.m. each night. Information about each play and tickets can be found on their website.