Northern Light Theatre

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Northern Light Theatre

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Northern Light Theatre was founded in March 1975 as a lunch-time theatre, modeled after the programming of Vancouver City Stage. The four founding artists were Scott Swan (Artistic Director), Alland Lysell (Administrative Director), and Andela and Merrilyn Gann (Actors). All were originally from Vancouver, but had come to Edmonton where there seemed a more receptive atmosphere for developing new theatre. NLT’s first presentation was Love and Drollery, a collage of Elizabethan music, prose and poetry, at the Edmonton Art Gallery Theatre. As this production finished, Lysell and Sean also performed Babel Rap, by John Lazarus, in the first program of Citadel Too (also known as Citadel II and Citadel Two), an alternative theatre program John Neville initiated to expand the range of the Citadel Theatre. Northern Light performed its lunch program for the next five years out of the Edmonton Art Gallery Theatre, which the company had renovated with the help of a $12,000 OFY grant that first summer. The ticket price for that first summer was $1.00. In 1976, Northern Light added two evening performances each week, so it could offer longer plays. In 1977, Frank Moher was hired as dramaturge, and the company originated a “Playwrights Unit” for reading and workshopping new plays, by such writers as Gordon Pengilly, Tony Bell, Ben Tarver and James DeFelice. Swan emphasized development of a “house style” of performance, a “lyrical intensity” of presentation and developed ensemble playing in works such as Ten Lost Years and Six War Years. Among the works that got the Canadian premieres during this early period were David Mamet’s Sexual Perversity in Chicago and Arthur Kopit’s Wings. In 1980 Northern Light moved to an evening program of full-length plays. Part of the plan was a commitment to originating new Canadian plays with two such works to be commissioned each season. Also in 1980, as part of SummerFest, Northern Light began a summer rep company, Shakespeare in the Park, in a tent on Connors Hill, south of the Muttart Conservatory. Accumulated debts of some $107,000 forestalled plans for the 1980-81 winter season. The 1981 summer season of four plays added to the debts, leaving the company owning some $130,000. The winter season, 1981-82 had to be cancelled, and Northern Light ceased the SummerFest season in the park. In late 1981 as well, Swann was hired by Festival Lennoxville, leaving the company without a full-time artistic director. Swan split his time between Lennoxville and Edmonton until Janice van der Veen, from the Vancouver New Play centre, was hired in 1982. In 1983, after a 1982-83 season that was staged in a variety of venues, Northern Light moved to the Kaasa Theatre in the Jubilee Auditorium. A massive fund-raising campaign cleared off the debts by October 1983. The Northern Light season became a mix of established, contemporary, and new Canadian works, a season at times much like that of the Phoenix, with whom it shared the Kaasa stage (though Northern Light was more likely to put a new Canadian work into its mainstage season). From 1982, Northern Light also participated in the Alberta Playwrighting Centre, which it co-founded in collaboration with Albert Theatre Projects of Calgary. By 1987, with the theatre having gradually lost audience, van der Veen and the Northern Light board parted ways, and Gyllian Raby was hired from Calgary’s One Yellow Rabbit Company. Raby’s preference was to explore theatrical form and theatrical image. She initiated a series of collaborative projects, each involving a writer, a composer, a designer and a director. The first such project was Treacheries of the Blue Angel, in June 1989. In 1991-92, Raby voluntarily took Northern Light off Canada Council operational funding, preferring the flexibility of project funding. Budgetary problems arose that year when a tour of Blake Brooker’s Ilsa , Queen of the Nazi Love Camp was cancelled by court order in mid-run, because of the Jim Keegstra re-trial- Keegstra being a character in the play. Raby resigned in 1992 to accompany her husband to Halifax. Robert Astle, formerly of Small Change Theatre, succeeded her briefly, before D.D. Kugler took over from 1994 to 1998. By late 1995, Kugler ended Northern Light’s period at the Kaasa to pursue production in “non-traditional theatre venues.” Although Kugler first attracted attention in March 1995 for a production of Daniel MacIovr’s 2-2 Tango, a piece where movement is the main communicative medium he was highly interested in the spoken word on stage, including adapting poetic works. He carried on a play-reading and development program that took works from early reading through to full production. Sandhano Schultze, formerly of Pink Ink Theatre of Vancouver, became Artistic Director in May, 1998. His early plans included continuing the play-reading series.

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