Culture  Struttin’ ‘n’ Frettin’

Student-run theatre at McGill

McGill’s student-run theatre — comprised principally of Players’ Theatre, Tuesday Night Cafe Theatre (TNC), the Arts Undergraduate Theatre Society (AUTS), and the Savoy Society — is one of the untapped cultural gems of the university. Each of these societies stresses openness and outreach toward the McGill community, encouraging participation from and attendance by students from any faculty, with no requirement for previous theatrical experience. Together, these societies’ passionate teams offer diverse programming replete with both theatrical classics and innovative new works.

Players’ Theatre is arguably the pillar of the McGill student-run theatre scene. Players’ was established in 1910, making it the oldest English-language theatre in the city. Executive Director Fiona Penny describes Players’ 2012-2013 programming as a “season of classics,” featuring five iconic plays. Along with these canonical works, Players’ also puts on the McGill Drama Festival each April, featuring five to seven plays written and directed by students. Officially a student service, the theatre receives most of its funding from SSMU, supplemented with revenue from ticket sales. Although Players’ remains creatively autonomous, its affiliation with SSMU encourages the group to provide a welcoming space for students both to participate in and attend productions. Outreach to the McGill community is one of Players’ primary goals, as Penny describes “getting new people involved in the theatre” as one of the groups’ “favourite things.” In line with attracting new theatrical devotees, Players’ also has an important educational component to it, organizing regular technical/technological workshops. The theatre hopes to extend this educational component with stage managing workshops, an avenue the group has previously explored with Theatre Frosh.

TNC, dating back to the mid-1970s, is closely related to Players’ Theatre. They plan their production dates to ensure there is no overlap, as well as borrow members from each other’s teams for various productions. TNC’s season, consisting of five productions, has a slightly more avant-garde bent to it than Players’ programming: upcoming productions include one-woman clown show In Denial. Penny describes how this lean toward more obscure works often makes TNC the victim of the Players’ friendly teasing. The two groups hold an annual end-of-season ceremony for their Freddie awards, in which TNC and Players’ both playfully parody each other’s seasons. Executive Director Jordan Sugarman explains that TNC often aims to choose lesser-known plays in order to give students “an opportunity to make new discoveries in the theatre world.” Along with their regular season, TNC also hosts an ARTifact evening the Tuesday after every show finishes. These festivals feature students’ music, theatrical performances, and visual art. Although officially under the umbrella of the English Department, TNC operates largely autonomously, mainly relying on a sizeable anonymous donation for its funding made about three years ago.

The AUTS presents a different classic Broadway musical every year. As producer Hannah Wood explains, “everyone loves musicals,” so the yearly productions always attract a large and varied audience, ranging from “children, students, business men and women, seniors, arts enthusiasts, and those new to theatre.” This year, AUTS is taking on perennial favourite West Side Story. Although previously associated with the Arts Undergraduate Society, the AUTS currently has no official institutional affiliations as a result of logistical problems arising from last year’s MUNACA strike. As an independent group, AUTS has significant trouble finding the necessary funding for producing a musical, which can involve a budget of up to $30,000. The Society currently relies on ticket revenue as well as private and corporate sponsors, yet continuously struggles to raise a sufficient budget, and often, the cast and crew must pay out of their own pockets.

The Savoy Society, founded in 1964, is the oldest student-run Gilbert and Sullivan group in Canada. Each year, in mid-February, they put on one of Gilbert and Sullivan’s twelve operettas. As President Sophie Krahnke explains, operettas are basically operas that are “lighter on the voice,” drawing them closer to the realm of musical theatre. Operettas, like musicals, also include short scenes with dialogue, yet they maintain a more classical, plot-driven musical style. This year, the Savoy is putting on Iolanthe, an operetta revolving around fairies’ takeover of Parliament. Krahnke describes this as a typical Gilbert and Sullivan plot: “ridiculous, with endings inevitably involving everyone getting married.” She describes the shows as “really fun, funny and cheery, full of dry British humour.” Like Players’, the Savoy is affiliated with and funded by SSMU, making it a student service. Their annual Certainly Not Sullivan Cabaret, which Sophie describes as “the opposite of Gilbert and Sullivan,” introduces more people to the Savoy, including first-time performers. One of the most interesting collaborations for the Savoy is its close links to the two other Gilbert and Sullivan groups in Montreal, both consisting of older amateur performers based out of Westmount. The three societies exchange costumes and sets as well as musical scores, and hold an annual collective concert. Not all students involved with the Savoy are part of the music faculty, but most do have some musical background, especially due to the Savoy’s full-pit orchestra. This trend ties in with Krahnke’s description of the music as the primary focus of the production. Although shows are attended by a lot of people outside the McGill community, Krahnke insists that once students attend a Gilbert and Sullivan performance, they will be hooked, pleasantly surprised at the accessibility of the operetta style, and eager to attend more.

Along with their distinct programming, the venues each society uses also allow them to stand apart. The AUTS and the Savoy both perform in Moyse Hall, a large traditional theatre that can seat over three hundred people. Players’ performances tend to have a cozier feel as the audience is nestled in their 114-seat, low-ceilinged theatre, located in the SSMU building. TNC has the most adaptable space; their productions take place in Morrice Hall, in a perfectly octagonal theatre that can seat over fifty people. Their seating space can be completely rearranged, allowing directors great flexibility in the staging of productions.

The reciprocal support between the societies speaks to the heartfelt commitment members have to theatre. The most appealing aspect of McGill student theatre consistently boils down to the enthusiasm that participants feel for the productions they put on. The camaraderie built through the cooperative development of a production shines through in performances and communicates successfully to the growing student audience.