FROM THE ARTISTIC DIRECTOR
(You’re about to read a novel. You might want to pack lunch and then come back…)
Fifteen years ago I had a vision for a new, professional theatre company whose mandate was to create work for both myself and my friends; each recent theatre school graduates, now trained and ambitious, but without the one prerequisite seemingly every theatre company demanded before seriously considering offering you employment: experience.
Many of us also expressed frustration with the fact that, despite having made a commitment to our new community, the same community in which we trained, cultivated relationships and established roots, that we’d end up completing our post secondary education and be left with no other choice but jump ship; without even the opportunity to find meaningful work, if only to stay fresh until we determined what exactly our next step might look like.
We weren’t looking for full-time, professional careers, but we did expect to be able to cut our teeth, and gain some of that much needed experience so that when and if we did make the decision to move onto larger markets, we could do so with a bit of a resume and the opportunities with which to foster our growth artistically, working on exciting, challenging material without having to immediately sacrifice the production values that are often the first of many compromises that present themselves when embarking upon a life of self-created or collective work (the work that subsidizes our careers just enough that we might pay the rent when and if we become full time professionals).
We wanted to work. We wanted to work on material that excited and challenged us; and we wanted to work in Central Alberta. It was clear to most of us that this was, at best, an almost insurmountable challenge, given the number of graduates at the time vs. the extremely few available opportunities.
It was clear to me that it was our responsibility to be the change we wanted to see.
(Yes. That’s Gandhi. I’m not Gandhi. I’m just Matty G from Leduc, AB)
(You can stop reading now if you’d like. I’d understand. I wonder if this makes this final edit…)
I recruited several of my closest colleagues and collaborators; Ignition Theatre’s founding members: Stephanie Ridge, Jennifer Hallihan, Jeremy Robinson, Cathy Chuchro, Keith Johnson and Jennifer Wheeler - and proposed we launch a new, semi-professional
theatre company with this very simply mandate:
To foster the growth of Alberta’s premiere Emerging Artists by producing dynamic, provocative and ultimately rewarding
live theatre experiences.
(And we did).
Our mandate has naturally evolved throughout the years. The first change came before the house lights went down during our
Recognizing that so much about supporting and fostering growth included networking, but more importantly working alongside experienced artists, our mandate quickly expanded to include an effort to recruit industry professional
to work alongside our emerging talent.
(I couldn’t believe the support from the professional theatre community. It really spoke to the old adage of “if you build it, they come”. They did. And it helped put Ignition on the map; and we all became stronger artists as a result; including, as they would tell you themselves, the professional artists who joined us during those early years)
Today, our mandate reflects-
(Listen; before I continue to share with you how Ignition has grown over the years, I want you to take a look at something. I don’t want to appear as though we had it easy in the beginning. We didn’t. We had to learn how to run a theatre company on the fly and found ourselves navigating those waters without much lenience for a learning curve; which brought me to my knees more often than I’d like to admit. If it hadn’t been for you and your constant source of encouragement and inspiration, Ignition wouldn’t be here fifteen years later…this is where I have to acknowledge Barbara Adams, who almost singlehandedly saved Ignition when it seemed as though we’d run out of options and answers. I won’t go into details, this beast is long enough as is, but without Barbara, you wouldn’t find yourself suffering through this
AD message right now…)
Throughout our first few years, we received several letters, cards and emails; many to congratulate us on the success of the company and the direction in which it was headed, but the majority provoked the next step in our evolution; something we naively hadn’t even considered and were completely oblivious to its importance, though we consider it our greatest responsibility today-
These are actual quotes pulled from a small fraction of the correspondence we received during our first season:
“This was my first play. I had no idea theatre could DO this…”
-Audience Member, Marion Bridge, 2006
“…being here and seeing so many people like me, this is the first and only time I’ve ever felt at home in my own city. When the Mayor started waving his arms at the end, I died.”
-Audience Member, Hedwig & The Angry Inch, 2006
“With a population approaching 90,000, it’s high time Red Deer had a professional theatre company to call our own; and with tonight’s inaugural production of ‘Proof’, Ignition Theatre has delivered on their promise. This is indeed a compelling, intricately executed evening of professional theatre.”
- Theatre Critic, Proof, 2005
Ignition Theatre was so much more than the facilitation of opportunities for our teams of artists, we were providing our community with experiences that seemed to provide them safe spaces, provoke new ideas, encourage new perspectives and entertain them in ways that they’d never even realized were possible. We now felt and proudly accepted the responsibility to contribute to Central Alberta’s cultural fabric by ensuring our work was both prolific and of a certain caliber in an effort to inspire and fulfill our new and ever expanding audience doing our part to transform the pervasive attitude that Red Deer was a theatrical, cultural ghost town and instead let it be known that our arts community, as a whole, was to be taken seriously.
(I want to share so many more, but that seems even more self indulgent than the length of what was supposed to simply be an introduction to the season. But one I have to share: after our production of My Name is Rachel Corrie, we were sent a postcard from a young woman who informed us that until then, she wasn’t sure what her purpose was; she felt aimless and insignificant despite the fact she had a fire burning in her belly. So, she’d quit her job, sold her belongings and was headed half way around the world to pick up where Rachel left off. It, too, was her first play…)
(Ok. Back at it.)
Today, our mandate reflects both our past and the future we continue to build towards. While we remain committed to emerging artists and their professional colleagues, we’re now in a position to welcome back a very specific group of professional artists, Ignition’s own emerging artists who graced our stages throughout the past fifteen years. The artists now regularly return as professionals, celebrating and paying back and forward the original opportunities Ignition provided them and committing to our continued growth in Central Alberta, which many still consider home.
(This season alone I invite you to check out the following biographies, listed under the
‘COMPANY’ menu on our website: Christopher Schulz, Dustin Clark, Patrick Beagan, Starlise Waschuk, Wilmari Myburgh, and Jesslyn Miller)
We are also committed to introducing our audience to and to programming Canadian work; having produced work by Canadian playwrights/creators in all but one season since our inception.
(Fun fact/Interesting Blunder coming right up!)
While we made it our mission to support emerging talent on stage, in design and backstage– there was one aspect of theatre in which emerging talent had been completely neglected. It took us until our fourth season before we realized we’d failed to provide opportunities for emerging playwrights; but since then, we have produced or co-produced five world premieres and two theatre festivals comprised almost entirely of original content; this in addition to our expansion into feature film production, where we’ve produced and released two original, award winning feature films.
Finally, we wanted to be able to engage our community in ways that reached beyond inviting them into our audience and instead produce one production annually, that would serve both as our sole fundraiser and our very own holiday tradition with ‘It’s a Wonderful Life; The Live Radio Drama” where we combine folks from the community (many making their stage debuts!), and members of local community/amateur theatre groups with a small handful of Ignition regulars, giving those interested a small glimpse of what’s involved in mounting an Ignition Theatre production.
As you can see, Ignition has evolved tremendously over the course of the past fifteen years, during which time we’ve produced more than FIFTY productions; from plays to musicals, comedies to dramas, classics to world premieres and from stage debuts to the Tony Award winning stars of Broadway. Reflecting on all of the above, I tend to agree with our very first critic:Ignition Theatre has fulfilled its promise.
There are so many people to thank. Too many. But I’m going to make the effort. If you were inadvertently missed, please accept my most sincere apologies. We both know how important you were to our success and your exclusion is nothing more than my brain failing to participate. These are the people who we don’t get the chance to recognize in programs or on stage who deserve to take a bow.
In addition to our original founding members, Ignition Theatre would not have thrived OR survived without the following people/organizations: Barbara Adams, Bill Jacobsen, Central Alberta Theatre, Red Deer College, Caitlyn Schulz, Leslie Greentree,
Blaine Newton, Kate Harris, Curtis Labelle, Doug Brown, Maureen and Wayne Carey, Penny Caster, Mark Weber, Lana Michelin,
Sharlene Germain, Marnie Rath, Clayton Hitchcock, Curtis Boutllier and Darrel Dixon.
Of course, there are two people in particular who are the reason Ignition has lasted as long as we have. People might look to their tremendous financial contributions to both Ignition and, in 2007, gifting our company with ‘The Matchbox’ – our very own, 120 seat theatre complete with all the bells and whistles. They might also look to the creation of their foundation, ‘The Matchbox Theatre Foundation’ which has provided Ignition the necessary funding to sustain the rising costs of theatre and film production, while at the same time afforded us the ability to distribute 100% of gross box office receipts amongst our contracted artists; you’ve read that correctly, Ignition doesn’t retain
a single cent from the box office and instead invests all revenue into our people and/or production overages.
(Hey! Me again! This is where I’d like to point out that, from the beginning, Ignition mandated that none of the founding members, that have long since left the company to move onto bigger and brighter adventures, nor myself as the Artistic Director or Stephanie as our Production Manager – who combine to direct and stage manage, respectively, 95% of all Ignition productions, were to be paid for our contributions. Our goal has always been to take care of our people above ourselves; we started this company to ensure that artists had a home to come to develop their craft and that, as those entrusted with the sustainability of the company, we wouldn’t and couldn’t in good conscious take anything away from our ability to do just that. That is why we are so passionate about the productions themselves, as they represent so much more than an artistic investment; they are also equal parts a psychological and financial investment and so, when you see us pleading on social media to help fill the house on a Wednesday, it’s because not only do those empty seats equate to empty bank accounts for our artists, sharing our productions with as many people as possible is what drives both Steph and myself through each season and inspires us to continue onto the next one)
(Yes. Steph and I are married. Before Ignition, we hardly knew each other. If that’s not the power of theatre, what is? In fact, you might be surprised to learn just how many couples found each other as a result of an Ignition production)
Stephen and Cynthia Ridge should no longer be a secret to you. They are our community’s most significant artistic patrons, having been personally responsible for the aforementioned ‘Matchbox Theatre’ and ‘Matchbox Theatre Foundation’. These are two individuals who were so inspired by the work of Ignition Theatre, that they made and continue to make significant financial and personal contributions to make sure that Ignition could fulfill its mandate; their support, having a trickle down effect, has supported more than 250 unique artists over the past 12 years they’ve been involved with our company – which almost pales in comparison to the artists they’ve supported and showcased at The Matchbox – not only locally, but inviting some of the most dynamic national and international musical acts to Red Deer, to perform in an intimate venue that they may otherwise not have played but for the story of two people, two private citizens, who committed everything to fostering the growth of the arts in a community that could certainly use more appropriate agencies picking up the slack. They set the example, and while our community still struggles for its fair share of meaningful support, their work and legacy lives on each and every time Ignition opens another show.
(And yes, Steve and Cindy are my in-laws. Trust me though; they don’t like me enough to have supported Ignition Theatre if they hadn’t
been truly inspired)
(They’re gonna read that joke and assure me that they do, in fact, like me and that they probably wouldn’t still be supporting Ignition
if it weren’t for Steph and I)
(Ok. Wrapping up now. Promise.)
I’m truly humbled to be writing another start of the season message fifteen years after my first. If I’m being honest, I wondered it we’d survive until our second season. When we lost The Matchbox, I wondered if we had the emotional capacity to continue – and while we took a small hiatus, we still found ourselves creating art, film, in much the same way we’d always been creating theatre.
This work is inescapable. It’s in our blood.
The rewards aren’t always obvious and too often we’re left wondering if there is still a place for us in this community – and then there is that one person, every performance and every production, who has never seen live theatre – and as long as we’re able, we will always be there, not only for all the artists looking for ways to grow in the same ways my friends and I were fifteen years ago- but for that one person. Sometimes that one person is a teenager who doesn’t know what the future holds and upon seeing their first production and caught by the proverbial “bug”, and they will follow a path into the theatre where they too might end up on the Ignition stage one day; or might grow into the person sitting in their living room, having gathered his or her friends, and convincing them to launch the next Ignition Theatre.
(Thanks for indulging me. I hope you’ll come check us out this season. It’s really, really good. And without you, we’re just a bunch of crazy people pretending to be other people for no good reason. So, at the very least, help us feel less crazy. Love.)