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Words: Barry Strader
Photos: David Cooper, Ryan Parker, Joan Marcus
They’re Edmonton artists performing created-in-Edmonton productions for audiences across Canada, the United States, the United Kingdom and Australia. And they’ve been doing it for two decades.
“It’s really satisfying because the award speaks so much to exactly what it is that we do,” said Jonathan Christenson, Catalyst’s artistic director. “That’s why it’s so great to see ATB launch this award. We sometimes get very focused on work that’s being done here in Edmonton. It has more visibility locally. It’s easier to see the impact it’s having. It’s harder to see how work that’s being exported also has a significant impact, because it’s not immediate. It’s great to have that work affirmed and recognized.”
Catalyst’s plays usually have a four-to-five-year lifespan as they tour the world. Depending on the size of the production, the touring crew of Edmontonians is between 12 and 20 people. Catalyst’s plays are created in a small studio in the Alberta capital, but performed in theatres of between 750 and 1,250 seats.
“Often the work has an adult fairy tale quality to it” said Christenson. “There’s a lot of music in the work. It’s designed to transport people into another dream-like world for the 90 minutes they’re in the theatre and just go on a journey with us.”
In most cases, the storylines of Catalyst productions centres around outsiders—people on the edges of society. They’ve done adaptations of Victor Hugo’s Hunchback of Notre Dame and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and a piece on the life and work of Edgar Allan Poe, which had a decent off-Broadway run in New York.
“I’ve always been interested in the perspective of the outsider and the way they see and experience the world, said Christenson. “It’s also important to be reminded of the struggles of those who are on the edges. It invites us to tap into our own capacity for understanding and compassion, which is such an important quality to have in living rich, full, meaningful lives and building the kind of world we all want to live in.”
Catalyst is now working on a couple of productions.
Vigilante, which premiered at the Citadel last year, is touring Canada this year. It’s a play about an Irish family who came to Canada in the 19th century and ended up in a lot of conflict in their adopted community.
Fortune Falls, also inspired by a Canadian story, is about the town of Smith Falls, which had the first Hershey chocolate factory outside of the US.
“Smith Falls really built its identity around being this sort of Willy Wonka-ville and then about a decade ago, the plant was closed down and Hershey moved its operation to Mexico,” said Christenson. “So this piece explores what it’s been like for this town, a town that built its entire identity around this single industry. In the wake of losing that industry, we discover how they deal with, not only the economic fallout, but also a new sense of who they are. It’s a piece that can really resonate around Alberta right now with oil prices the way they are. I think a lot of people have a lot of questions about who we are if we’re not oil. It feels like a timely piece.”