Toronto theatre company stages plays in booze cans, bars, box cars and back alleys
Benjamin Blais is one of the artistic directors of Toronto's hippest theatre company, Red One. We are sitting in a recently shut down booze can on Ossington drinking Portuguese coffee. I met Ben this summer after going to see their production of Sexual Perversity in Chicago. I shook his hand before seeing the show, and after hearing about him for years, it was nice to put a face to the name.
Since getting to know Ben, I've come to admire him and Red One for two reasons. The first reason is, they are, as Ben says, "run by a group of young professionals who are trying to bring theatre into the street, into your backyard." And there's the second reason. They are breaking the convention of theatre. In their five short years, they have become an important voice in Toronto's growing theatre community. They are challenging the patron's and the artist's notions of what theatre is.
"We want to show people that it is a viable form of entertainment that's at your fingertips, and not necessarily out in Stratford or in some big expensive theatre. It can happen literally around the corner, down a back alley."
And it has. Red One has done shows at an art gallery, the aforementioned booze can, a warehouse, a box car, various parks, bars, and of course, alleyways.
"I'm not scared of can't," Ben tells me. "One of the major challenges for independent theatre is funding. How do you afford to do this? To rent a theatre, even the smaller spaces in town, is really expensive. Your overhead is really high and then you need to charge a lot of money for tickets. The people we're trying to get to see our shows, they can't afford that. We believe our growth potential is huge because there is a huge group of people that want this kind of entertainment but don't know that they have access to it, people who can't spend forty bucks on a play. We don't want to just do this for our peers. It's got to be broader. The community can be bigger."
I ask him if it's challenging to change the definition of a century's old art form, to do everything with no money. Then he asks me if I like comic books. I nod, confused, laughing.
"Well, I like Batman because he always believed that a challenge was a good thing. I was looking through an old notebook from one of our older shows, rife with problems, and I found this quote, 'When faced with a seemingly insurmountable problem your only option is to act swiftly, some may even say irrationally, leaving the most dangerous element first, and then methodically attacking each subsequent challenge, separate but deliberate.' A personal battle of mine is to not let the challenges clog up my gears; they are going to be there, harder and faster. You need to rise above them."
And it was challenges that created RedOne. Ben met Joe Dinicol, another artistic director and founding member, "over video games. We're buddies right? We'd shoot the shit and we discussed how we wanted to take more control of our careers and create opportunities for ourselves."
In doing so, they've created opportunities for many others. RedOne is a group of young and passionate people. The boldness of youth breathes in everything they do. "It's what drives us; we don't have a lot of money but the one thing that brings us all together is this passion for theatre, and the only way we can execute it is with the energy of youth."
With that energy they go on 'treasure hunts' for new venues throughout Toronto.
"Normally, we'll have a show in mind and we'll go out and look for spaces, and try to make the show fit in that space, or we may stumble upon a space, and say, this space would be great for this play. The unconventional spaces work great because the challenges you come across force you to be more industrious and to be more team oriented. In May of this year, we did a show in a secret location. We had people meet at the corner of College and Grace and they were escorted by the players up through this alleyway matrix to this shack, and the play was set in Dublin. Now the neighbours were informed, none of them were against it, but they were taken aback. A few of them attended the show and were instantaneously more accepting and excited, and now I wave at them when I see them. The healing power of theatre lies in its unification."
I ask if he thinks theatre is unifying Toronto.
"I believe Toronto is a great city where a lot is happening right now, but nothing is truly formed. We have this idea of ourselves, of where we want to be; we're like a teenager. One of the things I think we need to grow, is yes, the theatre community. It is large and it's out there, but it has yet to sharpen and define itself. There are all these theatre companies that are floating around, being blocked by this thick skin, this idea of theatre we've created, where people feel like they can't break in. We're trying to challenge that idea. On Friday night, more young people could be going out and seeing a play instead of, oh, my mom got me tickets to this play. I feel like if theatre doesn't catch up quick we'll lose a generation. We live in a world class city that's finding its feet."
Catch Ben next in RedOne's remounted production of Mojo in the beginning of December at a yet to be discovered location.
Writing by Katie Boland
Join the conversation Load comments