Edmonton playwrights get their work produced through Walterdale’s Cradle to Stage program

Anyone with an appetite for original theatre will not want to miss Starless, a new work written by local playwright Eric Rice and produced by Walterdale Theatre. Starless, showing from May 12 to 17, is the culmination of this season’s From Cradle to Stage program, a Walterdale initiative that guides playwrights through the production process of a play.

About Walterdale Theatre

Walterdale Theatre January 2013. Photo by Vivian Binnema

Walterdale Theatre January 2013. Photo by Vivian Binnema

Walterdale Theatre is a volunteer-run company, which, after 55 years in business, is one of the longest-lasting amateur theatre companies in Western Canada. With the motto “we do it for love not money,” Walterdale members handle all aspects of theatrical production such as acting, directing, set design and construction, lighting and costume design. (Walterdale’s sole paid employee is a part-time administrator).

In addition to offering local theatre enthusiasts opportunities to participate in staging a play, Walterdale nurtures local playwrights through its From Cradle to Stage program. Every September Walterdale accepts submissions of unproduced works by local playwrights and chooses one or two to produce the following May.

Rice can attest to the myriad of meaningful opportunities Walterdale offers, as he has been involved with the theatre since the 1980s. His activities with Walterdale include directing, lighting, set construction and board membership. He has also written plays produced by Walterdale on a few occasions prior to this year’s production of Starless.

About Starless

Starless tells the story of a homeless man, Ralph. Ralph is constantly on the move, partly because he is asked to leave by those who do not want homeless people around, and partly because he is searching for Mary, the love of his life. Rice received the initial inspiration for his play on a Saturday morning, when, as he arrived at Walterdale for a volunteer shift, he saw police officers waking up homeless people in the nearby gazebo and getting them to move.

Following this experience, Rice connected with some of Edmonton’s homeless people by interviewing vendors for Alberta Street News, a monthly paper run by a volunteer board of directors of which Rice is currently a member. Marginalized or disadvantaged Albertans can become vendors for the paper; as vendors, they pay 50 cents per paper, and in turn sell the papers to the public and keep whatever profits they make. Rice interviewed some of these vendors and created monthly vendor profiles. Although Rice says that Ralph and his other characters are not based on any individuals he met, he adds that the interviews “gave me a sense for the feeling and world they must feel like they’re living in.”

The From Cradle to Stage Process

After Starless was chosen as this season’s From Cradle to Stage play, Rice became part of a roughly nine-month process of bringing the script to stage. His first step was to meet with a dramaturge provided by Walterdale. The dramaturge’s role is to help with the development of a play; in this case, the dramaturge, Tracy Carroll, worked with Rice by reviewing the script with him and asking him questions. Between September and December Carroll helped Rice refine his script and produce three more drafts.

In January, Walterdale held auditions for Starless and Rice sat in on a reading of the script. After the cast and director began working on the play, they asked Rice questions they had about the script.

“It’s a great process for a playwright if they’re open to change, and confident enough that they can make changes on the fly,” says Rice, adding “I made quite a few changes, especially to the second act, because I found they were really valuable.”

The feedback Rice received from the director and actors was both rewarding and challenging. Rice said he found he needed to find the balance between accepting suggestions from others, and sticking with decisions he had made about the script. However, the questions and feedback have given him a greater level of confidence in his work than he has experienced with his other plays. The reward at the end of the months-long process is “having something that feels solid.”

“The program as a whole is a great benefit to a playwright,” says Rice, who encourages anyone who can to submit a play to the program. September 2014 is the expected deadline for next season’s From Cradle to Stage program.

How to get involved with Walterdale

For those who love theatre but have no aspirations to be a playwright there are many other ways to get involved with Walterdale or to offer support. An annual individual $25 membership fee opens the door to any volunteering opportunity, and gets members into shows for a reduced rate. There are several ways to make a donation to Walterdale. And of course, an easy and rewarding way to support Walterdale is to purchase tickets and attend its shows. Starless, the next show to play at Walterdale, promises to be good, and there are sure to be many more excellent plays to appear on its stage.

About Vivian Binnema