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Theatre Calgary

Calgary actor Stephen Hair plays Scrooge for the 25th time

Stephen Hair in A Christmas Carol, 1984-85. Photo: Trudie Lee.

By SILVIA PIKAL

Written 175 years ago, Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol is as relevant today as it was in 1843.

After his father was sent to a debtor’s prison, Dickens was forced to work in a rotting, rat-infested warehouse at only 12 years old, which sparked his lifelong interest in drawing attention to the working poor — A Christmas Carol was part of those efforts.

“I think it’s never lost its relevancy and that’s the shame of it,” says Stephen Hair, who’s playing Ebenezer Scrooge for the 25th time this year in Theatre Calgary’s stage adaptation of the book. “Poverty is still around us, there’s discrimination and hatred and division everywhere.”

He muses that the holiday season is a time of reflection for many, an ideal time for A Christmas Carol’s themes of charity and selflessness to resonate with audiences — could we be kinder to those around us? Could we open up and let others in? Could we treat others as we want to be treated?

“I had one man come to me after the show. They brought him backstage and he was in tears. He didn’t know the story and he realized this was his story. At the end when Scrooge sees the light and realizes there’s a way out, he says he found himself laughing along with everyone else. He said, ‘I wanted you to know it changed my life, and I’m going to change as Scrooge changed.’” Hair says a key part to making that message resonate with audiences is portraying Scrooge not as a buffoon, but as a real person, who is flawed just like the rest of us.

“It’s a story about a man going from darkness to light. He’s not an evil or bad man. He makes decisions, as we all do along the way, and they took him to a very dark place, and he has the opportunity to turn that around and become a new person again.”

James Kirchner (left) and Stephen Hair in A Christmas Carol 1984-85. Photo: Trudie Lee.

He says to bring about that kind of transformative power through art, and make the journey believable — to make the audience really feel — he has to feel too. “Our job is to touch people’s hearts, their minds, and to entertain them,” Hair says. “You learn that what touches an audience is letting your own emotions come through.”

He recalls being captivated as a small child by a 1951 film version of A Christmas Carol, starring Alastair Sim as Scrooge. Hair thinks it’s the best screen adaptation of the book. In 2001, he received a digitally re-mastered 50th anniversary edition of the film as a gift from his mother.

• More than 600,000 people have seen the show since 1989.

• For more than 20 years the cast and crew have been collecting donations backstage and in the lobbies after the show for the Calgary Food Bank, raising more than $1.8 million.

• 1989 was the first production of A Christmas Carol in the Max Bell Theatre, making this Theatre Calgary’s 32nd overall production of the play.

“I hadn’t watched it (after getting the role as Scrooge) purposely because I didn’t want to copy him, but it did the opposite and made me realize what he had done was so real and so genuine and so touching. I didn’t realize as a little kid how much of an impression it made on me — to find that truth and that realism on stage, that’s what I’ve always been striving to do.” When Hair was a small boy in England, he showed an early aptitude for acting. “My mom said even when I was little I used to walk behind the local people, walking the same way they did,” Hair says.

After his family moved to Montreal in the 1950s, Hair scored the lead in a play at his junior high school. Soon he was producing school plays and writing assemblies for special occasions. He studied drama at Queen’s University in Kingston, and made his way west in 1973 to join a newly formed theatre company in Calgary, Alberta Theatre Projects (ATP). He performed in a vaudeville show at Heritage Park. Five times a day he would perform in a 40-minute show, six days a week, culminating in 331 performances over one summer.

After surviving that grueling schedule, he was asked to join ATP for their first professional season, the start of a long and varied career as an actor. He’s been involved in hundreds of productions as an actor or director in major theatres across Canada, including dozens of productions for Theatre Calgary. He’s played a myriad of roles, from tragic and complex characters like Shakespeare’s King Lear to a singing, dancing and cane-twirling Snoopy in a musical version of You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown.

He was also artistic director at Vertigo Theatre for five years, and currently serves on the board of directors for Theatre Calgary. In 2007, Theatre Calgary established the Stephen Hair Emerging Actor Award for theatre artists in Calgary. “To help build this theatre community over 45 years has meant as much to me as any of the roles I’ve done,” Hair says.

From left to right: Kevin Rothery, Stephen Hair, Christian Goutsis in A Christmas Carol, 1984-85. Photo: Trudie Lee.

His range as an actor is impressive, and he’s been acting professionally since his early 20s. But when he first joined the production of A Christmas Carol in the 1980s, he played other roles for the first few years, including the Ghost of Christmas Future, and had to convince the artistic director to cast him as Scrooge at 44 years old. “He said I was too young and didn’t have the life experience and I said, ‘Oh really? You know nothing about my life experience. And Alastair Sim was in his early 40s when he played the best Scrooge there ever was.’”

Hair was ready to walk away from the play when he got a call a couple of weeks later to discuss it. It took a three-hour lunch, but he managed to change the artistic director’s mind. “After the first year he said to me, ‘You could play this forever.’ Prophetic words.”

Hair says it’s been a privilege to play the role year after year. His most memorable moments for him are meeting viewers after the show. “That’s what I would remember most if I drop dead tomorrow, that somewhere along the line maybe I’ve made a difference in some stranger’s life — what more could you ask for in what you do?”

Why we need arts funding in Calgary

By SILVIA PIKAL

Art isn’t just what we see on the walls in museums and galleries. You see, hear or feel it when walking across the Peace Bridge, or taking a selfie in front of the giant head called Wonderland, or putting your child in piano lessons, or when you spread blankets on the ground at Prince’s Island Park and listen to the artists at Calgary Folk Music Festival. Art is part of our daily life and its benefits to our city are numerous, including contributing to the economy, adding to the vibrancy of the city that draws business, talent and visitors to Calgary, provoking discussion and critical thinking, as well as connecting Calgarians to each other, according to Calgarians who are proposing increased municipal arts funding.

A photo from this season’s production of Extremophiles by Georgina Beaty of Downstage Theatre Company. Courtesy Caitlind r.c. Brown.

STARTING OVER
When actor, writer and drama therapist Raffi Minas came to Calgary in October 2017 from Lebanon, the 28-year-old had more than a decade of experience in writing and acting but found he had to start from scratch in Calgary.

“It’s hard to act here because you need to know the language, accent, networking, and the most important side in my opinion, you need to understand the culture,” Minas says.

When a friend sent Minas a poster advertising the Theatre Community Connections for Newcomers Program, which pairs newcomers with past theatre experience to mentors, he was eager to sign up.

The pilot project is a partnership between Downstage, a theatre company that produces Canadian work with a focus on social issues, and the Centre for Newcomers, which provides settlement and integration services to immigrants and refugees. Four participants were paired with mentors to create a five to 10 minute showcase performance.

Minas has written a script with his mentor for a 10-minute performance called Suitcase, the story of a man displaced by war, inspired by his own experiences of fleeing Syria for Lebanon before coming to Canada. The show features a refugee who comes to Canada with nothing but a suitcase. He is stopped for a bag check by a customs officer at the airport, and as he pulls items out of his luggage, he recounts the stories behind them— some funny, some tragic. Minas hopes the audience will have a new perspective about the civil war in Syria.

“We discovered it’s very difficult for newcomers to Canada who have professional experience in theatre to start working in their field,” says Ellen Close, the artistic director of Downstage. Close says there are many theatre jobs that are never listed, since companies often reach into their pool of established actors, designers or playwrights, or find talent through training programs that provide professional connections.

“We’re poorer as a theatre community by not having pathways for newcomers to start working,” Close says. “Our work should reflect the greater diversity of Calgary. The people we’ve connected with will be a tremendous asset to the theatre community and their work will be wonderful for Calgarian audiences to experience.”

While more than 20 newcomers wanted to sign up for the pilot project, they could only accommodate four people. Close is applying for project-based funding to continue the work, which means she doesn’t know what it will look like in the future. “If we had increased operating funding that would go a long way to make those commitments, and allow us to be more responsive to opportunities with partners as they arise,” Close says.

STRENGTHENING THE ARTS SECTOR 

Quick facts:

156 organizations Calgary Arts Development invests in produce $134 million in value-added GDP to Canada, with the large majority in Alberta

More than 50,000 Calgarians
are employed by the creative industries sector

In 2017, there were 3,385,616 attendees to arts activities in Calgary

About 65 per cent of 500 Ontario workers who were surveyed said a vibrant arts community is a driving factor when moving for work

Sources: Calgary Arts Development, Data from organizations funded in part through Calgary Arts Development, Calgary Economic Development, Survey – Nanos for Business for the Arts

Patti Pon, president and CEO of Calgary Arts Development, says the Theatre Community Connections for Newcomers Program is a prime example of art providing meaning on an artistic level, public impact level and business level.

Calgary Arts Development is Calgary’s designated arts development authority that invests and allocates municipal funding. They are requesting an increase in municipal arts grant funding from $6.4 million to $19.5 million over the next four years.

They propose to increase operating investment in not-for-profit arts organizations, increase support to individual artists, and increase the diversity of the arts sector to better reflect Calgary’s demographics.

“We are on the verge of systemic change when it comes to diversification of not only our economy but our identity,” Pon says. “That’s a huge opportunity for those of us who are civic partners to work together and move the city’s identity and brand in a consistent direction where we all see ourselves in that identity — as an arts community I’m not so sure we have.”

They’re also proposing to build on arts development programs through research, engagement, events and more, which includes promoting talent we already have in Calgary to draw visitors. “Calgary is promoted as a gateway to the mountains, which is fantastic, but it shouldn’t be the first thing,” Pon says. “What about Prince’s Island Park and the Calgary Folk Musical Festival, or East Village and the container park, or Studio Bell?”

BANDING TOGETHER TO ADVOCATE FOR ARTS FUNDING
Philanthropists Christine Armstrong and Irfhan Rawji started Creative Calgary, a non-partisan group of citizens, in 2017 to advocate for an increase in municipal arts investment, noting that Calgary lags behind other major cities across Canada when it comes to art funding.

Rawji says due to the downturn in the economy, the corporate sector can no longer support the arts community like it once did.

“We started Creative Calgary because we realized if we didn’t get the sector together to describe that challenge collectively and highlight this gap, it probably wouldn’t get fixed, and put a lot of different companies at risk,” Rawji says.

He says from a business perspective, a vibrant arts and culture scene is key to recruiting knowledge workers.

“The cultural scene is part of what makes a city a great city,” Rawji says. “I’m interested in the arts as an individual and a human — and as a business person, it’s critical if we’re actually going to grow and diversify this economy.”

Rawji adds that in today’s tense political climate, and amidst the growing fear of the “other,” art is critical to bringing people together. “Visual arts or dance is a universal language and has a way of allowing us to share a common experience and bring us together,” Rawji says. “It’s a tool for inclusion and building bridges.”

Both Calgary Arts Development and Creative Calgary urge Calgarians who believe civic investment in the arts is important to reach out to their city councillors, who provide guidance for city administration in the next budget cycle (they are reviewing the 2019-2022 plans and budgets in November 2018).

“If we don’t decide as a city and community of citizens that we think this is important, it will probably disintegrate because it can’t survive under its current funding structure,” Rawji says. “If we decide as a community to support it, we can make it even better.”

25 Things To Do in Calgary in December

By MICHAELA RITCHIE

A Tribe Called Red will bring their revolutionary sound to The Palace Theatre Dec. 1. (Photo by Matt Barnes.)

For some of you, Christmas has been top of mind for the past several months—but now that we’re just weeks away, the rest of us can no longer deny: ’tis the season! To help get you and yours’ in a festive mood, here are 25 of our favourite local celebrations and holiday traditions that you can take part in to count down the days until Christmas!

(If Christmas just isn’t your cup of holiday cheer, never fear! We threw in a couple of chilly activities, sans festivities, down below for getting out around town and making the most of our city at this jolly time of year—so keep scrolling, and get ready to bundle up!) (more…)

Q+A: Welcome to Calgary, Stafford Arima

By MICHAELA RITCHIE

Acclaimed Broadway director Stafford Arima became Theatre Calgary’s new artistic director on April 3, 2017. (Photo by Abigail Alcala.)

In April 2017, Theatre Calgary welcomed a new artistic director into their ranks—acclaimed Broadway director Stafford Arima. Originally from Toronto, Arima flourished as a director both in New York and abroad for the past two decades, with credits like Allegiance, Ragtime, Altar Boyz and Carrie under his belt. Arima has returned home to Canada just in time to oversee Theatre Calgary’s 50th season.

Although he’s still pretty new to Calgary, Arima is no stranger to city living. Six months into his new role, we caught up with Arima to see how he’s settling in here, why he left New York for Calgary and where to go for the best Alberta beef in town. (more…)

Calgary Christmas Entertainment for the Whole Family

AChristmasCarol

Theatre Calgary’s staging of A Christmas Carol. Photo: Trudie Lee, courtesy Theatre Calgary.

Once Upon a Christmas
Weekends, Nov 23 – Dec 22
Christmas past is alive and well and perfectly enchanting at Heritage Park Historical Village. Go for a wagon ride, take in live historical theatre, sing holiday carols and pay a visit to jolly old Saint Nick. Three of the park’s historic homes open their doors to share the Yuletide traditions of Alberta’s pioneers. Admission, $8 adult, $6 child (does not include access to Gasoline Alley. Combined admission price for Once Upon a Christmas and Gasoline alley, $11 adult, $9 child, $5.75 senior).

•Heritage Park Historical Village, 1900 Heritage Dr SW, 403-268-8500.
Heritagepark.ca
•Maps and Reviews

[RELATED: Winter Activities For The Whole Family at Heritage Park]

A Christmas Carol
Until Dec 24

Charles Dickens’s beloved story of greed, redemption and the spirit of generosity is told in Theatre Calgary’s annual production of A Christmas Carol. The second year for director Dennis Garnhum’s revamped production marks the 20th year Stephen Hair, Calgary’s favourite Ebenezer Scrooge, has played the role of the miserly Christmas curmudgeon. Tickets $35 – $155.50. (more…)