Edmonton’s Theatre Scene: Launching Careers

More than one famous face in Hollywood calls Edmonton home.

Brad Fraser was a teen when a musical at Edmonton’s Victoria Composite High School inspired him to pursue theatre, which eventually turned into an internationally successful career.

Philemon, by Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt, was a black-box production,” he says. “It was the sheer theatricality of it that excited me.” By age 20, he had twice won the Alberta Culture Playwriting Competition. Then, in 1989, his play Unidentified Human Remains and the True Nature of Love, gained him international acclaim. Named by Time Magazine as one of the top 10 plays of that year, it’s since been produced all over the world from Sydney to New York to Buenos Aires.

He moved to Toronto and began work in television and film, writing and acting as a supervising producer for eight episodes of the television series Queer As Folk and writing and directing the film, Leaving Metropolis (2002). He’s now a five-time winner of the Alberta Culture Playwriting Competition and two-time winner of the Chalmers Award.

Fraser reflects on the start of his career in the late 1970s. “There was a good amount of new money being injected into Edmonton’s arts funding. There was a sense of newness and discovery in being able and willing to tell our own stories and there was a sympathetic audience that was looking for the same thing,” Fraser says. “Combined with the U of A’s excellent theatre training program, this opened up a Pandora’s box of talent that flourished in Edmonton and eventually spread across the country and even farther.”

That Pandora’s box unleashed Paul Gross (actor in Due South, Men with Brooms), Lorne Cardinal (actor in Corner Gas), Raymond Storey (writer of Road to Avonlea) and Nathan Fillion (actor in Castle, Much Ado About Nothing).

The University of Alberta has contributed significantly to the unusually large theatre community here in Edmonton. In the fall of 1968, it instituted the first university-degree theatre program in Canada, training actors, set designers, directors and playwrights who have gone on to build the city’s vibrant theatre scene. Possibly even more importantly, the program also helped develop a taste for live theatre in its audiences.

Comedic actor and writer Mark Meer says, “Festivals like the Fringe and Nextfest can also play a major role in the success of Edmonton artists, especially early in their careers.” While his voice is internationally recognized as Commander Shepard from the BioWare game Mass Effect, Meer’s made a career of comedy, from the CBC’s Irrelevant Show to Super Channel’s Tiny Plastic Men. Winding back the clock, he got his start at Teen Festival of the Arts at the Citadel in a sketch comedy show directed by Three Dead Trolls in a Baggie. “They pointed me in the direction of Rapid Fire Theatre, and I never looked back.”

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