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Northern Light Theatre

Chameleon theatre company in Edmonton, Alberta, founded in 1975 by Scott Swan (Artistic Director), Allan Lysell (Administrative Director) and Angela and Merrilyn Gann (actors). Its first production was a collage of Elizabethan music, prose, and poetry compiled by Swan and Lysell, entitled Love and Drollery. Since then, it has reinvented itself many times.

Northern Light was originally located in the basement lecture hall of the Edmonton Art Gallery, and began as a lunchtime theatre producing one-act plays with a company of fourteen who served as production team, board of directors, and office staff, producing classics, new works, comedies and musicals. In 1976 it began to present two evening shows a week of full-length plays. In its first two years it presented 25 plays to approximately 20,000 spectators. Among these works were Herringbone by Tom Cone, This Train by Ken Mitchell, Take Me Where the Water’s Warm by James DeFelice, and the collective creation, Ten Lost Years. Its 1979 production of Arthur Kopit's extraordinary play Wings about a woman with Alzheimer's, starring British actress Ann Casson (wife of Douglas Campbell, and mother of Benedict Campbell) toured nationally and received a strong positive response from audiences and critics wherever it played.

In 1979 Northern Light became the first Edmonton company to hire a dramaturg, Frank Moher, which led to the establishment of a “playwrights unit” for reading and workshopping new plays, including plays by Gordon Pengilly, Tony Bell, Frank Moher, and Ben Tarver.

In 1980 the company switched entirely to evening programming of full-length plays, and launched a summer season in a large striped tent on Connor’s Hill as part of SummerFest to celebrate Alberta's 75th anniversary. It began with the premiere of Frank Moher's Down For the Weekend, set against the oil boom at Fort McMurray, performed in the Art Gallery, followed by Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream (with Paul Gross in his professional acting debut), and As You Like It presented in outdoor repertory in the tent overlooking the city. In the summer of 1981, Northern Light produced a powerful and moving interpretation of Bernard Shaw's Saint Joan in the tent (dir. Douglas Campbell); John Murrell's Memoir with Frances Hyland and Henry Woolf (dir. Swan); and A Winter's Tale (dir. Swan).

In 1981, after a financially disastrous season, Scott Swan departed for Festival Lennoxville, and was replaced by Jace van der Veen (from Vancouver’s New Play Centre, now Playwrights Theatre Centre), who cleared the debt and moved the company into the Kaasa Theatre in the basement of the Northern Alberta Jubilee Auditorium in 1983. Van der Veen featured seasons of classical, new, and Canadian works, including Lyle Victor Albert's The Prairie Church of Buster Galloway, which probes the morality of a group of Alberta farmers (1983); and a visually striking production of The Bacchae (1985).

In 1988, Gyllian Raby took over as Artistic Director, experimenting with multi-media, and producing Brad Fraser's provocative adaptation of the Jacobean bloodbath, The Revenger's Tragedy.

During his five-year tenure at AD, DD Kugler broadened the range of spaces in which the company played, and directed some extraordinary, innovative works, including Metastasis by Gordon Pengilly and Blowfish by Vern Thiessen.

Sandhano Schultze continued to program creative, non-traditional works, including Knives and Hens by David Harrower, Bloody Poetry by Howard Brenton, Downsizing Democracy by Mansel Robinson, and Alphonse by Wajdi Mouawad.

Since 2002, Artistic Director Trevor Schmidt has further pushed to NLT mandate to explore controversial social issues, and producing seasons of three plays with common themes and issues in a small theatre space: "Northern Light isn’t about being bigger. It’s about distinct identity–-in original, way out, risky fare-–and not about expansion" (Edmonton Journal 28 June 2012). Innovative new works include Schmidt's Water’s Daughter and Blood Oranges.

For the 2011-12 season Schmidt launched a season of new plays by and about women, including Heroine by Karen Bassett, Cleopatra's Sister by Schmidt, and The Ecstatics by Erika Hennebury and Ruth Madoc-Jones.

In 2015 and 2016, the company collaborated with L’UniThéâtre for productions of plays in French and English: Jeffrey Hatcher's Mercy of a Storm, and Gratien Gelinas' The Passion of Narcisse Mondoux.

Northern Light was awarded four Elizabeth Sterling Haynes Awards (Sterling Awards) in 2011, all for The 4th Graders Present an Unnamed Love-Suicide by Sean Graney: Outstanding production of a play; Outstanding director (Trevor Schmidt), Outstanding performance by an actress in a supporting role (Cheryl Jameson); and Outstanding performance by an actor in a supporting role (Jesse Gervais). In 2015, the Company was awarded a Sterling for Best Production for The Pink Unicorn.

The 2020/21 season was produced on-line, when theatres across Canada and the world were closed during the Covid-19 pandemic. It focused on "women of a certain age", and featured five of Edmonton's talented actors: Kristen Johnston in the gothic horror monologue, We Had a Girl Before You by Trevor Schmidt; Linda Grass in the North American premiere of the Australian play, The Look by Alexa Wyatt; Davina Stewart and Pat Darbasie in Something Unspoken by Tennessee Williams; and Lora Brovold in The Ugly Duchess by Janet Munsil.

Suggested Reading: Diane Bessai. "Canada's Citadel Theatre and the Alternatives," Theatre in Alberta: Critical Perspectives on Canadian Theatre in English vol.eleven, ed. Anne Nothof. Toronto: Playwrights Canada P, 2008: 144-174.

Website: www.northernlighttheatre.com

Profile by Anne Nothof. Additional information from Liz Nicholls. "Northern Light celebrates 40th anniversary," Edmonton Journal: 17 Oct 2015.

Last updated 2021-07-12