In anticipation of a full season of programming in 2021, Home Theatre Productions‘ Artistic Director STEVEN GREENWOOD and Executive Director CHEYENNE CRANSTON share the story of co-founding one of Montreal’s most exciting emerging indie theatre companies and talk about inspired creation in times of COVID. Read the in-depth interview piece below.
In privately debating whether to bring the perspective of the “I” or not into this piece, it didn’t take long to come to the realization that it would become necessary to get a little personal.
I recall my first contact with Home Theatre Productions as an audience member in September of 2019, seated in the first row of MainLine Theatre’s MiniMain studio to write a review on the brand new Montreal indie company’s inaugural production, [Title of Show]. Clean slate, zero expectations.
By the end of the opening number, it occurred to me: this is why I do what I do. These are my people. This is my place.
Fast forward to December of that year. We’re right back at the cozy quarters of the MiniMain, and I now find myself on the performing side of things with the company’s second show, Late Night Double Feature. Having just graduated from a 3-year professional theatre program earlier that summer, I was grateful for the opportunity to be working – but here, there was something of a newfound freedom from the pressure of doing the “serious, classical acting” that was expected of me to instead make art that just felt like fun.
Advance to January 2021. What I would give to press pause on the erstwhile moment – and to return to any stage, for that matter.
Musical director Zach Ripka (far back left) and actors Mary Looney, Eric Lee, Cathal Rynne and Maya Lewis in Home Theatre Productions’ [title of show], the Tony-nominated one-act musical by Jeff Bowen and Hunter Bell, presented at the MainLine in 2019. (Photo Credit: Brock Jenken)
Healing from the wreckage of COVID-19 is proving challenging as one whose life revolves around the theatre. I often feel tired and discouraged these days. But there are rays of light for the Montreal community peeking through the ruins – those whose artistic fire has not been doused, and who almost seem to be fuelled by the creative potential that exists in the chaos.
Steven Greenwood, Artistic Director of Home Theatre Productions, and Cheyenne Cranston, Executive Director, are of the breed.
Wholly warm, approachable, genuine, and unassuming, I don’t know to what extent co-founders Steve and Cheyenne realize they’ve tapped into something special in our city. I suppose I instinctively understood it when I saw their debut show, but I’ve now come to pointedly identify and distill their success formula to this: the ability to keep a sharp pulse on the beat of the people.
Steve gets to the heart of it in our (well overdue) Zoom interview. “I’ve always loved theatre, but I grew up in a working-class family in a working-class community that really didn’t have a lot of theatre,” shares the playwright-director from Niagara Falls, Ontario. Being from nowhereville in suburban Brazil, I relate. Upon moving to the big city, “I found that I wasn’t quite vibing with a lot of the shows that were being produced. From that, there came the idea to make shows that would be more accessible for people who typically didn’t go to the theatre because it either felt too ‘upper class’, ‘elitist’ or ‘artsy’.”
Unapologetically inspired by pop/fan/geek culture aesthetics, the scrappy company’s shows draw from the horror, fantasy, sci-fi, video game, TV, film, musical, cartoon and comic genres, openly embracing the queer and the quirky. As such, it’s begun to build a niche, cult following.
Home Theatre Productions is loud and proud in its mandate: to make theatre feel like home. And it does. Despite the fantastical, fairy-tale narratives its shows often take on, I find there’s something just grounded and real about the work.
These days, I suppose the mandate can also work the other way around in our collective longing for home to give us any remnants of the stage world we once knew.
Lucas Amato as Man Moth in Home Theatre Productions’ Heroes: Behind the Tights. Its 2020 world premiere in March was cancelled due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Producer, stage manager, designer, and backstage swing extraordinaire (not to mention, fellow contributor here at the Hub), Cheyenne – whose own distant birthplace is small-town Olds, Alberta – ties it all up with the company buzzword: Accessibility.
“We want to break down the barriers that stop people from going to the theatre, either because they don’t feel welcome there or because of the ginormous ticket prices.” Home Theatre Productions’ Pay it Forward initiative, which collects donations to subsidize tickets for theatregoers that otherwise wouldn’t be able to afford them, is a concrete measure towards that end.
Relaxed audience experiences are also a standard. “We want people to feel like they can come to our shows in their sweatpants and t-shirts and to just be comfortable being themselves,” she adds. Late Night Double Feature, in its all-inviting and interactive nature, allowed patrons to sit back and enjoy the live play with a bag of popcorn and bottle of beer from the MainLine bar.
I recall those midnight performances as being some of the happiest of my acting career.
The memory is then momentarily eclipsed by the shame I was made to feel by faculty and peers at theatre school for enjoying the likes of pop shows and musicals.
“There seems to be this separation in the discourse of theatre between both the academic circles and the pop culture circles that there’s ‘high art’ and there’s ‘fun art’ and that they’re not the same thing.” Having herself just graduated from the English Drama and Theatre program at McGill University, Cheyenne gets my highbrow drift.
Emily Vaillancourt and Harry Skinner in Splatterpunks, a play written and directed by Lucas Amato which was presented as part of the multi-bill Late Night Double Feature at the MainLine in December 2019. (Photo Credit: Cheyenne Cranston)
At a time when most other theatre practitioners have found themselves lost and adrift in the vast digital realm, Home Theatre Productions has thrived in its unique adaptability, versatility, and resourcefulness amid crisis.
That’s not to say the coronavirus pandemic hasn’t done its damage. The team was forced to cancel its March 2020 world premiere of Heroes: Behind the Tights, a double bill with original plays by Lucas Amato and William P. Erskine. “It was a tough decision,” reflects Cheyenne. “We had fully rehearsed the show and we were just going into tech right as the government shut things down.” The production’s future remains uncertain.
But the crossover of stage and screen mediums has been impressively seamless and natural for the HTP gang – more so than for almost any other theatre company that I can legitimately think of in English Montreal.
“I initially felt a lot of guilt with regards to COVID because it actually wasn’t all that difficult for me to pivot,” confesses Steve. “Not that I obviously wasn’t heartbroken with live theatre being put on hold for a while, but I had other video game, TV, and film projects in the back burner that I had been wanting to work on, and I saw this as a chance to finally finish them. A lot of my pure theatre friends weren’t able to make that adjustment as easily, though.”
In many ways, I suspect Steve’s creative shift has not been away from his core work, but back home towards the very kind of art which he is inspired by.
Lucas Amato and Gretel Khan in Jason Sharp: Confirmed Bachelor, written and directed by Steven Greenwood, which was also presented as part of Late Night Double Feature. (Photo Credit: Cheyenne Cranston)
And thus 2020 marched forward with the launch of In the Stars, a detective mystery of sorts that was slated to open at last year’s Montreal Fringe as a live interactive performance. As the pandemic drove the festival online, within weeks his original script was adapted into an online gaming experience. A second interactive piece, a slasher movie titled Only Footprints, is now in the oven for eventual screening at the Festival de la Bête Noire in February of 2021. As if that’s not enough, a top-secret musical project is also set for release on January 30th.
It’s ambitious programming, but it all seems to come from a spirit of play and joy, as opposed from the pressure of having to put on something of a show at this time to stay relevant as a company.
“One of the ways I’ve been trying to alleviate some of my guilt is by incorporating my theatre friends into my digital projects,” Steve shares. Collaboration is big for the group, and folks who work with Home Theatre Productions are keen to return for the obvious reasons: it’s bloody fun, and there’s a real care for people.
The season has also been marked by the launch of the New Play Development Series, a mentorship initiative providing dramaturgical support for emerging Canadian playwrights to develop a script for public presentation (a first online reading is scheduled for the spring of 2021). New works and new voices seem to have been layered into their evolving mandate.
The commitment to nurturing up-and-coming and marginalized talent, in fact, is what has made Home Theatre Productions so valuable to the Montreal community. I owe it much in that regard.
“A lot of times, people who go through theatre school programs will end up in that middle ground between student and professional theatre where they don’t know what to do next.” Steve’s words hit home. “We want to bridge that gap and help guide artists through that weird transition phase in their careers.”
Cheyenne expands. “Our goal is to provide a space where new artists can come in and explore their artistic practice in a very non-judgmental way. We want to create something that is enjoyable for audiences, but that is also fulfilling for the artists.” The impact is personal. “As a recent grad, I can say that this has been an important place of growth for myself, and I hope that it can be that for many others to come as well.”
I reiterate: the pulse of the people.
Ah, yes, here we are as the Narrator for Late Night Double Feature. On the bottom, Grace DesBarats and Molly McKenzie play two lovers on a date in Theo Stevens’ play-within-a-play, Young Love. (Photo Credit: Cheyenne Cranston)
This all leads me to a sudden a-ha moment during our interview. Survival as a theatre company in the virtual landscape of 2020-2021 may be about being tech-savvy, but it’s also still most importantly about being human-savvy.
Gracious as they are in their successes, the co-directors choose to direct their last remarks towards those who helped paved their path in Montreal.
“I want to make sure to emphasize how grateful I am to Amy Blackmore and Kenny Streule from MainLine Theatre,” Steve begins in conclusion. The St-Laurent venue has housed all of the companies’ live productions to date, and will seemingly continue to do so due to its welcoming air. “They’ve really comforted us along that transition. A lot of the stuff that we want to be able to do with Home Theatre Productions for emerging artists are things that Amy and Kenny did for us and many others. They’re just really important for mentoring the new generation.” I concur.
Also echoing Steve’s sentiment, “Kenny and Amy and the staff at MainLine are just such incredible people,” says Cheyenne. “They’re been so willing to take our weird ideas and run with it. Even with the whole COVID situation when we had to decide if our show [Heroes: Behind the Tights] was going to go forward or not – they’ve been a huge help throughout that process”.
Next, they acknowledge the support of their most loyal and trusted “resident” contributors, which include playwright/actor/designer Lucas Amato and actor/designer Chrystal Zhang. “We are super fortunate to have them,” expresses Cheyenne of the growing family.
Perhaps I’ll steal the last word to highlight the devilish duo themselves: like Blackmore and Streule, not all heroes wear capes. It’s thrilling to imagine where their powers will lead them. Lucky us they’ve chosen to call this place home.
Stay tuned for Home Theatre Productions’ upcoming release of its new musical project on January 30th and for the digital premiere of Only Footprints at the Festival de la Bête Noire in February. For more details:
Steven Greenwood is a writer, director, and PhD candidate at McGill University. His PhD research is focused on popular culture, audience studies, and queer studies. Steven’s writing and directing styles are heavily influenced by his love for popular culture, fairy tales, musicals, and the fantastic. He is also constantly inspired and influenced by queer cultures and communities. He aims to disrupt conventional understandings of what types of stories and performances get to count as art, and he is unashamedly invested in popular culture.
Cheyenne Cranston is a graduate of the English Drama and Theatre program at McGill University. Aside from her role as Executive Director of Home Theatre Productions, she has also worked as a producer, stage manager, lighting designer and costume designer. She has produced numerous shows for Home Theatre Productions, and in 2019 worked as a Fringe-tern at the St-Ambroise Montreal Fringe Festival. Select stage management credits include: Heroes: Behind the Tights (Home Theatre Productions), The Rocky Horror Show (Mainline Theatre), [title of show] (Home Theatre Productions), multiple comedy shows for Just For Laughs, Spring Awakening (Arts Undergraduate Theatre Society) and Blood Relations (McGill University English Department). She also worked as an assistant stage manager on The Segal Centre’s 2020 musical fundraiser, The Billy Joel Experience, which was unfortunately cancelled before being presented to the public due to COVID-19.
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