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Downstage 2024 season to push boundaries of theatre experience

Downstage, which proudly wears the moniker of being theatre that creates conversations, is gearing up to push the boundaries of what theatre can be and the conversations that can be held for their 2024 season.

The themes for their 20th season in the city are climate change and body politics—although in forms that eschews the conventions of popular discussion, and even conventional theatre.

The season will be made up of readings of plays, short productions, productions that feature emerging artists, and as a first for Calgary, episodic on stage mini-series of performances that feature changing storylines each night with feminist comedy smackdown wrestling action.

“We are so excited to announce our 20th Anniversary season,” said Downstage’s Artistic Director Clare Preuss.

Tickets will go on sale later this year in the Autumn at www.downstage.ca, with performances beginning in November.

Climate change begins change of season

Aptly named, the 2023-2024 season begins with All Good Things Must Begin, a selection of plays that tackle the topic of climate change that were all inspired by Hugo and Nebula award winning sci-fi author Octavia Butler.

“To us, there’s a lot of sense of planting seeds, how do we imagine a life be beyond where we’re at now, but not going necessarily into the place of the apocalypse, or you know, the end of the world narrative,” said Preuss.

“I think Calgary is a very specifically situated city and environment to really talk about how do we build the future? How do we move forward?”

She said that some of the themes for that two-act play will be something different than audiences would expect from productions about climate change.

“We are a city built on oil and gas resources… and in so many ways has been so useful, continues to be useful—we’re not going to be going off oil and gas immediately, we know that,” Preuss said.

“I would put forward that there’s a real opportunity in this city to be innovative and to find how do we how do we bridge into the next realities? And how do we kind of acknowledge and embrace the fact that life on planet Earth is shifting, and we want to be on the leading edge of that as a city of innovators and risk-takers.”

The production is being held as staged readings of a selection of plays from Climate Change Theatre Action 2023.

“Even in the curation of art, because there’s 50 plays to choose from, we’re going to pick probably seven or eight and we’re really going to focus on what are some ways that we can imagine an exciting future,” Preuss said.

The season and those plays begin on Nov. 17, with All Good Things Must Begin running for just a handful of days until Nov. 19, 2023.

Satire about beauty

The first production for 2024 will be the Alberta premiere of Erin Shield’s Beautiful Man. The play centres around the idea of what the world would be like if the gender roles and expectations that have been held by society are flipped—women rule society, and men are gazed at as sex symbols.

“We’re staying with our sense of really looking at comedy, and how we can look at social issues from a place of humor,” said Preuss.

“I feel like anyone who loves movies and TV, they’re just gonna love this show because it just takes these norms… are shown and portrayed in film and TV watching get flipped.”

Preuss describes it as a flipped society where the standards of beauty and compliance to social norms are applied to men instead of women, and where the central characters talk about men the way that men talk about women today.

“They have this ongoing conversation about ‘he’s so gorgeous,’ and like, ‘oh, but he’s so beautiful’. And just talking about his body a lot and talking about his looks a lot,” Preuss said.

“And then it takes a twist, which I won’t say… it really acts like it’s funny, it might be a little bit shocking at times, and then all of a sudden, it’s like the hair standing on the back up on the back of my neck.”

Beautiful Man runs from Feb. 29 through March 10, 2024 at the Motel Theatre. It is also a co-production with Handsome Alice Theatre and Verb Theatre.

And earnestness about attraction too

Coming in April 2024 is Magnetic Bodies, which is a co-production of Downstage and the UCalgary School of Creative and Performing Arts.

The production features a series of short plays that were created by UCalgary students around the theme of what would happen if bodies produced magnetic fields, and what that would mean for the attraction and repulsion of the people together.

“We have differences of opinion, differences of worldview with people around us, but we also have things that attract us to each other,” said Preuss.

“How do we in a society that is very, very fast? There’s a lot of the echo chamber stuff, they’ll talk about, and how do we actually live together in a society with these complexities inside us.”

Preuss said that she will be selecting the proposals for the plays that will be performed next April, during September of this year.

Magnetic Bodies will be performed as a part of the 2024 Alchemy Festival.

Feminist comedy, smackdown wrestling

For the first time on a Calgary stage, GoGo Battles: OMG Someone Dies! combines the theatre experience with the raw experience of pro-wrestling on stage, at Arts Commons.

The world premiere of the production by local drag legends Karla Marx and Bitch Sassidy, is six nights of episodic performances that is half murder mystery, half “SMACKDOWN KABLAMO!!”

“It’s gonna be next level for people to be able to have such a theatrical, exciting, athletic, sports-like experience,” said Preuss.

“Think of the excitement that you get, you know, those sporting events, and then having that kind of visceral feeling at the theatre, and then being able to have a conversation about it afterward.”

Preuss said she was almost—but not quite—more interested in the conversations that audiences would have after this one-of-a-kind production for Downstage.

“I think will be just gonna be some really unexpected conversations that come in that show for sure,” Preuss said.

With the assistance of the company and Val Duncan, GoGo Battles has been taken to the next level from the monthly wrestling and burlesque performances put on at Dickens Pub.

“They do full fights, and all the stuff is real. They’re doing the full choreography and all the fights and all that—they’re trained wrestlers—but they’re also trained actors, and so we want to really develop the storyline for each piece,” Preuss said.

“Every night is a totally different show, totally different wrestlers, different plots, and they really do go through a plot. And it’s there’s definitely always a political edge.”

She said that each show would advance the murder mystery, and for audience members who attend all of the performances, there will be clues to who the murderer is in the final performance.

“If you watch the whole mini-series, you really get the full arc into the final throwdown,” Preuss said.

“We’ve never heard anything like it before, and they’ve never done anything like it before.”