Hope. Challenge. Change. Telling Stories That Matter.

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Fire Exit Theatre...a Good News Story

The Calgary theatre scene is changing, is struggling. An unusual turnover of leadership with Artistic Directors and Associates, a decline of audiences and a huge downturn of donations, both personal and corporate. With over 50 theatre companies vying for patrons, for sponsors and for grant monies it can, to put it lightly, be challenging.

Luckily for Fire Exit Theatre (FET) ‘challenge’ is part of their byline and their ethos.

“Almost 16 years ago a small group of us came up with the three words that would guide us through everything from the stories we told to the kind of company artists and patrons would meet when they worked and played with us,” says founder and Artistic Director, Val Lieske. “Hope, Challenge, Change lead our decision making and set the tone of who we are. We will never leave an audience hopeless. Although we have no issue with portraying the darkness of the world, we are people of hope and want our patrons to see even a glimmer of that. We think that theatre should challenge you; what you believe and don’t believe and why that is. And finally, it should change you. If you don’t leave the theatre a little differently than when you walked in, we didn’t do our job.”

FET is celebrating its 15th season in Calgary and like Ms. Lieske says, theatre-years are like dog-years, so we we’re well over a hundred years old! Val adds, “Unfortunately, arts organizations come and go because, quite simply, it’s hard. It’s hard to find your audience, to get funding, to build a team that wants to tell stories for years without getting paid what they’re worth, and to stick to your mandate.” She sighs and says, “I was a banker for 13 years. A pay cheque every two weeks, a dry cleaning budget, and lots of new shoes. Easy. The only problem was, it was sucking out my soul. I wasn’t doing what I was put on the planet to do.”

The semi-professional company began when a small group of people decided they wanted to tell “God stories” outside of the church. They wanted to produce excellent work in a theatre, not a sanctuary, and talk about the final taboo in theatre, God. “We aren’t telling bible stories, per say,” says Val, “But we want to talk about the idea that there just might be a good God that is deeply interested in us; every part of us. Our generosity, our greed, our kindness, our pride, our families, our careers, our choices,” she goes on to say, “Most of what we do I would not feel comfortable presenting at my church. These are hard stories. They’re messy and often difficult to watch. The path to God is rarely straight. We wanted a place to tell these stories. I realized that I was reading plays that had the word God in it so most companies would shy away from that. They also had the word dammit in it so most churches would not put that on their stage. So these beautiful, complicated stories would slip through the cracks and never be told.”

Not being sure there was even an appetite for this type of storytelling it is a little bit shocking to be alive and well 15 years later. In a season when many companies are downsizing their staff and their programming FET has had a very full anniversary year.

They launched the season with their Guest Artist Series bringing in Los Angeles actor and writer Susan E. Isaacs and her 2015 Winner Best Adaptation at the United Solo Festival in New York, Angry Conversations with God.

Then they partnered with the highly successful Chemainus Theatre Festival to bring Canadian playwright, Gary Kirkham’s Falling: A Wake directed by the Festival’s Artistic Director, Mark Dumez.

Next was the Calgary premiere of the controversial, How the World Began by Catherine Trieschmann and directed by Mark Lewandowski.

The final show of the season is Heather McDonald’s, An Almost Holy Picture featuring Barrett Hileman and directed by Royal Sproule, the new Artistic Director of the Canadian Badlands Passion Play.

As part of the season they also brought in filmmaker, Jason Goode to show his award-winning film, NUMB and to host a workshop on the Business of Film.

They presented unl-ABLE-ed, an Evening of Disability and Art as a partnership with Inside Out Theatre, In-Definate Arts, Dubsasov Dance and the National Film Board to present the short documentary, “We Regret to Inform You”.

Finally, they launched Scripts on Fire, an annual Playwriting Competition, where they received 17 scripts from seven provinces and will be announcing the winner shortly. The winner will receive a cash prize of $750 as well as a staged reading and the possibility of production.

“Most days I can hardly believe we are still alive, let alone thriving,” says Val. “We don’t do well-known shows, we don’t have a huge audience, we don’t work Casino’s. On paper, this shouldn’t work.” She goes on to say, “We have an extremely loyal patron base that supports us no matter what the price of oil is. They believe we are telling stories worth telling. They see the value of art, especially in challenging times. We exist for them. And we are grateful.”

Illness, by Johanna Giebler

The following spoken word piece was performed by Johanna Giebler at unl-ABLE-ed on March 2, 2017:

People like to tell me things
Like don’t worry
Be happy
Because what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger
And there is always a reason
Just have a little faith
You’ll be alright
Sure

I know they want to make it better
Easier
Simpler
A verse here or there
Ought to show the right amount of care
If they gently pat my hand
Say that they understand
That’s enough
Okay

But I want answers
I want to know what if
What refuses to kill you only makes you weaker
Without a single reason
And a dozen prayers don’t change
What God’s already ordained
Necessarily
And maybe my faith isn’t the one in jeopardy
I’m challenging their bite sized philosophy
About my disability

Sickness doesn’t always make sense
Sometimes it is utter nonsense
Like, I want to know is why there are hospitals for children
And kids don’t always get to bury their parents
Because sometimes it goes the other way around
And when I dare ask this
M naysayers don’t make a sound

I want to know why there are some drugs you can’t get over the counter
Because they are too hardcore for the rest of the population
Or why it seems a doctor’s door
Is in constant rotation
Was that the plan from creation?

And they sputter out “well, be patient
God will have his way
And every dog has his day
I guess that means it is not my day
Today
Or tomorrow
Or every day after that
Am I getting this right?

I just want to know
Why people have pain
Because you don’t always learn a lesson
You don’t always take a turn for the better
You aren’t always hopeful
I want to know why I
Am not always hopeful

Chronic pain
Isn’t the issue
Disability isn’t the issue
It’s life with it that causes the confusion
The delusions
That others project
that it simply won’t last
If you try a little harder
Rest a little longer
Stay a little stronger

That’s the root of the problem I think
See I can handle my own situation
It’s something I’ve gone through with great contemplation
In fact, I’m not afraid of its eventual summation
I’m more afraid of their condemnation

Their misunderstanding of my disability
And placating words of sympathy
Do nothing for me
I’m sorry
That’s not what I need
I need a friend
I need an ear
I need to know when I need a distraction or a shoulder or a laugh
You’re going to be here

I’m not trying to call anyone out
There’s no one in particular this is about
But me
I guess I’m just sick of being sick
Falling to my knees when I cannot stand
Screaming out in hopes God has a plan
Writhing
Moaning
Panting
And the world checking to see if I have a fever

I want to know why we have so much therapy
And a lot less empathy
Why we spend our time treating the body
And not replenishing the soul
Shouldn’t that be the ultimate goal?

So here is my suggestion
In fact, I’ll even phrase it like question
Could you stop trying to fix me?
Because I am the one that’s gotta get up
Step up
Grow up
Not you
I am the one with the struggling face
No one else is in my place
No one is trying to steal my shoes
To walk a mile
Or ever for a little while

The solution is not to do it FOR me
But WITH me
Hear me
Ask me how I’m doing

See here
If you love someone in pain
See the person, not the strain
Abstain
From coddling and ignoring
Two extremes
Because I may be on my way to the end faster than you
But love me through and through
I don’t want to go faster
And I really don’t want to go alone

After all of this
Here is my final advice
See the person not the sickness
See the friend not the illness
See the truth not the pretense
And I confess
My pain wouldn’t seem so hard to bear
My questions wouldn’t be so unfair
If I knew someone actually cared

© 2017 Johanna Giebler

Shadowlands Nominated for 2 Critter Awards!

2016 Calgary Critics' AwardsCongratulations to Joel Cochrane (nominated for Best Actor in a Play) and Jennifer Behie Ratzlaff (nominated for Best Set Design) for their nominations for the 2016 Calgary Critics’ Awards for their work in Shadowlands.

So proud of this team. Thank you...

Read more about the awards and the other nominees.

Hit & Myth Productions working with Fire Exit Theatre on Shadowlands

Joel Cochrane, Artistic Producer of Hit & Myth ProductionsJoel Cochrane is the Artistic Producer of Hit & Myth Productions. Select recent acting credits include: Macbeth, Romeo & Juliet, The Money Shot, No Exit, and Titus Andronicus. Joel was the 2009 recipient of the Greg Bond Memorial Award for outstanding achievement in musical theatre. He is the 2014-15 Critter Award winning best supporting actor for High Life.

Every production begins with a very simple conversation. Or perhaps, every simple conversation begins with either an idea or at the very least, a partially formed thought. So it was with Shadowlands and my association with Fire Exit. I had heard of Fire Exit Theater, but didn’t really know their work. Many of my friends, on the other hand, were not only familiar with what Fire Exit had been doing, but were surprised that I wasn’t. I would hear things like… “Those guys are great, they are this indie theater company, faith based, pretty arty, and pretty cool, you should check them out.”

Truth be told, I probably should have known more about Fire Exit, mostly because I produce professional theater in Calgary. I produce it independently. And, I have done so for the past 10 years. I am a fan of independent theater companies that take risks, and are trying to produce work that is artful, challenging and somehow, also entertaining. And, that’s what Fire Exit had been doing, unbeknownst to me, for a number of years.

My own oeuvre tends to be more along the lines of things that are both alternative and commercial. And, a great deal of the work I have produced could be said to chronicle dude culture. I like to have an audience see the stuff I produce. And, I like a wide range of theater. I’ve produced musicals, comedies, dark psychological and political thrillers, new works, existing scripts, and a wide range of very different works. And, I like to shock, both in terms of the themes of the shows, as well as the visuals. I’ve produced a lot of shows with some pretty big special effects in them, most notably stuff with guns, sex, body parts, blood and zombies. And, thematically, a lot of the work has revolved around chronicling what has been described as dude culture. Specifically, how men deal with love, sex, emotions, existence, and the complexities of modern life.

When I was having a conversation with my friend about Shadowlands, a play that is decidedly outside my “conventional” realm, the thought struck me that I would really like to do this play, mostly because it’s just such a compelling story. However, Shadowlands didn’t necessarily seem to fit easily into the type of work that I had been doing. It’s a play about romance, about faith, about love, about suffering, and it has no zombies or guns.

So, if the question posed is why is the Zombie and shock loving producer of Evil Dead: The Musical, William Shakespeare’s Land of the Dead, the violent and blood soaked Lieutenant of Inishmore, The Pillowman and A Behanding in Spokane working with a faith based company like Fire Exit to produce Shadowlands, the answer is very simple.

Val Lieske, Artistic Director of Fire Exit TheatreWe both are interested in creating work that is different and challenging and above all entertaining and theatrical. Work that makes you think, as well as makes you laugh and cry. Theater can make for some strange bedfellows, but at the end of the day, everyone is looking for the same thing. To make art that is meaningful in some way, and that is memorable, and that deals with the bigger truths. We both do that; we just happen to come at in from slightly different directions. However, the final destination is common one.

Val Lieske is the founder and Artistic Director of Fire Exit Theatre.

I couldn't be more excited to close our season with this amazing production of Shadowlands.

Admittedly, I was a little shocked when Joel first approached me about this partnership. Joel Cochrane? The guy who produced Evil Dead: The Musical?? Does he actually know who we are?

But what a pleasure it has been telling this story with him. He is just as in in love with C.S. Lewis as I am and I've enjoyed hearing him bring his words to life.

This is a profoundly powerful story of moving theology from your head to your heart. Simply not to be missed.

Shadowlands is running from May 12–22, 2016. Tickets start at $20 and can be purchased online or by calling 403-640-4617.

The Book of Jobes

From an article in Decision Magazine by BGEA

Faith Profile
Suffering Redeemed

A woman with physical disabilities overcomes hardship and inspires others to do the same.

On a cold afternoon in 2008, a masked intruder broke into Heidi Janz’ Ed- monton apartment.

“He was demanding money,” Hei- di says. “So I pointed at my purse on the sofa and yelled, ‘Take it!’”

Instead, the attacker covered her mouth and started stabbing her in the chest.

“I could feel myself slipping away.” Heidi recalls. “I thought it was the end. I committed my spirit to the Lord before I passed out.”

When Heidi came to, the attacker — Kenneth MacWatt, a man well known to police for attacking people with disabilities — had fled. Heidi lay helpless on the floor, covered in blood, until she was discovered by her elderly father. The wounds were so severe, Heidi needed two months to fully recover.

Read More (PDF)  [+]

A Message from the Artistic Director

As we step into our 11th season I think back to our very first season and what our vision and dreams were. Truth be told, my grand vision was to do one season of theatre without making a complete fool of myself and without maxing out my credit card. I did have a grander vision, but I was way too nervous to speak it publically and even in the privacy of my own mind I didn’t allow myself to linger there too long. It seemed far too outrageous…even cocky. That I, a 13 year banker, who’s only experience with theatre was playing the servant girl in a dinner theatre in the basement of the then very small Centre Street Church and excepting Oscars in my bedroom … that I would actually be able to run a legitimate theatre company. Absurd. It’s taken many years to dream that dream out loud. To step in and own that dream as reality. To realize that hundreds of people have auditioned to be on our stage and have worked building our sets and sewing our costumes and hanging our lights. That thousands of people have seen our stories and thousands of dollars have been donated to tell those stories. That we’ve been profiled and interviewed and reviewed on CBC, the Calgary Herald and Sun, City Light News, Shine FM, AM 1140, Theatre Alberta’s industry magazine, and Church and Art Network. We have hosted world premieres, we have partnered with artists from New York to LA from Toronto to Vancouver. We have exposed our community to theatre that has never been seen here before. We are generating conversations in the rehearsal halls, in the foyer of the Engineered Air Theatre and in the car rides home after shows that have never been had before. We are creating a safe place for artists to explore their vulnerable craft and their wobbly faith. For better or worse we are putting the final taboo on stage – God. We are changing culture. This has surpassed even my unspoken dreams.

I once heard the sage-of-our-time, Oprah, say how wonderful it is to actually be able to see your dream come to life…and then have to find a bigger one to dream. That’s where we are tonight. We are in need of bigger dreams. Between you and me…I’ve started to dream them. In between the grant writing, the fundraising, the cheque book balancing, the scheduling, the website updating, and the script reading; they are bubbling up.

I dream that artists of faith will be the leaders in their fields, that they will tell the best stories with their art and with their lives, that they will be the movers and shakers and creativity makers, that they will not be simply tolerated in their churches and in their artistic communities but that they will be embraced and honored for being the prophets of our time. I dream that the stories of our faith will saturate the landscape for a world desperate to connect with something bigger than themselves. I dream about a time where art where not simply be entertainment, a way to pass the time and escape, but instead will be a place to lean in and engage and be transformed. Along with those ethereals that we want to make tangible, I also dream about space. Space to create. Space to collaborate. Space to rehearse. Space to perform. Space to create community; uninhibited by giant rental costs and double time and a half labour invoices. Space where we could be generous to other arts organizations by sharing offices and sharing great ideas. Space where stopping in the middle of the day to pray is normal. Space where painters and playwrights and designers and dancers work and play together to make each other better. Space as big as our dreams. Space we can call our own…our home.

I also dream of Fire Exit being the connector of artists of faith across Canada. Where we gather regularly to inspire each other, to support each other, and to create together. That we are a hub of mentors and people being mentored. That our work is being seen not only in Calgary, but in Vancouver and Winnipeg and Three Hills. That we are a haven for the tired and uninspired to come and be renewed. That we are hope personified.

I am nervous to speak these dreams, like I am timid to pray these prayers… fear of looking foolish, of seeming naïve, of saying this is impossible and being proven right. I stand here tonight saying this is impossible…and only you can prove me wrong. Only you can manifest these dreams. Only you can force us to have to dream bigger dreams.

There are so many ways that you can do this…you can buy a membership tonight, you can get season tickets for your whole family, you can become a sponsor, you can give us your talent – if you own a truck, we need it. If you own a paint store, we need some. If you’re a caterer, we like to eat. If you have extra money, we’ll take it. And we’ll take it in many forms…you can write a chq tonight and put it in the envelope on our table. You can donate online from our website. In a few minutes you can increase your bid on that auction item you want. You can simply hand me cash. At any point. Whenever and wherever you see me.

Thank you for you generosity and for inspiring us to dream bigger dreams.
….Val