The theatre scene in Ottawa may be small, but it’s also surprisingly vibrant. With the Great Canadian Theatre Company, the Ottawa Little Theatre, A Company of Fools, Orpheus Theatre and TotoToo, not to mention the National Arts Centre, Ottawans have no shortage of choices when they want to take in an evening of drama. And now a brand-new company is hoping to find its niche in the city’s tapestry of theatres.
Headed by Algonquin College theatre alum Alain G Chauvin, Take a Jump In It Theatre was originally launched to coincide with a play he mounted for the 2014 Fringe Festival. Oceans Apart follows the physical and psychological journey of a soldier who has returned from a tour in Afghanistan and must now deal with the symptoms of PTSD.
Building off the success of that show, which Chauvin says received an enthusiastic response from members of the military, Take a Jump In It will focus on presenting shows that tackle tough issues. While he plans to deal with more military subject matter, Chauvin, who is openly gay, says he’d also like to mount a performance of In Gabriel’s Kitchen, by Toronto playwright Salvatore Antonio, about a traditional Italian family coming to terms with their gay son’s suicide.
“I decided to really step up and launch a theatre company that would hopefully stick around,” Chauvin says. He and dramaturge Catherine Ballachey are currently the company’s only members, though Chauvin says he’s hoping to bring on more people for future projects. So far, the company has been entirely self-funded by Chauvin.
“[Theatre in Ottawa] is a tricky business,” he says. “If you don’t know people well enough in the city, the chances of your theatre company getting off its feet are slim.”
He acknowledges that launching any new business can be difficult, particularly in the digital age, where every venture is expected to have an extensive web and social media presence. As the director of a fledgling theatre company, Chauvin takes on that role himself, along with many others.
He says his next step with the company will be to rewrite Oceans Apart as a one-man show (the original production had three cast members) and tour it around to legions and military bases. “Traditional talk-backs for theatres are the audience members asking the actors and directors the questions. What I want to do while touring at the military bases is to flip that talk-back around where I ask the vets the questions.”
The focus on military issues wasn’t intentional for Chauvin. Rather, it was a chance meeting that piqued his interest. “I met somebody that served in Afghanistan, and I could just tell that there was a heaviness of emotion around him, but this wasn’t something that I could ask [about] freely,” he says.
Instead, Chauvin took to research, including transcripts of actual events, to craft his story and characters. Deeply affected by what he learned, he says he’s now considering joining the Canadian Forces himself. “Not only did this affect the people that saw it, but it affected me so much that I want to now make a difference,” he says.
“When I went home and told my mother this last week, she was like, ‘Do they accept gays in the military?” Chauvin recalls with a chuckle. He says he’s interested in doing social work with soldiers, diagnosing and treating PTSD. “The first step is talking about it. I think a lot of soldiers coming back home fear talking about it because then they’re labelled with it, and then their career might be in danger,” he says.
Future Fringe festivals are probably not the place for Take a Jump In It to mount its productions, Chauvin says, explaining that in his experience, Fringe audiences tend to react better to comedies than serious dramas. “The Fringe is very much a base for comedy, I think. [This year] a show about dick jokes got more promotion from the Ottawa Fringe Festival than a show about serious military issues.”
Still, Chauvin says he thinks Ottawa is ready for a theatre company that focuses on more serious dramas. “I think the Ottawa theatre scene is ready. Whether or not the public is ready, I’m not sure.” He also wants to explore more queer material and work with local artists. “There’s definitely room for LGBT plays within my theatre company, and there are playwrights in Ottawa that write queer content.”
Chauvin says Ottawa can be a tough place for young people in theatre to get by financially, especially compared to bigger cities. “I think Ottawa’s a great town to get the experience, but I think that if you’re ready to go and get paid, I think Toronto is the right move,” he says. But he’s not ready to give up on the scene yet and says he prides himself on paying the artists he works with. “Even though I made a loss on [Oceans Apart], I can see that there’s a positive outcome that has come out of it.”