Show by show, Toronto Masque Theatre is finding its own way to fuse old and new
BY definition, a masque is a Renaissance or Baroque ceremonial court entertainment that fuses music, dance and theatre with pageantry and scenic splendor. Clearly, Toronto Masque Theatre, with a shoestring annual budget that has hovered between $105,000 and $165,000, is not routinely mounting such lavish spectacles. In fact, die conventional definition of a masque is only the company's point of departure. Thus, explaining die "masque" in Toronto Masque Theatre has proven one of the company's greatest challenges.
Here's how Artistic Director and founder Larry Beckwith defines his vision: "My concept of a masque is bringing together artists from different disciplines and seeing creative sparks fly. The key is collaboration. What we try to do is put a natural, human face on ajuxtaposition of diverse repertoire. I love throwing offbeat works into mixed programs, trying to make tiiematic connections."
In other words, Beekwith sees TMT as a multidisciplinary company, and, in fact, its letterhead motto is "die arts in fusion." But other companies are multidisciplinary, so what makes TMT unique? Perhaps it is what former board member Ian Alexander calls TMT' s "wacky and wonderful" productions. "Larry gives new meaning to the word 'eclectic,'" he says. Innovative programming is one of the company's glories. For example, TMT commissions original works and twins them with early music. The very first TMT offering in 2004, revisited this year, was Masques of Orpheus. The concert linked a new opera, Orpheus and Eurydice, composed by James Rolfe to a libretto by André Alexis, with Marc- Antoine Charpentier's La descente d'Orphée aux enfers (1686).
Other companies have certainly programmed the old with die new, but without the Beekwith twist. Both operas were performed with the identical number of period instruments and the same cast of singers. In other words, Rolfe composed an opera for a chamber ensemble whose number and instrumentation were dictated 325 years ago.
Other notable TMT mix-and-match programs include The Fairy Queen (Purcell/Dryden) with excerpts from Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream; the Randy Newman songbook coupled with poetry of irony; a collection of pop, blues and lute songs, rradrigals and poetry for Valentine's Day; a Scottish masque that fused music and poetry to celebrate Robbie Burns Day; cornmedia and Molière evenings; and Masques of War, which featured Monteverdi's ? combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda, Stravinsky's A Soldier's Tale and The Siege of Quebec, often attributed to Frantisek Kotzwara (1730-1791). As well at two operas by Rolfe, the company has also commissioned works from Abigail Richardson, Omar Daniel and Dean Burxy. Says Rolfe, "Larry has his own take on expanding the early-music performance world. His reeonceptualized programs give the authence fresh ears."
Beckwith, 48, has had a peripatetic career. Son of composer John Beekwith, he is a trained violinist, musicologist and singer.
Variously, he has been a freelance musician, producer at CBCRadio, general manager of Choirs Ontario and a member of the early-music ensemble Arbour Oak Trio, and is currenuy a full-time music teacher at Unionville High School. As a member of Arbour Oak, Beckwith became familiar with Baroque operas and incidental music for masques and plays. This led to a desire to mount larger-scale productions. "I got the bug," he says. "1 had a long list of repertoire I wanted to do, but, at die same time, I had developed a deep interest in theatre and contemporary music. I was also disenchanted with both operatic institutions and the ghettoization of early music. I really wanted to work with an artist-^driven company to explore collaboration in die arts."
Beckwith launched the concept of a masque company at a 2003 meeting at Massey College, a graduate residential facility at the University of Toronto. Beekwith knew the Master of the college, John Fraser, because Arbour Oak Trio had been ensemblein-residence there. Most of the invited patrons had deep pockets. "I wrote out my speech," Beekwith says, "because I didn't want to leave anything to chance. I was pitching my dream."
That meeting enabled Beekwith to put together a board of directors. Ian Alexander, former chief of staff of CBC-TV, was there and ultimately became board chair. "I was captivated by Larry's idea," he says. Alexander uses terms like "cottage industry" and "labor of love" to describe the collaboration diat informs a TMT production. "It's like Mickey and Judy and let's put on a show in the bam," he says. Beckwith, for his part, talks lovingly about his team, and, just like those MGM musicals of old, where Rooney and Garland picked up their collaborators along the way, so did Beekwith. His team is the core of his artist-driven company, and collectively, they cover the arts.
TMT has two Artistic Associates. Montreal Baroque dancer/ choreographer Marie-Nathalie Lacoursiere has been with the company from the very first production in 2004. She met Beekwith when tiiey worked on a Baroque project for Aradia Ensemble in the 1 990s. Vancouver-bom actor/ director DerekBoyes joined the team in 2005 for Masques for a Reaney Day. He met Beckwim during an Opera Atelier tour of Japan in 1999, and they became reacquainted through shinny hockey when they literally crashed into each otiier on the ice.
The rest of the team includes Montreal scenic artist Caroline Guibault and lighting designer Gabriel Cropley. Their first TMT production was Venus and Adonis in 2006. Guibault was a longtime collaborator of Lacoursière. Cropley is head technician at Winchester Street Theatre, the venue where Venus and Adonis was performed. He offered his services as a lighting designer and is now tech director for TMT. As Beekwith says, "We're buildingdie company one show at a time. Everyone is learning on the go."
The team regards TMT's Purcell cycle as its greatest undertaking. Productions of the composer to date include The Fairy Queen (2005), Dioclesian (2006), The Indian Queen (2008), Dido and Aeneas (2007/2009) and King Arthur (2009). Brian Corman, Dean of Graduate Studies at U ofT, whose specialty is Restoration theatre, joined the TMT board to help mount these performances. "To see these Purcell operas staged was irresistible," he says. "Larry offers artists opportunities that no one else is crazy enough to put on."
In his low-key way, Beckwith is an innovative programmer and attracts top talent despite minimum union pay scale. Says tenor Benjamin Butterfield, "Larry is an inventive fellow. He just doesn't gerrymander works together for art's sake - he takes things out of the museum and injects breath and life into them." Adds baritone Alex Dobson:
"Larry has such joy and is so positive that it becomes contagious. He'll never have trouble finding people to work with him."
TMT has settled into a three-production season, the middle one being an intimate cabaret. The company also repeats Dean Burry's The Mummers' Masque (2009) as its yearly Christmas show. Next season's lineup includes the John Beckwith/ James Reaney 1988 "detective opera," Crazy to Kill (Nov. ), the cast featuring three singers, two actors and 18 puppets. Following the Mummers' revival (Dec), the middle cabaret reprises the 2006 Masques of Love (Feb., 2012), including Omar Daniel's Neruda Candones for lute, blues guitar, torch singer and vocal quartet, commissioned by TMT. The season finale (May) joins Monteverdi's il ballo delle ingrate (1608), Convent of Pleasure (1668), a closet drama by Margaret Cavendish, and a madrigal for three sopranos by Luigi Rossi. "The theme of the evening," says Beckwith, " is what idiots men can be."
A permanent home for rehearsals and performances ranks high on the company's wish list. Fanatically loyal fans have visited 16 performing venues around the city thus far, with U of T's Hart House added for next year. Youth outreach and authence development are very important. Also of interest is exploring the masques of other cultures. Luckily, Beckwith 's oneman administration is near an end. The company has just been awarded a three-year Trillium grant to hire both a manager and a marketing person. "We do have challenges," he says, "but the sky's the limit."
I love throwing offbeat works into mixed programs, trying to mah thematic connections.-…