Q&A with … Joe Slabe (Forte Musical Theatre Guild)
This is the second in a series of monthly interviews with some of the movers and shakers in the Calgary Musical Theatre scene. Joe Slabe is Artistic Director of Forte Musical Theatre Guild.
You founded Forte Musical Theatre Guild in 2008. What possessed you to do that and what’s special about your company?
I returned to Calgary after completing my Masters in Musical Theatre Composition from Goldsmiths College (University of London) and was keen to generate interest Austentatious, which I had co-created there, as well as to further develop some of my other works-in-progress. At that time no one was doing much in the way the new musicals in Calgary. In fact there was not one professional theatre company in Canada dedicated to the development and performance of musical theatre. In keeping with my “be the change you want to see” philosophy, I decided to start up my own company. (There’s since been another company established in Toronto). What’s unique about our company is that we focus exclusively on new musicals and also on smaller cast sizes – a market that I think is largely unserved.
What are the biggest challenges and learnings you’ve had in your first four seasons? Any big surprises?
Getting funding is always a challenge, although that wasn’t a big surprise. Only about one third of our costs are covered by ticket sales, so our Board and other volunteers spend a lot of time soliciting donations and grants to make up the difference. One of the reasons we’re only doing one show this year is so we can pay our actors full Actor’s Equity rates, something we couldn’t do for two shows with the funding we have in place. I’m pleased we were able to do that for the first time this year.
Finding theatre space is also tricky when you don’t have your own theatre and you’re the new company on the block. We’ve now got one annual slot at the Pumphouse Theatre, but the selection is pretty limited for small-scale professional productions during the prime theatre season, and waiting lists are long.
I guess the biggest surprise for me was that Calgarians are more willing to embrace the new than I thought. The only show we did that was not original ([title of show]), didn’t sell as well as our other shows, although it was a great show and got good reviews. I’ve learned there is a huge appetite for the work we want to do and that if you put on a good show, especially an original work, people will come.
With the exception of [title of show], you have been involved in writing or co-writing all of Forte’s shows to date. At the risk of being too cliché, where do you get your ideas and inspiration?
I tend to draw inspiration from classic literature and history, although I approach them in off-kilter way, not as straight adaptations. I like stories that are tried and true, yet still relevant to modern times. I used to teach high school music and drama, but I think I could have enjoyed teaching English literature as well, and been quite good at it.
Your current show, Jeremy de Bergerac is the first show you’ve produced for which you’ve written the script (book), as well as the music and lyrics. How did that go for you?
I started my writing career focussing on music and lyrics, and then gravitated to writing the books after studying playwriting under Eugene Stickland when he was at Alberta Theatre Projects. It took me a while to get comfortable with script writing – dialogue is a very different thing than lyrics. Now, I quite like it, and I’ll be writing the books for my next couple of projects as well. I am still open to collaborating, however, when I can find a complementary writing partner or partners.
In addition to being Forte’s Artistic Director, Musical Director, and Producer in the last couple of years, you’ve been Musical Director at Theatre Calgary (The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee), Alberta Theatre Projects (The Wizard of Oz and Seussical The Musical) and Lunchbox Theatre (In Flanders Fields and this season’s upcoming Fascinating Ladies). And this spring you’re heading to the Globe Theatre in Regina to do Buddy – The Buddy Holly Story. When do you find time to write (or sleep)?
I’ve learned over the years. that I have to be disciplined about my writing or I can be easily distracted. I try to write eat least two hours a day, even on days when I have rehearsals. I have to do it first thing – I don’t let myself to check email or Facebook until my writing is done for the day. I also don’t watch a lot of TV.
You started working on Jeremy de Bergerac several years ago. How has it evolved since then, and why might people like to see it?
I started writing the show in 2005 when I was in London. It was a course requirement to write and produce the first act. Although this was not a collaboration like Austentatious, I got a lot of input from my professor, the director and the cast, and was honoured to get to work with the National Theatre’s Clive Paget, who provided a lot of valuable insights.
Most of that first act has survived. What changes there have been have been mainly to the script. I kept the musical framework and most of the ideas that I started with, including the musical motif for Cyrano which runs through the show and ties it together. Completing the show has been mostly an additive process – like filling in the blanks.
I didn’t finish the show at the time, partly because I didn’t feel I was ready, but also because Austentatious took off and subsequent productions in London, New York, Philadelphia and Calgary consumed the better part of five years. I think the break has helped the show. Originally I was more interested in the three younger characters. Now that I’m older, I’ve taken more interest in developing the adult characters. As such, the show now has broader audience appeal. It deals with themes everyone can identify with, like unrequited love and regret. It also offers a message of hope – the idea that being true to yourself and hanging on to friendships will get you through.
Do you have anything else to add?
Come see the show, because the talent is amazing. Experienced actors like Tory Doctor and Roberta Mauer Phillips get to shine in a small show like this, and the three younger actors, Adam Schlinker, Eric Wigston and Selina Wong are real finds.
Jeremy de Bergerac runs until Saturday February 12 at the Pumphouse Theatre. Shows are at 8PM plus there is a 2 PM Saturday matinee. Tickets are $20-$30.
For Forte Musical Theatre’s past shows, go to: Forte Musical Theatre Guild
I am not reviewing Jeremy de Bergerac on my blog, because I attended the first preview on January 31st with the Calgary Musicals MeetUp Group and the Company said they were not entertaining reviews until opening night, since it’s a new show and they thought they might still have some bugs to work out. For some other reviews go to: Previews and Reviews. I did very much enjoy the show, by the way, especially the score/songs and the performances of the young cast members. I’ve seen a few of Joe Slabe’s shows, and I’d say this is the best yet and has the potential to go places.
A la prochaine