Curtain closes on artistic director’s tenure

Yukon theatre is in the midst of a major shakeup. Michael Clark, a fixture in the local theatre scene for the better part of the last decade, is…

Yukon theatre is in the midst of a major shakeup.

Michael Clark, a fixture in the local theatre scene for the better part of the last decade, is exiting stage south.

“It’s a bittersweet change,” said Clark, as he juggled a long-distance phone call, this interview and some scattered papers.

“I can’t pass this opportunity up, but I will be leaving a big part of my heart here in Whitehorse.”

Clark is in his eighth season as Nakai Theatre’s artistic director.

But this summer, he is leaving the Yukon to take over as artistic director for Edmonton’s Workshop West, one of western Canada’s premier theatre companies.

Putting aside his other tasks, Clark settles in to talk about his time with Nakai over a micro-waved lunch of chicken wings and leftovers.

“(Workshop West) is really just a bigger palette,” he said. “The theatre community there is bigger than the whole community of Whitehorse.”

The frenetic, almost chaotic scene that played out around Clark is familiar to anyone who has dealt with him over the years.

He is frequently scrambling between projects and always seems to operate at a higher energy pitch.

That enthusiasm has served him well during his tenure as Nakai’s artistic director, and it helped him overcome the early challenges.

“When I arrived, Nakai was a house divided,” he said, shifting in his seat.

Clark is wary of discussing the early challenges, preferring to focus on the recent successes.

But it’s impossible to talk about his tenure without reflecting on the state of Nakai when he arrived.

The board had several long-time dedicated members, but was having trouble attracting new blood.

The last artistic director, Philip Adams, was immensely popular and many local playwrights were angry that he was let go.

And Clark was an outsider in an insider’s job.

So, he focused on the positives, ratcheted up the energy and barreled ahead.

“One of Philip’s best assets was his ability to really tap into and encourage local playwrights,” said Clark.

Building on that foundation of enthusiastic playwrights, Clark started to focus on production values and other technical elements within theatre.

“I wanted to set a new production standard that Whitehorse artists are completely capable of achieving,” he said of his early days.

It’s a goal Nakai has lived up to more often than not and on paper, it’s hard to argue with the company’s success.

When Clark arrived, Nakai had an annual operating budget of about $165,000; it was wrestling internal demons and the company was struggling to preserve its public image.

Now, eight years later, Nakai’s budget has soared to more than $300,000 annually, the theatre community is incredibly vibrant and Nakai has staked a clear niche as a developer of local talent and producer of high-quality Canadian theatrical productions.

In 2004, Nakai had a watershed season, with a $365,000 budget, two full productions, an international partnership with an Alaskan company and the first Home Grown Festival.

There was also the annual Kids Theatre Festival and Comedy Arts Festival.

Since then, theatre groups across Canada have faced major challenges.

When former Prime Minister Paul Martin targeted the Sponsorship Program in an effort to cleanse his own image, he targeted one of the largest arts funds offered by the federal government.

And he did it in the wake of the collapse of the DuMaurier Arts Fund, which died on the vine after the introduction of limits on tobacco advertising.

All told, those changes cost Nakai between $40,000 and $60,000 annually.

“Figures are always hard to nail down and any not-for-profit theatre is always about the ebb and flow of project funding,” he said. “But in real terms, we lost enough to stage a full-blown production.”

There’s little question that budget cuts have dampened the company’s bottom line in recent years, but the momentum on the artistic development side of the ledger hasn’t faltered.

Since 2002, Nakai has mounted six original plays, all of them developed in Yukon.

Of those, four have been remounted by outside theatre companies, something that Clark calls the “holy grail” of the theatre world.

Several of those productions have gone on to be produced multiple times in multiple cities.

Patti Flather’s Sixty Below received several Dora nominations, the award given out to the best in Canadian theatre.

Mitch Miyagawa’s The Plum Tree had several successful southern productions.

Another playwright, Dean Eyre, has had four successful productions in a range of genres and has become one of the technical backbones of the local theatre scene.

And there are emerging writers, like Jack Jenkins, who Clark says is just beginning his ascent on the local scene.

While he doesn’t take credit for the success of these writers, Clark does feel that Nakai has had a role in fostering their development.

“Developing local artists is a really important part of Canadian theatre,” he said. “Really, theatre is about documenting the culture of the place you live.

“It is about putting local stories on stage and validating that local voice.”

But Clark has also had his critics.

Some bristled at his constant focus on “professional theatre” and it took time for the local community to buy into his vision.

But with time — and success — he won over most of his critics and earned a place as a vocal advocate of local theatre.

His reputation for developing local talent helped him land his new job as artistic director at Workshop West.

In the press release announcing his hire, Workshop West vice-president Catherine West praised Clark’s initiative and energy.

“(His) experience running and building theatres, his fun sensibility, his knowledge of the company’s history and goals, and his ideas for Workshop West’s future made him stand out as the most suitable candidate.”

The Edmonton Journal called Clark “the surprise choice,” but Clark says it was a natural fit.

He and his family lived in Edmonton before coming north for the Nakai job, and he got his directing degree from the University of Alberta.

After seven full seasons with Nakai, he hopes he can go back home with a clear conscience about the state of Nakai and real sense of accomplishment.

“With all those outside productions, audiences elsewhere are seeing and feeling our stories,” Clark said.

And that, more than anything else, might be Clark’s lasting legacy.