Conversations About Faith, On Stage and Off
Interview with Val Lieske
Hope. Challenge. Change. A new kind of theatre. Fire Exit Theatre is a community theatre company whose aim is to artistically explore the world with HOPE as a focus, to CHALLENGE believers and unbelievers alike, to make choices to CHANGE. Our members come from every denomination, background and walk of life. (website)
Location: Calgary, Alberta, Canada
More info: www.fireexit.ca
What is your mission?
Fire Exit Theatre exists to create community and conversations around faith: what we believe, what we don’t believe, and why. Through stage productions, workshops, mentoring, speakers, guest artists, and readings we seek to engage the culture, creatively looking at the world through the lens of faith.
What are your primary activities?
Production: We produce 3-4 mainstage productions each season. Although our core creators (staff, board and stage directors) are Christians, our auditions are open to the community. We welcome anyone on stage and backstage to create with us. Also, we bring in a Guest Artist each season for performances.
Play development: Our Scripts on Fire staged readings allow playwrights to hear their works-in-progress read in front of an audience, and to get feedback in a talk-back afterward. We have also worked with playwrights to develop short plays into full-length works for production.
Instruction: We host a variety of workshops annually, based on my workbook, Ex Deo: Creation Out of the Being of God. These include Directing, Playwriting, Inspiration, Stage Management, and Solo Creation. Our new Speaker Series launched recently with Jeffrey Overstreet (Seattle), who spoke on Faith & Film. And we host the Lime Light kids’ drama camps each summer, run in conjunction with two churches.
What is the history of the project?
We are currently in our 10th season of creating unique theatre in Calgary. We began as a small community theatre to produce scripts that were too worldly for the church and too churchy for the world – we simply wanted to tell good stories in a “safe” environment outside of the church.
I co-founded the theatre with a friend but took on sole leadership after the first season. We now have a strong Board of Directors and a Creative Team including Technical Director, Box Office manager, and directing mentors.
From the beginning we knew we wanted to perform in a theatre, not a community center or church basement. We wanted to both bring legitimacy to what we were doing and to take it out of the church context to make it a more neutral location to bring friends to. We perform at the Engineered Air Theatre (seating 175), which is in the Epcor Centre for Performing Arts – the main arts center in downtown Calgary. We have worked hard to develop our audience base, a mix of believers and non-believers.
Calgary has a very vibrant theatre scene with about 25 professional and semi-professional groups, probably 25-30 community and ad-hoc groups, a Fringe Festival and summer Shakespeare in the Park. We have a great sense of sharing and support between companies. We have a theatre company dedicated to celebrating women, one for people with disabilities, a couple of Theatres for Young Audiences, one dedicated to telling Aboriginal stories. There is a great sense of wanting to produce Canadian work, not just do Neil Simon.
It has taken many years for Fire Exit to be respected in the community and I think we are still on that journey. We have to earn our place at the table by doing good work and telling stories worth telling. I think people are interested in our stories because they aren’t being told anywhere else. Audiences are realizing that the topic of faith shouldn’t be that taboo.
We also have a good reputation for being a fun company to work worth; we pay our bills on time, treat everyone with respect, and try to build community. One professional actor that worked with us said she had never been treated so well, especially for a “non”-professional company.
Our choice to not go professional is based on the reality that we would be very limited in who we could work with once we make that decision. I think there are some amazingly talented people that are stay-at-home parents and bankers and businesspeople – people who want to be excellent and want to improve. Yes, money is a factor as well, but we have also found many people who simply want to work with us and tithe us their time and talent. There are few things that model biblical community more than creating a theatrical performance. Everyone’s role is important to both the process and the product.
Where have you seen the project bear fruit?
Obviously, we have surpassed the odds by simply surviving this long. We have a strong base of audience, patrons, sponsors and artists who believe in what we do. We have been able to produce numerous world premieres and have been awarded some local accolades.
But the reality is we have a hard time judging “success” – it is not simply ticket sales. Our success is found mainly in the things you cannot put on a pie chart: conversations backstage with the theatre technician who hasn’t been to church in decades, opportunities to pray in the greenroom with an artist who has lost her way, generating new ways of thinking about God for an audience member who thought he was agnostic, and more.
What have your leadership challenges been?
I’m a self-taught theatre artist and leader. Although I knew I was “dramatic” from early on, and I had taken some college classes and workshops in theatre, the idea of going into theatre as a career was out of the question. My choices were bible school or find a job. Being in theatre was basically like renouncing your faith. So I ended up as a banker for thirteen years.
When that job ended, I decided to give theatre a try. I took every workshop/class that I could afford. I asked directors if I could sit in rehearsals, I asked if I could audit classes, I read used theatre textbooks and went to a lot of plays. I also found people who had specific skills (like publicity), bought them coffee, and asked them to tell me everything they knew in two hours. People were very gracious – I try to pass that on now.
In my inexperience, I made lots of early mistakes. In our first few seasons at Fire Exit we tried to produce too many shows. I realize now that you need to start slow, build a mandate, build and educate your audience, build your team, build your resources. I think this is where many companies fail. I see small theatre companies start each year here and most don’t make it past their first season. They want to be “professional” out of the gate and pay everyone. This is heroic but not feasible.
Today, my biggest challenge is that I, as the Artistic Director, have to do too much administration and am not able to focus enough on the creative. I need to transition from writing grants to writing scripts, from finding money to finding artists, from building policies to building teams. I’d also like to have enough resources to begin drawing a salary, which, after ten years, I’ve never done.
Where do you envision the project going in the coming years?
We currently only offer honorariums for select roles. Although we do not desire to become fully “professional”, by employing full-time professionals to satisfy union requirements, we do wish to compensate artists for their craft. We also hope to create more scripts in-house to premiere. We seek to grow our audience and extend the length of time shows can run. Long term, we’d like to have our own theatre space, shared with other artists.
How can someone get involved?
In many ways! From baking food for opening nights, to painting sets, to acting, working backstage, sewing costumes, and buying tickets. Visit our website, www.fireexit.ca.
Val Lieske is the co-founder and Artistic Director of Fire Exit Theatre, now in its 10th season. Writing credits include: Past Tense, God’s Attention, Duty to Warn, and Absence. Directing credits include: Waco T. 1953, Duty to Warn, Holy Mo, and This Waking Moment.
Val also is Co-Director of the theatre program at Rocky Mountain College (Calgary); works with Centre Street Church as part of the Creative Communications team; teaches at Alberta Bible College; produces innovative videos with Tri-Paw Productions; and freelances as a speaker, performer and creative communicator.