When the Confederation Centre of the Arts first appeared on the downtown Charlottetown landscape in the 1960s, like a meteorite from outer space, it promised to develop and present original Canadian musical theatre, and showcase the best of Canada’s and Prince Edward Island’s cultural and artistic expression. It also was to be a living memorial to the founding Fathers of Confederation, telling our national political story.
The Charlottetown Festival came to life in 1965 with the production of Anne of Green Gables, the story of a young adopted girl coming of age in rural Prince Edward Island. Anne the musical has toured the world and become a timeless classic, as well as creating an invaluable tourism product for the province.
The Charlottetown Festival has staged other remarkable successes, including the singularly moving Johnny Belinda, the musical adaption of an Elmer Harris play. First presented at the Festival in 1968, it was both critically acclaimed and a box office gem.
But given the vapid thinking and huckster approach of the current Confederation Centre of the Arts board and management, I doubt very much if either Anne or Belinda would make the Festival cut today. Both scripts would be looked upon as risky commercial propositions, possessing too much local cultural content, and unlikely to draw an audience.
I am compelled to say this in light of the Centre’s decision this year, marking the 150th Anniversary of Canadian Confederation, to produce Million Dollar Quartet, a jukebox musical featuring the songs of three dead and one almost dead American musician.
If there ever was a moment to question the institution’s commitment to its national cultural mandate, or the competence of its board and senior management, this is it. Instead of seizing the opportunity, and working to produce an original piece of musical theatre reflecting our Canadian experience, the Confederation Centre instead has thrown its mandate out the proverbial window and chosen to put on main stage an American songbook review.
Our federal cultural agencies that fund Confederation Centre of the Arts so handsomely, contributing millions each year for capital and operating, must be scratching their heads, and wondering what possible connection Louisiana born Jerry Lee Lewis had to this country, unless possibly it was to escape justice after marrying his 13-year old first cousin.
It’s not as if there was insufficient time to commission, workshop, and produce an original show marking the 150th. Surely Jessie Inman, the debutante CEO of the Centre, knows that 2017 follows 2016, and so forth. But the truth is that the Centre has no artistic or cultural vision, has lost its direction, and desperately needs to be overhauled from the top down.
When the Centre opened its doors in 1964, the restaurant Mavor’s was known as Club 1864. Back then it was a more exclusive place, frequented by board members and governors, and the Charlottetown business elite. Club 1864 in its new role has become slightly more egalitarian, but the institution itself has never shed its elitist and exclusive image.
The Centre is a social club, and although board members wear the garb of cultural trustees and leaders, most are there for the parties, as admitted by the wife of one member of the local executive at a recent Government House function.
For Islanders who don’t know, the institution is governed by a board consisting of the chairperson, an Island resident, and twenty-three other members, seven of whom must also be residents of the province.
Premier MacLauchlan and his cabinet appoint all twenty-four board members for terms of up to three years. They can be re-appointed, with no limit on the number of successive terms an individual can serve. As a result, several board members have been there forever, comparatively longer than the members of the old Soviet Union Presidium.
The present chair, Wayne Hambly, has been on the board for twenty-four years. Corporate memory is a great thing, but I am not aware of any other publicly-funded cultural institution in Canada, including the National Arts Centre in Ottawa, that would permit such stagnant governance, without new blood or fresh leadership.
But Club 1864 does things differently, and it’s hard to leave the party scene after you’ve been initiated.
Undoubtedly, Million Dollar Quartet will be a cash cow for the Charlottetown Festival, just as Mamma Mia was, and at the end of the summer management will point glowingly to positive revenue numbers.
But the public investment by Canadians in the Centre will have been squandered, its purpose ignored, and a golden opportunity missed to reflect the experience of Canada through original musical theatre at this historic point in our life as a nation.
In other words, Confederation Centre of the Arts will have abandoned the national mandate it is called upon by legislation and funding to deliver.
As an afterthought, the Centre could have increased Canadian content and saved money by casting Million Dollar Quartet with local talent. Johnny Ross could have played the ‘Killer’, Kevin Boomer Gallant does a great Elvis, Nudie would be all over those Johnny Cash tunes, and as for Carl Perkins, well there must be a lookalike somewhere in west Prince.
Then again, Confederation Centre of the Arts is blind to the cultural geography of Canada, let alone the place where the meteorite landed in 1964.