A New Direction for TNB

by Russ Hunt

Like turning an aircraft carrier, it may take a while to get Theatre New Brunswick headed in a new direction.

People who care about live theatre in Fredericton have spent the last few years watching with some distress what they took to be the death spiral of Theatre New Brunswick, as it lost its anchor funding from the Beaverbrook Foundation, was forced to cancel its last two shows in 2001/2, and was reduced to three shows last year.

The sudden resignation last winter of artistic Director David Sherren, announced as the season's last production, Jasper Station, went into rehearsal, seemed only the latest item in what had become a series of intimations of mortality. And the almost simultaneous announcement of a still-truncated 2003/4 season which didn't inspire many theatregoers with overwhelming enthusiasm similarly suggested - along with all the bad news in general for theatre in Atlantic Canada that life support might be all that was keeping the organism breathing.

But then came news that the TNB board seemed to finally realize that the situation was actually desperate, that they were actively looking for a new artistic director and becoming serious about the long-delayed capital fundraising drive. It began to look as though having the maintenance and operation of the Playhouse off TNB's back was making a difference, both to the Playhouse itself and to the theatre company's operations. Many of its supporters - and potential supporters - found themselves able to remain hopeful.

Against that background, the announcement that a new Artistic Director had been appointed was greeted with measured enthusiasm. At least maybe now we'd know whether someone had been hired to oversee the dismantling of the enterprise, or whether the new person would be part of a real attempt to reinvigorate the aging brainchild of Walter Learning, who founded the country's first and only professional touring company over thirty years ago.

But very few New Brunswick theatregoers knew much about the new director, Scott Burke, beyond the fact - announced in TNB's press release - that lie is the current director of the Ship's Company in Parrsboro.

As more information about Burke has surfaced, it's become clearer that there's more reason for optimism. Walter Learning, in fact, says it's the first time in a while he's been confident that things are looking up for TNB, which, he says, never really recovered from the withdrawal of funding by, the Beaverbrook Foundation. Burke, he says, is not only a good director, but a theatrical entrepreneur of some experience and talent, having led Ship's Company from dire financial straits to a situation where they're beginning to build a new theatre in Parrsboro.

Ilkay Silk, a TNB board member and long-time director of theatre at St. Thomas University , says that what's particularly impressive about Burke, aside from his dramatic and administrative experience, is his apparent ability to relate to and engage the community around the theatre. This, she says, will be particularly important as TNB gets its fund-raising drive into gear.

Learning agrees. "Theatre New Brunswick serves a huge, diverse community," he says. "There are different people and different expectations in Grand Falls and Sussex and Moncton and Fredericton and Saint John. To keep in touch with all those people is the main challenge the company has always faced."

People who judge TNB - and decide whether to put their bums in the seats - on the basis of the repertoire of plays will have to wait a while, though, to see what sort of difference Burke might make.

What that difference will be, and , whether it will be one we can be enthusiastic about (and whether it'll keep the ship afloat) remains to be seen. The season he'll be working with when he comes to Fredericton in September is one that's already been chosen for him - and though he'll be putting, his own directorial stamp on the productions, in many ways it will be David Sherren's and the Board's season, not Scott Burke's.