The best way to spend your lunch
by Sean-Paul Boynton
If you’re looking for a fun alternative to the crowded food courts and overpriced sandwich stands during your lunch hour, all you have to do is pack a snack and head downtown for a short fix of theatre.
Lunchbox Theatre, the venerable one-act play company, has been delighting audiences and providing welcome noon-hour respites from the daily grind for 35 years. Now known as the longest-running one-act theatre organization in the world, Lunchbox has seen the launch of several professional artistic careers over the past three-and-a-half decades, and has become a safe haven for nubile playwrights to showcase original work – much of which has gone on to national and even international success.
Considering that these days it takes a lot of hard work and patience to make a mark in the theatre community with a new company, it’s surprising to hear Bartley Bard, the founding artistic director for Lunchbox, recall how it was a hit from the beginning.
“At our very first performance on Sept. 15, 1975, every single seat was filled,” says Bard, on the phone from his current home in Los Angeles that he shares with his wife and Lunchbox co-founder, Margaret. “I had gotten 100 of those folding chairs and set them up in Bow Valley Square, and just through word of mouth and putting ads in the paper, we sold out our first show. And we sold out pretty much every show since then.”
Granted, Lunchbox had some strokes of luck and special circumstances during their beginning that modern upstart companies would have a hard time finding: for instance, their space at Bow Valley Square was held rent-free (and would continue to be until 2008, when Lunchbox was forced to move to their current location at the base of the Calgary Tower). The company also debuted at a time when only Theatre Calgary and Alberta Theatre Projects made up the city’s theatre community.
Despite sounding like an easy environment in which to debut a new theatrical voice, what made Lunchbox survive all these years has been its commitment to fostering new talent, as well as committing itself to a diverse cross-section of productions.
“We wanted to come across as professional – that was our main goal,” recalls Bard. “We featured comedies, dramas, classics, and then once our status was sealed, we were able to attract new, original works by up-and-coming playwrights, which was what we had hoped to achieve from the beginning.
“Calgary’s a fast-paced town,” he continues, “and the people there want to see more: more theatre, more originality, more of something special. And it’s a really special town, so we fit right in, I think. When we started, there were only two skyscrapers surrounding our space…and then there were four, and then five, and…well, look at it today. It’s always growing, and we were able to watch that growth.”
Indeed, Lunchbox has become an integral part of Calgary, both artistically and culturally. Its importance to the city was sealed when Petro Canada partnered with the company to create the Stage One Festival, which gives fresh-minded playwrights the chance to bring their debut creations to life, culminating in one play being chosen to close out the season.
Bard left Lunchbox and Calgary in 1999, moving to Los Angeles with his wife to pursue other artistic avenues, including screenwriting. The company then went through a few successors that led to Pamela Halstead joining on one year ago. Halstead is committed to not only maintaining Lunchbox’s well-deserved reputation, but also ensuring that the next 35 years are just as prosperous as the previous 35.
“Some of the things that the company went through recently – especially the move to our new space, which is costing us more money now since it’s no longer rent-free – are things that have the potential to sink most companies of our size,” says Halstead. “I think what’s kept us going has been our long history of demonstrating that we care about the community and what we stand for, as well as our large audience that has stuck with us and kept coming back for so many years. We’ve definitely created a following, so it’s great to see that they still care about us.”
Halstead says that Lunchbox will survive in the ever-changing and always unpredictable artistic community of Calgary by staying true to its mission of developing new work and keeping its doors open to emerging artists from all walks of life – whether they be actors, directors, or playwrights. She also mentions the company’s Emerging Directors program, which allows up-and-coming directors the chance to work with established professionals of the craft and eventually direct a showcase of their own.
This year will prove to be a big one for Lunchbox Theatre, as the company plans to celebrate their milestone in as many ways as possible. Halstead mentions a “community celebration” that will happen in June, and although details are still being finalized, she promises it will be “a giant party with people throughout Lunchbox’s history joining in on the fun.” This May will also see the return of Lunchbox’s most beloved character, Ivanka, return to the company’s stage for a “greatest hits” collection from her past six performances.
As for whether Bard will attend the celebration in June, which wouldn’t have even happened without him and his wife: “We’ll see. I definitely would like to attend, although our son is celebrating his tenth birthday that month, so we can’t miss that. There are just too many milestones to celebrate at once!”
For more information on Lunchbox Theatre, including ticket prices (only $15 for students), visit www.lunchboxtheatre.com