(Photo by Kevin Berne. A legendary Russian ballet dancer (Pascal Molat) visits Tosca Cafe.)
“Why aren’t more American plays seen abroad?” asked Eliza Bent in the May/June 2011 issue of American Theatre. We Yanks have got the goods, Bent argued, but the challenges of taking homegrown productions outside U.S. borders have proven too hard for many an American company, save a plucky few (among them, Young Jean Lee’s Theater Company and Elevator Repair Service).
San Francisco’s American Conservatory Theater can add its name to that list. Its dance-theatre piece Tosca Café (the subject of a story in American Theatre’s May/June 2010 issue) played for three, sold-out weeks at Canada’s Theatre Calgary, and continues its journey this month at the Vancouver Playhouse. “It has been a truly amazing journey,” ACT artistic director and Tosca Café co-creator Carey Perloff recently wrote over e-mail. “I had hoped after we premiered the piece in San Francisco that it would have a longer life, but it never occurred to me that it would be the Canadians who stepped into the breach first!”
A devised collaboration with the San Francisco Ballet, Tosca Café chronicles the history of a storied, real-life San Francisco bar. The piece was heavily workshopped, and premiered at ACT in summer 2010. As Daniel Sack wrote in his American Theatre article, that production was “the first time either company [had] produced a work of dance-theatre,” but the work went over splendidly. The San Francisco Chronicle called it “genuine magic… a visual feast, a treasure trove of fine performances.”
The San Franciscan nature of the piece might not have made Tosca Café an obvious touring candidate, but such concerns didn’t deter Dennis Garnhum, artistic director of Theatre Calgary, who attended the opening of Tosca Café at ACT. Perloff writes that he “jumped to his feel during the curtain call saying to me, ‘I want to bring this to Canada.’”
That northward trek wasn’t exactly foreign for Perloff, who had brought Canadian work to ACT, and had worked there herself. Upon arrival, the creative team (which includes the San Francisco Ballet’s Val Caniparoli, who shares creator billing with Perloff) used the opportunity to significantly reshape parts of the piece. A new character with a hefty storyline was introduced. Several Canadian actors joined the company. And the Bay Area history was toned down. (Perloff: “We have made it less San Francisco–centric and more universal.”) Surprisingly enough, Canadian audiences respond to the cultural specificity that has remained: “They have a real romance about San Francisco, so they kind of loved the stuff about the 1989 World Series, and the earthquake, and the Beat poets, and that kind of thing.”
For Perloff, the Canada experience has been a fertile and exciting one. Away from ACT’s home base, she has felt free to do more experimentation; Canada has been a kind of alternative creative haven. “I have to give a huge shout-out to Canadian theatre in general. It’s a remarkable, tight community of artists, and it’s not at all celebrity-driven as with American theatre. They are true ensemble players, and so welcoming.” The company has until October 29 to enjoy that spirit, but until then, Perloff explains the show’s success simply. “Everyone has fallen in or out of love in a strange bar,” she writes, “so audiences from all backgrounds seem to relate.”
Harrison Hill is an editorial intern at American Theatre magazine and writes the blog theater-words.com. He is also an actor, and has performed at Playwrights Horizons, London’s Old Vic Theatre, the Williamstown Theatre Festival and elsewhere. He holds a BFA from NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, and is originally from Charlottesville, VA.