Montreal’s Arthur Holden brings comedy ‘Ars Poetica’ to Calgary’s Scorpio Theatre

When passion for art is overshadowed by the difficulty to make it profitable, why do struggling artists continue to pursue their craft with tireless ambition?

Such is the question presented by Montreal-based playwright Arthur Holden in “Ars Poetica” set to hit Calgary Feb. 15 to 23.

The comedy, written by Holden and produced by Calgary’s Scorpio Theatre, looks at the issue of funding for the arts. It explores a fictional English language poetry magazine, Ars Poetica, and its difficulties staying afloat in Montreal’s Francophone culture.

Calgary is the second Canadian city where the play is being produced — the first being Montréal. While the English-French debate is part of the play, it focuses on the validity of art as a whole.

Given our city’s current title as the cultural capital of Canada, Holden says it is a great place to explore the topic.

“To get a really vibrant art or theatre scene, a city has to be economically in good shape,” Holden says. “With Calgary for example, you have Enbridge backing the playRites Festival at Alberta Theatre Projects. It’s one of those curious things where arts thrive when business thrives.”

Holden has appeared in Zack Snyder’s 300 and Martin Scorsese’s The Aviator. He has been voicing the character of Mr. Ratburn on the cartoon Arthur since it debuted in 1996 and has done voice work on a number of video games, including the “Assassin’s Creed” series.

He was also practised as a lawyer before moving into theatre.

The characters

The comparison between business and art exists in the father-daughter pairing of Hugh and Naomi.Actress Sara Deabler plays Naomi Rose, an aspiring poet whose love for her art is matched only by her loyalty to a near bankrupt publication.

Photo by Justin Wilson

Hugh, a successful lawyer, is drawn into the magazines woes when Naomi opts to remain an ambitious intern at Ars Poetica instead of taking a job he had arranged for her.

Holden says at times he thought back to his courtroom days when writing for Hugh’s character.

“Hugh has a couple of rants that I’d like to say I let myself go a little overboard on, but they aren’t totally foreign to some of the things I feel about how the world works.”

Other characters include:
• Julia, the magazine editor and an American immigrant who once set fire to a police car.
• George, the publisher who uses the magazine’s budget for personal conquests, including hourly rate motels.
• Diane, a program officer with the Canada Council for the Arts, with a paranoid fear of living on cat food and tap water.

The clash of pride and progress

A key theme of the play is the idea that many artists bend over backwards to receive miniscule sums of money from organizations like the Canada Council.

Holden addresses this by having Hugh read aloud a business plan written by George directed at the council.

In the plan, George makes it very clear he’s not jumping through hoops for what he feels is a measly $28,000 grant.

The finished document not only suggests a detailed price list for a plan to whore himself out to wealthy Montreal art connoisseurs — including a $5,000 fellatio fee — but also an accusation of tyranny directed at the council.

Lies and technology

One of the things Holden feels the audience will appreciate is the visual aspect of Ars Poetica.

A key element in the play is how the characters converse via text message.

“We have these tools now that make it possible for us to communicate by writing instantaneously and it gives us another opportunity to lie and deceive,” Holden says. “So, what we’ve done in the play is when they send a text message, it is projected somewhere, and the audience actually sees what they’re texting.”

Through the projections, audiences will be in on who’s lying, who’s sexting about whips and paddles, who’s dodging who, and what characters really think of one another as they go through the motions of polite conversation.

One in 200

Ars Poetica was submitted to Scorpio between late Dec. 2011 and late Jan. 2012, after a tweet by artistic director Aaron Conrad let people know about the theatre’s call for submissions.

The theatre received more than 200 scripts from around the world.

“It’s one of those curious things where arts thrive when business thrives.”

— Arthur Holden

“Anything that hasn’t been performed in Calgary before, we’ll take a look at,” says Conrad. “So, we put out a call for submissions, nothing really out of the ordinary. Somehow I ended up with scripts from places like Macedonia.”

Out of the submissions, Ars Poetica is the only one Scorpio chose to stage.

Director Dan Gibbins says he found it hilarious upon his first reading.

“I think it’s everything that makes farce nicely fast-moving and funny, while still being really grounded in its characters,” Gibbins says. “There are elements of it without ever crossing into that full on ridiculous setting.”

The director says that when working in the realm of this type of comedy, it’s about making sure his cast is not reaching for the laugh. Laughs are sure to come organically with Holden’s script, though.

Ars Poetica is showing at the Pumphouse Theatre.

Reserve tickets are currently available by emailing bookings@scorpio.ca, and can be paid for by cash or cheque at the door.

jwilson@cjournal.ca