For James MacDonald, theatre isn’t just about entertainment—it’s about sharing stories that really resonate with people. “I always think of our goal as stimulating the water cooler conversation,” he says. “I want people to come to the theatre and then to continue to talk about it for days afterward.”
As Artistic Director for Western Canada Theatre, James oversees a broad range of productions from Broadway musicals to new Canadian and Indigenous work to edgy alternative fare. The company’s reach is remarkable: many shows that the theatre has developed have gone on to play nationwide. For example, Glory, a story about a Canadian women’s hockey team, has played to over 75,000 people across the country.
“It’s completely unique in Canada that a professional theatre company exists in a city of this size,” says James. Originally from Edmonton, and having lived in both Toronto and Vancouver, James says the arts and culture scene in Kamloops is very collaborative, with the Kamloops Symphony and the Kamloops Art Gallery keen to try new things and involve the local community.
The theatre builds most of its productions from scratch with a professional team of artists and artisans. “We also have a strong theatre school and are very devoted to mentorship and apprenticeship, whether it’s for performers or technicians or designers or stage managers,” James says.
The company is currently working with an Indigenous playwright on a show about the importance of preserving Indigenous languages. “As artists and creators, we’re very proud to our commitment to the creation of important Canadian and Indigenous stories that will be seen by people across the country,” James says. “It highlights the creativity of our region, the ingenuity, and it carries a name for people in perhaps Ontario who say, ‘Wow, what’s going on in Kamloops? I loved this show.’”
James hopes that when people go to the theatre, they will expand their horizons as well as be entertained. He notes that people can learn something from even mainstream productions; for example, The Sound of Music is a family story, a love story and also carries a warning about the dangers of fascism. “There’s a sweet spot in finding experiences that are entertaining, educational, and that challenge people and illuminate people: that’s ultimately the job of the theatre.”
With over 25 years in the business, including founding a Shakespeare festival, James has done everything from performing to directing to marketing. But what he really loves is interacting with audiences. “The theatre means many different things to many different people,” he says. “To introduce theatre to people who will eagerly embrace it is one of the biggest satisfactions of my job.”
Due to COVID-19, Western Canada Theatre is adapting its 2020/2021 season in a variety of ways, from smaller-scale cabaret-style theatre to online performances. See Western Canada Theatre’s website for the latest.