Space is the place for Theatre SKAM

Theatre SKAM's Matthew Payne
No venue is too big or too small for Theatre SKAM and its artistic producer Matthew Payne, BFA ’93. Photo Michael Kissinger, BEd '94

Q&A with Matthew Payne, founding member and artistic producer of Victoria’s Theatre SKAM                                              

For more than 25 years, Victoria’s Theatre SKAM has charmed audiences with its fearless, DIY, boundary-pushing brand of site-specific theatre. Two actors in the front seat of a 1978 Plymouth Volare performing for a small audience in the back? Sure. Attempting to barrel through 29 short plays, called out randomly, in 59 minutes while a large digital timer counts down the minutes? Why not. Or how about a yearly SKAMpede Festival staged along the Galloping Goose bike trail? Giddy up.

In response to the pandemic, Theatre SKAM took the show on the road last summer and delivered pop-up performances on the back of a truck to neighbourhoods and households across the city. They’ll do the same this summer, but not before crashing UVic Alumni Association’s Annual General Meeting for a virtual performance June 23.

Prior to his company’s first foray into Zoom theatre, we talked to founding member and artistic producer Matthew Payne, BFA ’93, about Theatre SKAM’s early days, run-ins with the law and whether it’s more difficult staging a play in a car or along a popular bike path.

Has Theatre SKAM’s mandate changed since it began in 1995?

The original impulse for SKAM was that four of us twentysomethings just wanted a chance to do work in the community. We wanted to create work for ourselves. We were led by Amiel Gladstone (BFA ’94), who's the A of SKAM. Then there's Sarah [Donald] and Karen [Turner]. We put together this idea for a night of five short 10-minute plays in a café because there weren't many theatre venues in Victoria… And that kind of became our thing: short, fast, funny, unusual spaces. Those were all part of our original show. And we carried that through to a lot of the other work. And it was a couple of years later when we incorporated and became a not-for-profit society that we had to write down our mandate, and one of the key pieces of the mandate was to support emerging artists, because we were emerging artists at the time. But we've kept that part of the mandate intact. The mandate has evolved a little over time… But at the heart of it is supporting early-career artists.

You’re well known for putting theatre in unusual venues. Was that by design or necessity?

I think originally it was necessity… But then it quickly became a thing that we wanted to try and match the play with the venue. So that became a thing where it was like, ‘OK, well, what is this show? It's this sweeping epic where a woman flees the nunnery, she fights for the king of Spain, so we need something that's kind of an epic location.’ And we had known about Macaulay Point Park and so matching that play, Lieutenant Nun, with that site was pretty clear. In other cases, we did a play by George F. Walker and in the script it's all swords and sword fighting, so we set it in a back alley with street fighting. Instead of all épées, we used belts and chains and golf clubs. So I think it was originally necessity, but then it became a part of our identity. And it still is.

Are you surprised that SKAM’s been around for more than 25 years?

There was always this idea that the company was bigger than us. [After I took over in 2007], it took me about 10 years to really build up the operating funding, put the systems in place, and now we're in a position where we're actually talking about succession and what the next version of the company is going to look like when it’s not run by one of the founders. So now that those systems are in place, it surprises me a little less.

Matthew Payne Theatre SKAM
Matthew Payne co-founded Theatre SKAM in 1995. Photo Michael Kissinger

Is it more difficult to stage a theatre performance in a car or on a bike path?

Well, you can't accommodate as many people in a car… that show [Louis and Dave] had an audience of four. And because it was a 14-minute show, we could do it every 20 minutes and churn people through it pretty fast… The bike path is way more logistics in terms of the CRD we go to for the permit for the trail. And then we have to go to municipalities for the permits for everything three metres beyond the trail. The logistics of doing performances with public passing by and all of those things, I guess the trail is much harder, because it's much bigger and there's many variables that you don't have as much control of it. But those are also the same things that make it fun.

Do recall any particularly memorable experiences performing in a car or on a bike path?

Both of them, on more than one occasion, the police were called, because there's some kind of happening that is unusual or strange. We have had a few instances where police are called to the site for a variety of reasons. Sometimes it has nothing to do with us and we've just happened to be there, like the time someone drove their car onto the Galloping Goose trail and was a little bit lost in the middle of our festival.

Do you have any kind of bucket list spaces where you’ve always wanted to stage a show?

Oh yeah. Sometimes the favourite spots are ones that are gone. Doing a show in an abandoned building would be great. If you could figure out how to do that safely. There's a great play by Sean Dixon who is one of our favourite authors called The Girls Who Saw Everything, and it starts with someone falling through the ceiling and it's set in this abandoned building. So that's a spot that I go, ‘Oh, man, I'd love to do that.’

How has the pandemic affected Theatre SKAM?

Quite a bit. I think like everybody, we shut everything down in March [2020], when we were in the midst of planning for our summer and planning for a larger scale show. We had just cast a new musical. We now run a drama school that we took over a few years ago, so we had camps that were running and everything just stopped…. And then within two or three weeks, we started to think about what can we do. We're a pretty nimble company, and we're able to adapt and change. We own this little theatre on the back of this truck that we call our pop-up theatre… Other businesses were switching to home delivery—restaurants mostly. So I said, ‘Let's do home delivery of live theatre.’ …And then our annual festival is already outdoors, and we already put the audience into groups of 12 to go on these tours of shows… I guess that's one of the benefits. Large audiences have never been the thing we're chasing. We're chasing much more adventurous groups of audiences. And we always want it to feel a little like it’s a party where some theatre breaks out.

—Michael Kissinger, BEd ’94