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Playwright, novelist, poet Eugene Stickland to hold court for six-hour Eugene-A-Thon for Wordfest

Eugene Stickland at Caffe Beano. Photo by Jennifer Freisen. Courtesy, Eugene Stickland.
Eugene Stickland at Caffe Beano. Photo by Jennifer Freisen. Courtesy, Eugene Stickland.

The idea of holding a Eugene-A-Thon came to Shelley Youngblut long before COVID-19. It also predates her tenure as the CEO of Wordfest, the Calgary literary festival that is presenting the unique, six-hour telethon-like fundraiser on June 18. The first glimmer came to her more than a decade ago. Youngblut was the founding editor of Swerve, a weekly magazine that was published by the Calgary Herald.

At the time, she was quite taken with the weekly columns written by playwright, poet, author, teacher, raconteur and bon vivant Eugene Stickland for the Herald. His reputation in the Calgary arts scene was already well-established by this point, of course. But that didn’t prevent Stickland from occasionally reminding his readers that living the life of an impoverished artist often involves, well, poverty.

“I remember reading Eugene’s columns every Saturday when he was the arts columnist at the Herald and really loving them but also getting the strong sense that Eugene needed money, desperately,” Youngblut says. “So I had this idea that we would do this Eugene-a-Thon and we would have him sitting in the Auburn Saloon reading his Calgary Herald columns and people would give him money as a Swerve thing.”

It didn’t happen. The Auburn Saloon is gone, so is Swerve. But in the past decade, Stickland’s reputation as an artist has only grown as he continues to expand into more and more disciplines. Youngblut began thinking about the sheer number of artists who have orbited Stickland over the years. The Eugene-a-Thon was reborn, offering what Wordfest is gamely describing as a “bonkers online event created to bring us together in these strangest of times.”

On Thursday, Stickland will be holding court at Caffe Beano, one of his favourite hangouts, to oversee a marathon, six-hour program that will have him welcoming nearly 30 artists of various disciplines for virtual performances and discussions. Think of it as part Jerry Lewis telethon, part This is Your Life episode and part online experiment that should test the technical prowess of Wordfest producers and set the stage for the festival’s future digital programming. All participating artists are being paid, which gives it the added bonus of giving work to artists who have had little of it in the past three months.

If six hours seems a touch excessive, consider the number of disciplines Stickland has immersed himself in over the years. While he may primarily be known as a prolific and award-winning playwright, the Regina-born artist is also a musician, poet, mentor, novelist and teacher. Recently, he began dabbling in landscape painting. He even performed in two Alberta Ballet productions, playing Gordon Lightfoot in Our Canada and appearing briefly in Frankenstein.

First and Last, a play that Stickland recently published as a book, was commissioned by St. Mary’s University and performed in 2017 by Rogues Theatre under the direction of Joe-Norman Shaw. Shaw will be among the artists in discussions with Stickland about the play. It starred Ben Wong, a Calgary actor who will join in by performing a song written by Shaw for the play. Stickland will also be joined by his daughter Hanna, an artist who will appear for a virtual discussion from her home in Portugal. Alberta Ballet artistic director Jean Grand-Maitre will discuss how Stickland found himself appearing in two ballets. Bob White, the former artistic director of Alberta Theatre Projects who first brought Stickland to Calgary in 1994 to kick off a nine-play, decade-long residency with the company, will beam in from his current home in Stratford, Ont., to discuss the playwright’s work and “the new abnormal” in the arts across Canada. Stickland’s friend and renowned visual artist Chris Cran will also be there as Stickland showcases his own techniques as a painter with a Bob Ross-like live demonstration.

There will be online performances by blues musician Tim Williams, poets Kirk Miles and Sheri D Wilson, actors Grant Reddick and Christian Goutsis and guitarist Jack Semple, among others. All of the artists are friends or peers of Stickland. It should all make for an entertaining six hours, but also offer a fairly exhaustive look at Stickland’s multi-faceted and multi-disciplined contributions to the Calgary arts scene over the past three decades.

“There is this sense that it’s a tad elegiac,” Stickland jokes, in an interview with Postmedia. “It’s like everybody knows something that I don’t know, like I have some sort of fatal disease and we should do this show to cap off my career. I don’t think that’s the case, but sometimes it creeps into my mind. Like it’s a memorial service.”

Youngblut sees the Eugene-a-Thon as serving several purposes for Wordfest, not the least of which is paying tribute to both Stickland and the galaxy of friends and colleagues who have been in his sphere for the past 26 years. It’s is also a fundraiser for a good cause. A suggested donation of $25 from viewers will go directly to the festival’s Youth Program, which brings authors and artists into Calgary junior and senior high schools. It’s also an experiment that Youngblut hopes will move Wordfest’s digital programming forward. Since the pandemic started, the festival has been holding online “happy hour” discussions with some major authors, including Kathy Reichs, Robert Kolker and Vivek Shraya. Youngblut says the festival is building the technical tools and expertise to become a digital broadcaster of sorts, a new frontier that she hopes will continue long after COVID is in our rearview mirror.

“We always intended this to be something we did,” she says. “The live experience will always be incredibly powerful. It’s a powerful thing to be gathered together in a space with an author. But some people can’t gather. There are accessibility issues, both in terms of the audience and in terms of the authors. Some authors can’t travel, some authors don’t want to travel. So there must be another way we can present these ideas and bring people together.”

Still, for those itching for a “real” experience, Wordfest has set up marked-out, physically distanced viewing spots outside Caffee Beano, 1613 9th St. S.W., where viewers can cheer on Stickland in-person on Thursday.

“This is Shelley’s dream, that people come and peer at me through the window like I’m some very exotic species, maybe even an endangered species,” Stickland says.

The Eugene-a-Thon will run from 4:30 to 10:30 p.m. on Thursday, June 18 and broadcast on Wordfest.com.

Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2020

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