Val Lieske is artistic director at Fire Exit Theatre in Calgary.
What’s the history behind Fire Exit Theatre and how it started?
Lieske: Fire Exit began out of an interest to tell stories that matter; stories of faith that couldn’t or wouldn’t be told in either the church or the theatre. I had a bunch of scripts that had the word God in them so mainstream theatres wouldn’t produce them and they also had the word damn in them so the church wouldn’t touch them. I wanted it to be a place where artists could explore both their art and their faith.
How is it different from other theatre companies?
Lieske: We feel that art isn’t something that is to be consumed and forgotten, but experienced and digested in community. Entertainment is not our end goal. We entertain people in hopes of challenging them and changing them.
We’re interested in people leaving the theatre a little differently than they came in; assumptions confronted, empathy engaged, long-held beliefs loosened.
We also know that talking about God in theatre is the final taboo. Everything else is acceptable – sex, politics, violence, addiction – but the idea of God is offensive to many.
How long have you been there and how and why did you first become involved?
Lieske: I’ve been involved since the beginning; I’m the founder. Myself and another gentleman, Blaine MacDonald, began dreaming of this company and invited a few more people into the planning. We met for about a year before launching.
After the first season, Blaine left to pursue a job opportunity out of town and I was fully prepared to shut Fire Exit down. I was happy to have said that I ran a theatre company for year!
But I was strongly encouraged to keep going. Almost every year I think it might be good to shut it down. Here we are at season 18.
We all know Calgary has been hit hard from an economic point of view in recent years. How has that impacted the theatre?
Lieske: Quite honestly, we haven’t really felt the effect. We’re on a slow and steady growth pattern. I don’t spend a great deal of time searching for government money or large corporation sponsors. We have never worked a casino, which is often the largest revenue stream for small and medium arts organizations. From the beginning, we’ve invested in individuals. Let’s just say I drink a lot of coffee with a lot of people and tell them the vision and people have given generously.
Why is theatre and art an important part of the fabric of a community?
Lieske: There is simply nothing and no one that is impacting the hearts and minds of people more than the artists; not preachers or teachers or politicians. It’s the artists who are telling us what to wear, how to smell, what car to drive and what to think about beauty and sexuality and money and God.
I want to be a culture maker and to make other culture makers. Artists truly are changing the world, this is not wishful thinking. And I don’t like many of the stories that they are telling … so I will tell better ones.