Michael Green, who died tragically this week in a horrific traffic accident on a highway north of Regina, was a seminal force in Calgary’s early alternative theatre scene. Before he and his motley troupe of theatrical anarchists – who went by the enigmatic name of One Yellow Rabbit – arrived on the scene in the early 1980s, the Calgary theatre landscape was dominated by three mainstream companies: Theatre Calgary, Alberta Theatre Projects and Lunchbox Theatre. They offered safe, conventional, middlebrow stage entertainment for a well-heeled middle-class audience. One Yellow Rabbit offered vital and surprising theatre that owed nothing to the conventions of Broadway or the West End.
Green, born to British parents who left Manchester in 1956, was strongly influenced by Spike Milligan, one of the three comic geniuses (the others being Peter Sellers and Harry Secombe) responsible for BBC Radio’s groundbreaking and hugely popular The Goon Show during the 1950s. Without Milligan there could have been no Monty Python’s Flying Circus, Green liked to say. And without Milligan, it’s fair to add, there could have been no Michael Green.
The best account of how Green and the Rabbits brought their free-wheeling brand of theatrical craziness to the Calgary stage, and eventually to stages around the world, is contained in Martin Morrow’s lively, meticulously researched, and gracefully written book, Wild Theatre: The History of One Yellow Rabbit. If you haven’t read it before, I strongly recommend you check it out. It’s a superb read.
As Morrow recounts, One Yellow Rabbit made a “grand, blood-and-vomit-spattered debut” with Peter Barnes’s Leonardo’s Last Supper at Edmonton’s first fringe festival (1982). The troupe was still hard to track down in Calgary because it didn’t have a permanent theatre space yet, but that would change in 1986 when the Rabbits moved into a 60-seat black box in the Calgary Centre for Performing Arts. Their neighbours in the palatial Centre were the established (and Establishment-pleasing) Calgary Philharmonic, TC and ATP, but the Rabbits had absolutely no intention of joining the Establishment. Their Big Secret Theatre in the Centre would be, as Morrow puts it, a “laboratory of madness.”
Green was the wildest of this wild bunch. Whenever the spirit of Spike Milligan moved him, he would put on an orange fright wig, or a Nazi colonel’s uniform, or a lobster suit, or prance onto the stage buck naked, explaining to people later that nudity – to quote fellow Rabbit Denise Clarke – “is a costume choice.” One of his most famous nude scenes, forever captured on YouTube, shows him walking onto the stage, naked except for a pair of industrial pink rubber gloves, thrusting his head into a bucket of water and declaiming loudly: “I AM THE WHALER.”
Green’s penchant for unbridled craziness and public exhibitionism was the most talked-about feature of One Yellow Rabbit’s avant-garde performances. It’s a wonder that the morality squad never moved to shut them down, though the Rabbits did run afoul of the law in 1992 when they staged a satirical show, Ilsa, Queen of the Nazi Love Camp, about the convicted hate-monger and Holocaust denier James Keegstra. A Red Deer judge, Arthur Lutz, ordered the Rabbits to stop performing the show while Keegstra was being retried on a charge of willfully inciting hatred against Jews. The news of the judge’s ban, later lifted, went right across Canada. For the first time in living memory, a play became part of our national conversation.
Away from the stage, Green was a tireless promoter for the Rabbits, getting them national and international exposure with his silver-tongued ability to sell the troupe. Because of the connections made during his international travels, he was able to persuade some of the top performance artists in the world to perform in Calgary when he launched the High Performance Rodeo in 1988. He forestalled any possible criticism of the event by having me – the Calgary Herald’s recently retired drama critic – sit in the audience at one of the Rodeo shows, without a notebook, as if I were just another spectator. I stood up in the middle of the show, declared it to be “a load of rubbish” and showered the performers from a bucket of playing cards. Great fun!
I will always be grateful to Michael for making me feel a part of the theatre community when, as a critic, I might have been considered the enemy; on the outside looking in. I am also grateful for the fact that in 2012, when Calgary was declared a cultural capital of Canada, Michael paired me with the Kerby Centre to create a musical show, The Hits of 1912, that allowed me the opportunity to show off my long-neglected pianistic skills.
One of Green’s decisions, as curator of the Calgary 2012 extravaganza, was to have the Stampeders’ 1971 country-pop hit Sweet City Woman played as the official song of the year-long event. It seemed like a quirky choice until the song was featured in a memorable “lib-dub” event involving a cast of thousands. That performance of the song, which has now generated more than 32,000 hits on YouTube, is one of the many important contributions Michael Green made to the city that provided a welcoming home for his unique creative talents.Click here for reuse options!
Copyright 2015 Brian Brennan - Writer