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Friday, March 23, 2012

Interview: Centaur Theatre Artistic Director Roy Surette

(photo credit: Yannick MacDonald)

Beyond The Launch
After announcing his 2012-13 season, the Montreal AD talks candidly about Healey, Rose, Vancouver Playhouse and the challenge of here and beyond
by David Sklar

CHARPO: So you just had your season launch. How did it go?
SURETTE: It went well. It’s always a bit intense. I think I talked for about an hour about the season and all our upcoming activities. 
CHARPO:  What goes through your mind when picking a new season? How do you choose what shows to pick?
SURETTE: It’s a mystery.  As they say in Shakespeare In Love, my favorite theatre quote, “it’s a mystery how it ever works”.  There are so many factors that go into selecting a season. And there are many questions that I am always asking myself, still feeling relatively new to Montreal. I’ve been here for almost four and a half years now and as someone who programs a theatre in a unique city like Montreal I think, needless to say, it’s challenging. You need to know what’s evolving with the audience.  I’m always of the belief that you want to do a season that people want to come and see. There is no point in doing it for yourself and in fact when you get to the scale of operation like us, you have to sell a lot of tickets. We’re about 50 percent run by our box office.  We do a lot of fundraising as well as applying for government support. But we’re still white knuckling it terms of, are going to make our box office targets? And usually in a year, it’s a real rollercoaster ride. Some shows are quite a bit under, some are over so in terms of balancing a season, you've got to compromise. I wish I could say I have the magical formula but I don’t. I feel I've got a pretty good track record and the confidence of the Board, the staff and the city but you never know. We don’t do the same thing over and over again. Every time we embark on a new production it’s a risk, especially if it’s a new play. Even if you are doing something that was very successful somewhere else, it doesn’t necessarily translate. Having the privilege of working across this country and outside of it as well, there is no guarantee.  You can’t go, “Oh ya this was a really big hit in Australia, it’s just going to rock in Montreal, or it did really well in Vancouver, it doesn’t mean anything for here.”

I’m not that organized in my brain. I’m more about diversity.
Season launch (photo: lucetg.com)
CHARPO: Do you ever have a theme running through your mind?
SURETTE:  I was just telling a student that I don’t. I know some Artistic Directors, that is how they program, they say this is about loss or the family and I go, “ok, that’s nice” but I’m not that organized in my brain. I’m more about diversity. I really get excited about a season when each show complements the other and I like each season to help celebrate the wide range of endeavour that live theatre can offer. 
So I have some wonderfully lowbrow taste, with things that are really populist like Schwartz’s The Musical. Bring on the dancing pickle! But I love dark wonderfully morbid pieces of sad writing like In Absentia and The Madonna Painter.  You know that for every Madonna Painter you do you have to balance it with something that will be popular. Occasionally a play will come along like God of Carnage, which really covers all the bills. A popular, smart, accessible comedy. It’s a rare thing a play has that much kind of broad appeal. I try to respond to the unique voices and the writers that are writing for the theatre. I’m an advocate for Canadian work so the majority will be Canadian.  That being said it’s fun to do the international repertoire as well.  
CHARPO: Do you find you need a unique perspective for Montreal since we are a minority living within a minority?
SURETTE: I’m not so sure. You feel it with something like Schwartz’s, how much it was celebrated. One thing I inherited from Maurice Podbrey and Gordon McCall  (The former Artistic Directors of the Centaur) is that Montrealers like Montreal stories. They like plays that speak specifically to the situation of living here. And so we try to do that to some degree. The minority within a minority is hard to say.  Montreal is close to New York, Stratford, Shaw, the NAC, and so there are a lot of sophisticated theatregoers that know what is going on and we have to acknowledge that. But it’s also a city where the French work is probably seventy percent new work. There are a lot of projects that get done in French and now they translating more English works in French. So it’s exciting to be part of that as well.   
CHARPO: With the controversy surrounding other theatre companies in terms of the selection of work, are there shows that you say you just can’t do?
SURETTE: Ha-ha-ha.  There are some plays that have been put forward to me by directors and I might say, sure I like this script but I don’t think it’s going to please enough of my audience, or succeed or it might be too racy or controversial.  You’re talking about the Michael Healey story, right?
I have to back up Richard Rose and say that the Artistic Director gets to choose the season.

CHARPO: Yes.  
SURETTE:  I have to back up Richard Rose and say that the Artistic Director gets to choose the season. The playwright is offering their work. I think Michael is a wonderful writer. I really enjoy much of writing. But I would say it was a pretty impulsive act to sort of suddenly say, I’m leaving the theatre because they’re not programming my work. I had a conversation with Richard Rose, we were talking about a potential Co-production and he said, well I’m interested in his play, but it might not be ready for next year. Not that I won’t do a play because it’s too controversial, maybe it’s not ready. Michael’s plays are not perfect either. I find that it’s already hard enough to run a company in these times, so when you have a renowned playwright mouthing off like that I don’t have much respect for that.        
CHARPO: Do you think it is your role and the Centaur’s role to promote new works and new companies?
SURETTE:  Theatre’s always a very collaborative effort.  It’s most exciting to work on a new play.  The birth of a play is always extra challenging. It’s really nice to work with other groups that have already formed some alliances.  We’ve got another SideMart show for next season, a revival of Trad. I really like those guys, I think they are really talented and they’ve worked really hard. It’s not like they’re rolling in dough for their endeavors and when I saw Trad the first year I was here, I really loved it and not many people saw it. So I’m really excited to bring that forward.  
CHARPO: You’re plucking them away from the Segal.
SURETTE: Ha-ha-ha.  I know. I told Paul Flicker (Artistic Producer of the Segal Theatre), Yes, I go to New York, London, The Segal and that is where I pick up my plays. But all kidding aside, we have a great relation with the Segal Center. They’re our colleagues and thank god they’re there.  They take the pressure off. We had Blithe Spirit on our list, and I was like, damn, they got to it first! But we complement each other nicely. It will be interesting to see with Paul at the helm of programming how different it is. I can hardly wait.     
CHARPO:  Do you find you guys have a different audience base?
SURETTE:  There is probably a 25 percent crossover. I think our audience is a little more interested in the newer work and I think the Segal audience is a bit more attuned to the classical. But then they go and do Scientific Americans while we put on Marivaux.  And that is how it should be. If Montreal’s not big enough to sustain two medium-sized English theatres...because that’s what we are. We're not the big houses like Manitoba Theatre Center or the recently demised Vancouver Playhouse. Don’t get me started on that… (cont'd)
Schwartz's: The Musical (and the mega-hit)
(photo credit: lucetg.com)
CHARPO: Well I was going to ask, what are thoughts on that?
SURETTE:  I feel sick about that. I really do. Shirley Valentine which I just finished doing again in Calgary, we worked on that at the Vancouver Playhouse, we did the Canadian première there 22 years ago and it went across the country. I did Mary’s Wedding there. I’ve done three or four other shows there as well.  But some of the first plays that I ever saw were done at the Playhouse. That is where I discovered the love of theatre and like all theatres, not everything there has been wonderful but there has been some really fantastic work. It‘s devastating to believe that a 49-year-old theatre with that kind stature is going to go under. It’s a crime if the province lets that happen. And I think the announcement was a wake-up call. The outcry from the community has been huge. But the artists don’t have the chequebooks to come up with all the solutions. And yes, the Playhouse had some very big problems with their working model. One of the things they had to do some 20 years ago was sell the one building that they owned in order of get rid of deficit.  Consequently, they didn’t have any assets.  I feel really fortunate that even if we might sometimes be on shaky ground here as an Anglo-organization, we own this building. It would take us a lot longer for us to have to call that kind of meeting.         
It’s hard to make English theatre the “ hot thing” to do.

CHARPO: But could that happen here one day?
SURETTE: I hope not. I think it’s our job to respond to the moves in population.  Our ticket sales and attendance is going up.  Our subscriptions haven’t however, but I think that is the different kind of market we are facing. Our new marketing strategy has been more aggressive.  Get off the couch, put down the phone and check out how unique live performing arts can be. We don’t have anything to lose. We already have a loyal audience that has a sense of adventure.  Our first show is a pretty off the wall dance piece.  The city is more cosmopolitan that the average Anglo is perceived to be. We should be more a part of it. And the fact that a bunch of Danish artists are doing a take on a Canadian icon is so much the reverse of what we are used to.  We usually go to the Europeans for our source so to have a rewound company use Leonard Cohen, I thought was wonderful.  
In the larger sense, we do take our responsibly to the English community very seriously.  And a healthy community is going to be a benefit for everyone. We want to keep this community as vibrant and alive as possible.  We have started to cultivate not necessarily a star system but by placing the actor's faces on the posters we want to start to have a recognizable imprint on the public.   And that also means supporting the emerging artists here too.   
CHARPO: But beyond the marketing and publicity, how do you get more people to come out to the theatre?  
SURETTE:  It’s tricky.  We put a lot of money and effort into it.  But that’s the big dilemma.  It’s hard to make English theatre the “ hot thing” to do.  I was at La Licorne the other night and most of the audience was under 30.  It’s about continuing to diversify our shows and making them exciting that people want to talk to each other about it the next day.  
CHARPO:   Can you say what’s in store for the 2013/14 season?
SURETTE: Oh my god! Well, I do have a project that I’m excited about. This season, Marcel Jeannin was doing both God of Carnage and Urban Tales and they had an over-lap so he had to cross the theatre hall to finish. And that reminded me of two plays by Alan Ayckbourn called House and Garden.  The great thing about these plays is that they are done simultaneously and you have to have two theatres that are side by side because the same fourteen actors play in them. And I want to do that.  We can facilitate it here.  One actor might have to miss a curtain call but I love the concept.   

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