Now into his seventh season as artistic director, has Eric Coates remade the Great Canadian Theatre Company in his own image?
GCTC needed, if not a re-making, at least a firm hand when Coates took on the job in 2012. The place often felt aimless and tired. There had been grumbling about outgoing artistic director Lise Ann Johnson, that her programming was stale, that there had been too many one-person shows, that a vital spark was lacking.
The ebullient Coates, coming from a nine-year stint as artistic director of the popular Blyth Festival in southwestern Ontario, seemed to bring with him a fresh perspective and a sharp sense of what sells which was essential for the organization. The GCTC has been around since 1975 but was still carrying a capital debt of more than $500,000 because of the move from its old home on Gladstone Avenue to new digs on Wellington Street West.
The question of refashioning GCTC in his own image seems not to have occurred to Coates. “My personality and taste show up, absolutely. Does it show up consistently? I don’t know.”
Clearly in his element in front of a crowd (Coates’ resume includes acting stints with the Stratford Festival and regional theatres), the artistic director has been joined in recent years by current managing director Hugh Neilson and director of marketing and development Nicole Milne. As anyone who’s ever watched the trio give their joint pre-show pep talk on opening night knows, exuberance is high on their collective priority list.
Coates is right when he says that personnel changes are “cyclical and that cycle goes in waves,” but his current team also reflects far more closely his own personality than the one he inherited from Johnson.
When it comes to that other highly public element, programming, Coates has also made his presence felt.
Certainly, a season is dictated in part by what shows and which creative teams are available. But Coates’ days in the tourist-oriented summer festival world, where shows with broad public appeal, high entertainment value and emotional traction are de rigeur if the festival is to thrive, are evident in some of his choices.
Those include Julia Mackey’s Jake’s Gift, about an unlikely friendship between a Second World War veteran and a young French girl, and Bed and Breakfast, Mark Crawford’s two-hander about a gay couple opening a B&B in small-town Ontario, which that just wrapped up a run. Both shows were excellent but also shrewd choices that were virtually guaranteed crowd-pleasers. Both had played summertime theatres.
Coates is the first to admit that programming live theatre is a dicey business. The biggest challenge, he says, is “the economics of trying to get enough people into that theatre night after night after night. And knowing that when you have a hit, you can’t just program that flavour of play and have that success over and over again because the formula actually relies on a variety of programming.”
Moreover, his mandate, he says, is “to provoke examination of Canadian life through excellent theatre. I try to keep as a constant the idea of provocation within that mandate … to do stuff that rattles people a little bit.”
But not too much. In fact, Coates’ ability to select shows that are usually solid and don’t get people storming the barricades has doubtless helped grow subscription sales and secure the funding and donations that have gone into clearing the capital debt he inherited.
Not that there hasn’t been griping. He says that pushback to his programming typically shows up “when someone has an emotional reaction to something that hurts them somehow and they don’t take the time to assess the intention of the production. In simplest terms, there’s a lack of critical thinking that seems to run through pushback.”
He says that occurred most notably last season with Rébecca Déraspe’s You Are Happy, one of several plays in 2017-18 aimed squarely at a younger audience. It was a “generational disconnect,” he says, with some older audience members apparently unable to “get the idea that someone threatening suicide might be doing it purely for attention and that it’s okay for a playwright to explore that idea. (They thought) we were making fun of suicide. No.”
If there’s been a single throughline in Coates’ recent programming that seems to accord with his personal beliefs, it’s diversity.
In the 2016–17 season, GCTC announced a commitment to diversity and accessibility as part of its three-year strategic plan. Coates has long championed female artists and that gained notable traction last season when all but one of the productions were by female playwrights and the lineup overwhelmingly featured female actors.
Interestingly, considering his own age (55), Coates’ programming has also largely meant the end of stage work at GCTC for many veteran actors. The subject of a 2018 ARTSFILE story that looked at the multiple reasons older actors find themselves with less work in many theatres, that lack of stage time has led to bitterness among some members of the older, local acting community.
Building all types of diversity into programming is tough, he said. “One challenge is that there’s now undue pressure on artists of colour to be in five places at once … I think it will take another (10 years) to have that equity in the roster of artists.”
As to audiences, he believes it’s going to take a full generation before they represent the broader populace.
Looking ahead to the 2019-20 season, which will be unveiled in the coming months, Coates offers a teaser about what to expect. “We’re working very hard to satisfy the strategic goals of cultural equity and diversity. You’re going to see us putting a bit more rubber to the road in terms of programming and so on.”