The very tactical Bronwyn Steinberg

Bronwyn Steinberg. Photo: Andrew Alexander

When Bronwyn Steinberg launched TACTICS in 2013, she was responding to what she saw as a critical deficit in Ottawa’s independent theatre community: Insufficient opportunities for artists who had passed the “emerging” phase but whose work wasn’t always ready for the city’s bigger venues.

“I would like to think that people at my stage of the career aren’t constantly thinking, ‘Do I need to leave the city (to find work) or do I have to get a real job?’” she says.

TACTICS —it stands for Theatre Artists’ Co-operative: the Independent Collective Series — helps “transitional” artists develop and market their work and try it out on the public in an established venue (Arts Court) with a full technical team and administrative support, all the things independent artists often simply can’t afford.

“That’s the mission of TACTICS: To help Ottawa become a more thriving arts scene,” says Steinberg. “We have the demographics for that. Considering how many people work for the government and have a steady job, we should be able to find a steady audience.”

Now in its sixth year of programming, Steinberg’s idea has become a respected fixture on the local scene. Depending on the year, it offers both main stage and workshop series curated by Steinberg. In 2019, for instance, it hosted three world premieres as well as six works in progress, all by Ottawa artists.

The premieres included The Omnibus Bill by Darrah Teitel, a timely examination of reproductive rights in Canada through the lens of Pierre Trudeau’s 1969 Justice Omnibus Bill. Teitel’s show was originally part of TACTICS’ 2017 workshop series, and the premiere was produced by Counterpoint Players, Steinberg’s production company.

Coincidentally, Teitel got some larger stage presence that same season, when her play Behaviour ran at the Great Canadian Theatre Company.

“We reflect stories and issues happening in our world,” says Steinberg, whose ready smile belies an iron resolve and a persuasive manner. “We’re always trying to respond to the needs of the (artist) community, although always in service of the audience.”

She adds that TACTICS is about to incorporate. The next season is up in the air like many things because of the coronavirus, but it will come eventually. 

Steinberg is the centre of the city’s independent theatre scene, says GCTC’s artistic director Eric Coates, who took her on for an internship in artistic direction in 2016-17.

“She has almost single-handedly built this infrastructure for the TACTICS series… She’s trying to build something that has the real feeling of the infrastructure of a classic, subscription-based company, and it’s a really interesting model.”

Born in Alberta and raised in Pennsylvania, Steinberg completed a degree in Theatre, Linguistics and Jewish Studies at the University of Pittsburgh in 2004. She then bounced around the U.S. for four years doing theatre gigs, including acting and directing. Enamoured by directing, she wound up in Ottawa in 2008, a student in the University of Ottawa’s MFA in Theatre (Directing) program and within hailing distance of her parents, who were living in Montreal.

Echoing many other Ottawans, “I just sort of stayed here,” she says. “It’s kind of a great city — large enough to be a city but small enough to be a town. It’s exciting to be in a city where I can hopefully make a difference and help shape a larger conversation.”

(She’d also like to help shape our bodies: Along with her multiple other endeavours, Steinberg is a yoga teacher. In 2013, she played Sarah Lotus Blossom, a mildly flaky yoga instructor in the play Occupy Me at the Ottawa Fringe Festival).

She says that she views TACTICS, along with The Gladstone theatre and the annual undercurrents festival at Arts Court, as part of a trio that extends opportunities to local, independent artists.

One of her hurdles, of course, is getting the word out to prospective audiences. “Our market is so filled with messages, how do you crack it?” she asks. “This year, we’re going to do a little YouTube series featuring the artists with work in progress, to let people know what we’re doing.”

Steinberg’s original goal of being a director may have expanded into her broader leadership role at TACTICS, but she also regularly directs shows around town.

Over the past couple of years, they’ve included two GCTC productions: Bang, Bang by Kat Sandler, a story about cultural appropriation and representation, and The Drowning Girls, a chilling ghost story about empowerment and social change by Beth Graham, Charlie Tomlinson & Daniela Vlaskalic. She’s also directed a gender bending take on Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night by A Company of Fools, and some excellent productions at undercurrents and The Gladstone.

In 2015, she was an award-winning assistant director to the Stratford Festival’s artistic director Antoni Cimolino when he directed Hamlet.

“I love the problem-solving of directing,” she says. “I’m not a top-down, hierarchical director. I’m very collaborative, but I will make the harder decisions when they need to be made. Hopefully, people see a real attention to detail (in my shows) and that people say the story is clear.”

Steinberg’s directing often leans to plays about women’s issues. She says that, as a woman, she’s had no problems finding work in Ottawa, but that elsewhere “I feel like men at an earlier stage in their careers will get more opportunities with bigger risks, whereas women have to prove themselves a bit more.”

A recent study for the Ontario Arts Council on women in the Canadian arts and cultural industries supports her observations. Among the findings: women in theatre are underrepresented as directors, producers and in other related occupations. They also earn less on average than their male peers.

A long-term thinker, Steinberg says her next goal is to be hired as a director at theatres in other cities. She sees herself ultimately working as an artistic director in a larger organization while TACTICS continues to serve the local community.

“Sooner or later that will happen,” says Coates about her plans to become an artistic director. “She’s absolutely relentless in that pursuit to build her skills so she can be a strong candidate when these jobs open up.”

Steinberg concurs. “I think I’m pretty stubborn.”

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Patrick Langston covered English professional theatre for the Ottawa Citizen from 2008 to 2016. He also wrote about music, travel, the local housing industry and other subjects for the paper. Patrick continues to contribute to Ottawa Magazine, Diplomat and International Canada Magazine, and other publications.