At the end of the 2011/12 season, long-time Great Canadian Theatre Company artistic director, Lise Ann Johnson, stepped down from the role. Her successor, now nearing the end of his first programmed season, is the subject of our latest profile.
“I want to see plays that I want to see, not that I should see.”
So said a disgruntled patron to Eric Coates, the new artistic director of The Great Canadian Theatre Company, shortly before Coates assembled his first season.
It’s a mantra the receptive Coates continues to try to make good on, while respecting the GCTC’s longstanding tradition of presenting political theatre, an often alienating genre.
“All worthwhile theatre is political,” the low-key Coates explains. “Most of the biggest commercial successes are political plays – look at The Sound of Music and Cabaret. Both are powerful condemnations of the fascist state, even though they go about delivering the message in different ways. Ultimately, it’s about the writer’s ability to engage us with a political argument in a way that doesn’t feel like we’re taking cod liver oil.”
And indeed, Coates’ particular brand of medicine appears to be agreeing with Ottawa’s audiences. The plays constituting Coates’ first season, now nearly at an end, have been very well received. “I was especially pleased that You Fancy Yourself did so well. People are resistant to one-person shows but Maja Ardal took care of that. And it was a real thrill to produce Michael Healy’s Proud for Ottawa’s politically savvy audience – I could always tell when any Conservative staffers were in the house by the intensity of the laughter.”
The plays are handpicked by Coates based on a couple of criteria: “The aesthetic generally reflects my personal tastes,” he admits, “including my values…and from a practical point of view, the plays have to fit our budget, plain and simple. That may mean that we have to shoot the works on one production but we have to balance the budget by being very lean and efficient on another show.”
It’s a balancing act Coates welcomes; a chance to grow after a long, sometimes frustrating stint as both actor and administrator at the more tempered Blyth Festival. “I had been at Blyth for 16 seasons,” he recounts, “I was desperate to work in an environment that allowed me to use a different artistic palette. The urban audience has a higher threshold when it comes to political and sexual content – key themes in modern playwriting.”
Not that Coates didn’t rattle the cage at Blyth. One production in particular signalled his conversion from affable serviceman to stand-your-ground artistic director. “The real arrival happened when I commissioned Beverley Cooper to write Innocence Lost: A Play About Steven Truscott. We produced it at Blyth, a few kilometres from Clinton, where it all happened. The play was shortlisted for a Governor General’s Award and warranted a revival at Blyth the following year. People who initially warned me away from doing the project later thanked me for pushing it through.”
Though he was only somewhat familiar with the GCTC during that time, Coates had heard good things from fellow actors, and had a friendship going with his predecessor, Lise Ann Johnson – that, and his burning ambition, were enough to prompt the big leap to the nation’s capital. Added bonus: he found the city a perfect fit for his personal lifestyle.
“I love the physicality of Ottawa,” he announces. “I’m a cycling/skiing/hiking animal and this city satisfies my need for outdoor life. And I love the wealth of galleries and good restaurants. Love it all!”
Not to mention his workplace, of which he is also particularly fond: “This theatre is staffed by people I really enjoy working with. Smart, funny, dedicated. I loved that the first day I worked here, I fielded a call from an unhappy patron who objected to some blasphemous language in a play. We talked and she very quickly made it clear that we were going to have a discussion – not a lecture. I love that. The audience here is full of critical thinkers, not knee-jerk fundamentalists.”
It’s an ideal demographic, in fact, for Coates’ programming style. “This season, I was determined to make good on my stated goal of programming works that thrive on wit. And by wit, I don’t strictly mean comedy. Wit doesn’t always result in comedy, as we see in Hannah Moscovitch’s This Is War. I don’t think a theatre can survive by trying to be all things to al people. In fact, that’s certain death.”
In addition to his role as artistic director, Coates will employ the GCTC to further his career as an actor, a calling first exhibited in his hometown of Guelph (though he was born in Berkley, California.) “I played Santa Claus in the kindergarten offering of Brighton Street Public School’s Christmas pageant and never looked back,” he jokes. Look for him in the upcoming Burden of Self Awareness, written by dark comedy master and GCTC staple George F. Walker. “It’s a good match for me,” Coates says of the play. “Also, it’s important for GCTC’s audience to get to know me and there is no better way to establish a relationship with a core audience than by acting in a show.”
Or by reaching out to the artistic community, another one of Coates’ goals. Already, he has engineered several collaborations between the GCTC and other area theatre groups. In addition, he’s boosted the profile of the Fritzi Gallery, located on GCTC’s second floor, by establishing a new Resident Curator, Mailka Welsh, who will help to spotlight the work of local visual artists. Says Coates with pride, “This is the kind of community outreach that carries weight and attracts new arts patrons to the building.”
Okay, Eric. All very impressive. But are the higher-ups happy?
“GCTC’s board is fantastic,” declares Coates. “It’s my job to shape the artistic aesthetic for the company and it’s their job to assess the work and support it. Sometimes people struggle with this relationship but we’re in very good shape here.”
And the funders…?
“GCTC is well-funded by the Canada Council and the Ontario Arts Council. Both organizations encourage bold programming. Because we are on a relatively stable multi-year funding with these councils, we provide them with a detailed plan for each funding cycle and then stick to that plan to the best of our ability. We are fortunate to have these funding bodies – more Canadians need to understand the essential role that they play in all of the arts.”
And the essential role Eric Coates plays in The Great Canadian Theatre Company– but they’re learning, and it doesn’t feel like a spoonful of cod liver oil.
All photos in this article taken by On Stage Magazine photographer, David Pasho.