Times are hard for Montreal theatre, but amid the unsettling pandemic-induced industry standstill, there are prospects of recovery for a community marked by its very resilience in adversity.
The established, award-winning Geordie Theatre has had its own divvy of grievances with the forced suspension of its 2019-2020 touring and main stage productions due to COVID-19. “The past six months have been really intense,” opens Artistic Director Mike Payette. “So much of the planning of the year’s programming has, as you can imagine, been shifted so many times.”
Four decades of foundation-building and boundary-pushing in theatre, however, are bearing fruit. There’s a full artistic season in the queue for 2020-2021 with the trademark 2-Play Tour, the Main Stage production of Virginia Wolf (transferred up as a postponed event from this past May), the return of the annual Geordie Theatre Fest, and a first-time co-production with a francophone presenter (namely, Théâtre Denise-Pelletier and Surreal SoReal Theatre).
What six months ago looked to be a dampening of the company’s milestone anniversary festivities has now turned into an exemplary case study in sound management and leadership through crisis of the seasoned yet young-in-spirit Geordie and Mike.
As we speak on the phone for this interview, Mike and his team are in rehearsals for the upcoming 2-Play Tour in their until-now secret new facilities in Little Italy – which will serve to house not only Geordie’s activities, but to provide companies and artists from near and far with a modern alternative space for practice and performance.
“Espace Geordie is intended to be a hub for creation not just for our company and for the anglophone theatre community in Montreal, but really for the greater arts community,” he shares. “It’s a place to build relationships with other artistic collaborators in the city and across the world.”
It’s a remarkable acquisition, particularly given that most enterprises these days are on the reverse trend of scrimping to reduce overheard. With extensive fundraising and the collaboration of its board, however, Geordie has been investing in the Espace infrastructure for over a year now.
Thus, the project wasn’t originally prompted by the pandemic; but, the current crisis may have propelled and amplified the need for it.
“We were already on our way to launch the space and when COVID happened, we thought, ‘what are we going to do?’”, Mike reflects.
Having previously resided at Espace One for 20 years and vacated it in 2017, “Geordie had been without a rehearsal space for a good chunk of time,” he explains. “Given the breadth of our activity, that was really weighing on our ability to be autonomous in our creation.”
“The main thing that I landed, though, on when when it became very clear that the world was not going to be the same as we knew it and the theatre was not going to be presented in the way that we had grown accustomed to, was that our school tour was the one thing that we could not compromise.”
To that end, it was determined that performances of the 2020-2021 2Play Tour would be presented virtually to students across the globe, live from the Espace Geordie studio.
Reaching upwards of 40,000 young people every year, the 2Play Tour is Geordie’s flagship activity in serving communities that do not have access to professional theatre – those which are often remote and populated by marginalized youth.
“If we do not go to these communities, then there’s a huge disservice there. We have not only an artistic responsibility, but a social responsibility by virtue of the work and the audiences that we reach,” says Mike. “Unequivocally, our primary duty within Geordie is to ensure that accessibility remains integral to everything that we do.”
In order to provide the most engaging experience for children and teens, the 2-Play shows have been designed to allow the most amount of interactivity that can be had within a physically-distanced, digital context. In their heavy research and investments in live streaming equipment, Geordie (along with the paramount scenic solutions assistance of Shopdogs MTL and Production Manager Haylee Tucker) has made it possible for audiences to see actors in the Espace and vice versa, allowing for the remote gauging of viewer reaction and for post-show talk-backs. It’s a thrilling premise.
Engineering the livestreaming studio has been “a huge learning curve”, but a worthwhile effort in that the team is in it for the long run.
“Espace Geordie addresses the immediate need to keep artistic creation and performance acceptable during these times,” considers Mike, “but ultimately what this introduction of filming capacities in our work also does is expand the possibilities for how theatre dramaturgy or development can happen. Because the bridges between artists are, geographically speaking, a lot closer, the technology allows for more cross-organization collaboration than ever before. And then, of course, there’s the fact that we can now access communities and audiences that we were’t previously able to reach.
“I will always advocate and underline that live-in-person theatre is always better, but in terms of artistic practice, the opportunities that the digital conversation adds is a compelling one and that’s what we’re investigating here.”
The concept for an initiative akin to that of the Espace has for many months been one of great discussion and deliberation in professional circles across the country, but Geordie is among the first to execute it.
“We’re one of few companies – certainly in Theatre for Young Audiences – that are actually investing in this, and what it’s hopefully done is highlighted for non-TYA companies the merit of the work in TYA,” says Mike. “If there’s one wish that I have from this is that at the very least Geordie can be seen as a resource that can offer continued support to its colleagues within and beyond the Montreal community to embolden our work even further across the country.”
“It’s a lot of work and it’s exhaustive, but if anything… I would say that this is probably the light in all of this. The opportunity is really exciting.”
About: Geordie Theatre is Montreal’s leading English-language professional theatre for audiences of all ages, entertaining and engaging the imaginations of children and their families since 1980. Geordie Theatre is a member of the Professional Association of Canadian Theatres (P.A.C.T.), the Quebec Drama Federation, La Maison Theatre, the International Association of Performing Arts for Youth (IPAY) and ASSITEJ Canada.
For more information on Espace Geordie and Geordie Theatre’s 40th season, visit www.geordie.ca