Eda Holmes got her first professional directing gig at Montreal's Centaur Theatre in 1999, and since then has been a frequent guest instructor at the National Theatre School and McGill University. But since her recent appointment as the Centaur's next artistic and executive director, Holmes has been getting what she calls "a crash course in Montreal's artistic and theatre communities."
It's a very different milieu from that of Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont., where for the past eight years Holmes has been associate director of the Shaw Festival Theatre. The Shaw is a destination theatre in a small anglophone town, where a production can hold the stage for up to six months and the annual budget is about $28-million. The Centaur is a downtown, minority-language company in a francophone metropolis, where a mainstage run is usually over in three weeks and the yearly budget is about $3-million. Holmes's playground has gotten larger and smaller simultaneously.
Montreal has changed since 1999, both in its English theatre scene and demographically. One question Holmes will have to face during her tenure at the Centaur is whether, and how, the company founded by Maurice Podbrey in 1969 can still claim to be the city's flagship English theatre – and what that should mean in the 21st century.
Her focus during a recent phone interview was mainly on big-picture themes: how theatre fits in our current society and how it can express social conscience and the concerns of increasingly diverse communities. The recently announced 2017-18 season was assembled entirely by outgoing artistic director Roy Surette. Holmes doesn't begin her new job until the end of August and is still occupied with her final Shaw production, Dracula, opening July 8. She was understandably reluctant to say anything about what she might program for 2018-19, her first Centaur season and the theatre's 50th.
Her links with theatre education in Montreal give her a good view of the city's younger talents, she said, which the Centaur will need to cultivate and champion. Holmes also has a strong background in forms of theatre that don't revolve around people talking. Until a knee injury ended her prior career as a dancer, she was a soloist with the San Francisco Ballet and the Frankfurt Ballet, whose director, William Forsythe, is one of the leading choreographers of the day. The prospect of the Centaur moving into forms of physical theatre – if not dance as such – could be an exciting new departure for the company and a terrific way to engage with Montreal's robust physical theatre and circus communities.
There's no question that Holmes will have to extend the Centaur's reach. Its audience is greying, and subscriptions have only recently ticked up from a multiyear decline. Audience regeneration is a problem for proscenium arts companies all over North America, but Montreal poses special challenges.
According to Statistics Canada, four out of 10 Montreal anglophones in 2011 were immigrants and more than half of Quebec's anglophone immigrants were members of visible minorities. The Centaur, similar to theatres in Toronto and Vancouver, has to think about how to appeal to people whose countries of origin may not have Eurocentric theatrical traditions. But it also has to deal with the fact that immigrants arriving in Quebec since 2006 are more likely to speak French as their first official language than those who arrived before 1996. For an increasing number of recent newcomers to Montreal, North American English-language theatre may be the wrong flavour two times over.
"All of my friends who are francophones also speak English, and many of them come to the Centaur," countered Holmes, rightly pointing out that the Centaur is not shut off from the city's linguistic majority.
Another challenge – or at least a prod – comes from the Segal Centre for Performing Arts in Montreal's western Notre-Dame-de-Grâce district. The Segal has doubled its annual revenue since refocusing its energies on theatre in 2014. Its annual budget is now about $5-million, and it, too, thinks of itself as the central player in its field – "the heart of English theatre in Montreal."
The Segal's programming choices under current artistic and executive director Lisa Rubin tend to be lighter over all than those at the Centaur, though its current offering is a Black Theatre Workshop/Tableau D'Hôte Theatre production of Angélique, Lorena Gale's play about a black woman hanged for arson in Montreal in 1734. The Segal puts particular emphasis on musicals, which general manager Jon Segal linked in a phone interview to the centre's long relationship with the 60-year-old Dora Wasserman Yiddish Theatre, which still presents a big Yiddish musical at the centre each season.
"We try to develop new works that have national legs," said general manager Jon Rondeau. So far, the strategy has worked well – despite the perennial challenge of scaling up shows designed for the centre's 306-seat main theatre. A 2014 musical based on Michel Tremblay's Les Belles-soeurs travelled last year to the National Arts Centre and the Charlottetown Festival. A 2013 production of Greg Kramer's play Sherlock Holmes was seen at Toronto's Ed Mirvish Theatre and in theatres in Chicago and Hollywood. Rondeau hopes for more of the same from this season's musical version of Prom Queen and next year's The Hockey Sweater.
The differences in orientation and offerings between the Centaur and the Segal Centre are good for both companies – and for Montreal's English theatre scene as a whole. The Segal seems more securely rooted in its community, with a very strong purchase on the allegiance of the city's Jewish community. That perhaps is the point at which the Centaur's current challenges become most existential, as suggested by Holmes's oblique musing on the social position of theatre generally. Who is the Centaur Theatre for and how can those people be galvanized to care? That is the question to which Holmes must find an answer.