Sunday, March 2, 2014

Sunday Feature: Profile of Paul Flicker - Artistic Producer, Segal Centre

Insatiable thirst for theatre
The prime of Mr. Paul Flicker 
by Barbara Ford

We bypassed the administration offices where former Artistic Director, Bryna Wasserman, had a sprawling new office in keeping with the dazzling refurbishments at the Segal Centre (formerly the Saidye Bronfman Centre for the Arts or SBC) and headed down to the basement where the theatre production offices are housed. This is the preferred sanctuary of Wasserman’s successor, Artistic Producer Paul Flicker. 

Clearly not preoccupied with appearances, his Great Grandmother’s old table serves as his desk, with a well-worn couch nearby under a wall of shelves stuffed with published scripts and books about theatre and the people who make it. More scripts and books are piled in various nooks and crannies of the cinder block room. Like an absentminded professor overrun by stacks of paper, Flicker brushes aside several files scattered on the couch so we can sit down to chat. The books, couch and recently acquired espresso machine (he has a penchant for good strong coffee- we had several during the interview) are the only comforts Flicker requires to do what he admits is the most exhilarating work he’s had to date. The shy, slightly awkward Flicker evaporates once we dive into the heart of the interview, his driving passion for theatre. 

Flicker was born in Montreal’s Jewish General Hospital to highly educated parents and was raised to appreciate culture, going to the Stratford Festival as a young lad and staying up to watch late night movies. He attended elementary school at Jewish People’s and Peretz School (JPPS) and then Bialik High School. At Vanier CEGEP, on the advice of the school guidance counsellor, he studied Pure And Applied Sciences, though he was light on the necessary applying part of his schooling. Threatened with the Israeli army if he didn’t smarten up and buckle down, he switched to Social Sciences at Dawson College and graduated an honour student with straight A’s.

Besides meeting schoolmates such as Alison Darcy, Mike Paterson and Brett Watson, theatre artists who would later re-emerge in Flicker’s life, the last semester at Dawson determined the next phase of his education. Flicker had been considering a law degree but his father said law was not a good first degree, (planting the seed that multiple degrees were expected) advising him to first get an education. When John Lucas, Professor Emeritus of English, publisher, poet and author lectured, he sparked within Flicker a curiosity for history, language and theatre. Then and there, Flicker saw no reason to study anything else, which he did at McGill University, under such esteemed professors as David Hensley and Lars Troide, who both made strong impressions.

During his last semester at McGill, Flicker wrote his LSATs and was busy applying to schools located in warmer climes, however Hensley encouraged Flicker to continue his literature studies and although Flicker had already spent thousands in law applications, he applied (late) to both Cambridge and Oxford. Out of 180 applicants, Flicker was one of only four selected to study 18th century literature at Oxford.

Life at Oxford was decidedly different. Flicker punted as all good Oxford scholars must and had not one but two tuxedos for the many formal events he was expected to attend. He resumed hockey, a sport he had given up in his teens, to play all over England, visiting Paris and Prague for the Oxford team. With most of his time out of the classroom spent in Oxford’s Bodleian Library developing his thesis, Alexander Pope, the Dunciad and the concept of fame, Flicker admitted that the weekly late-night hockey game kept him sane. 

Oxford assumes that a Master's degree is only a step towards a doctorate but Flicker was unsure of his next academic move. Juggling several options, including writing a book about Pope, he decided against the somewhat cloistered academic life and returned to Montreal to re-enter McGill. Now that he acquired an education, he studied law earning his LLB, bachelors of law and BCL, bachelor of civil law. He was immersed in an environment bursting with sharp minds and although law stimulated him on an intellectual and philosophical level, the practice of it fell short. 

After a steady diet of higher education, Flicker decided to float for a while. He sat on the beach doing re-writes for Mike and Tripp Swanhaus, who were running Eclipse Films in New York City. Elan Kunin told Flicker that the Dora Wasserman Yiddish Theatre was in desperate need of a Production Manager for their upcoming production of Double Identity as well as a touring production of Green Fields.

Flicker had met Bryna Wasserman in 2000. She was in search of a new General Manager at the time and Flicker knew he lacked the qualifications for that position. When she explained that the responsibilities of a Production Manager were to manage contracts and budgets, Flicker knew he was the man for the job. He travelled to Vienna with the company in October 2001 and once the tour wrapped, he bummed around Budapest awhile and then couch-surfed in London, catching up with former college mates. 

When he arrived home again he discovered that the SBC needed a temporary replacement for the English theatre Production Manager away on maternity leave. Flicker got the position and stayed on as Director of Production. 

Now life got a lot more interesting for Flicker. His new full-time duties for the SBC Theatre were demanding and time-consuming, making it impossible to continue production managing for the Yiddish Theatre. For the next eight years, Flicker devoured every morsel of advice and expertise he could about the business of making theatre. He read hundreds of scripts (including the entire Canadian canon) and attended as many plays as he could, here and in other theatre cities. Excited by the prospect, Flicker set out vigorously to fill in the gaps of his theatrical education. Among the artists he’s grateful to for sharing their wisdom are [the late] Douglas Campbell, Diana Leblanc, and Albert Schultz. Peter Hinton frequently recommended playwrights to read and productions to see. Flicker said, "I was embraced by extraordinary theatre artists who helped me learn about this craft. I consider myself very lucky".

In 2007, the SBC transformed into the Segal Centre for the Performing Arts, overseen by the triumvirate of David Moss as Executive Director, Wasserman as Artistic Director and Flicker as Producer. Wasserman’s vision for the centre, supported by increased funding from the private and corporate sectors, converted the organization from a busy community centre to a world class performing arts venue. It became a bustling centre of cultural activity with the theatre expanding from a four-play to a six-play season, new teaching academies, incoming festivals and outgoing tours, an indoor cinema and new programs developing almost daily. 

Being at Wasserman’s side for the complex yet relatively quick makeover was an invigorating learning curve for Flicker. Mimicking Wasserman, he too attended every performance making himself accessible to Segal audiences. They talked and he and Wasserman listened, applying what they heard to future programming. 

Moss left after a year leaving Wasserman as both Executive and Artistic Director, a demanding role to fill for a theatre venue, mammoth for a performing arts centre with myriad ongoing programs, performances, and rentals. To support Wasserman, Flicker began to shoulder more artistic aspects such as choosing designers and stage managers. When Manon Gauthier was hired as the Segal CEO in 2009, it allowed Wasserman and Flicker to refocus on the artistic demands of the Centre. It was a symbiotic relationship that enabled all three to employ their strengths to the Centre’s benefit. 

Wasserman’s life had changed drastically since she signed on at the SBC: both her parents had passed away, her three children were now grown and living in New York City and Shirley Gonshor, a life-long friend and the Segal Centre’s Sales Director, was battling cancer. In April of 2011 Wasserman announced she was leaving the Segal, which allowed her to be at Gonshor’s side until the end. Then, satisfied she had laid a solid foundation for the Segal Centre, Wasserman moved to NYC to become the Executive Director of New York’s National Yiddish Theatre – Folksbiene. 

Having spent so much time at Wasserman’s side, Flicker was the logical choice to replace her, though the Segal Board of Directors made a subtle distinction, since he had no directing experience, by appointing him Artistic Producer. Far from throwing him in the deep end, Wasserman and Flicker spoke regularly that first season and one piece of advice she shared with Flicker was, “Make sure you use a different door every time you enter the building so you get a different point of view". 

The 2011/2012 season was fixed before Wasserman’s departure so Flicker had time to adjust to his new post before facing one of the loneliest and gruelling, albeit exciting, aspects of his job. Gauthier was behind him 100%, telling him to think big. Flicker said, “She told me to make a wish list and then go ahead and do that season. It was amazing to know I had her complete support. I have this job because when Bryna left, Manon didn’t search for anyone. She said she knew I could do it. That’s a gift.”

Flicker kicked off the season with the musical, Guys and Dolls, directed by Diana Leblanc and then took advantage of the absentee snowbird subscribers to program edgier works to attract new audiences. The Tony Award-winning RED, directed by the outstanding Martha Henry, and the South African co-production of Waiting for the Barbarians took the next two slots. Once spring arrived, Montreal jazz favourite, Ranee Lee, took the spotlight in the biographical Mahalia Jackson Musical and in a stroke of genius, Flicker convinced Montreal son turned Hollywood star, Jay Baruchel, to take the leading role in a new work by Greg Kramer based on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories. The Dora Wasserman Yiddish Theatre topped off the season with Tales from Odessa. The result? A 15% increase in subscribers and six METAs, all for Sherlock Holmes. Not bad for a first season!

One of the toughest things Flicker has to do is say no. “I’ve had to say no to friends and colleagues in order to do what’s best for the Segal. There are three leading roles in Othello, but 400 actors applied. I may get 100 English scripts a year but only five are chosen.” Flicker’s analytical mind and objective attitude work in his favour when judging what’s best for the Segal. He summed up his approach succinctly with, “we’re at our best re-inventing the classics”.

He still welcomes feedback from Segal audiences. Last year there was a fair amount of negative feedback surrounding the provocative Waiting for the Barbarians. To address the issue, rather than only three talkback discussions, the Segal hosted 16, providing an interactive forum for the public to share opinions and more fully understand the play. The result was more over-the-counter single ticket sales in the February slot since the hit musical, Houdini.

Gauthier, Wasserman, Flicker
The current season is proving just as successful as last year’s with a musical opening the season once again, followed by a Shakespeare, an adaptation of Chekhov, a Mamet, a Caryl Churchill, and ending with Dora Wasserman Yiddish Theatre’s Soul Doctor, about the unlikely friendship between a Rabbi and the renowned Nina Simone.

Flicker continues to see as much theatre as he can, with a strong lean to the unexpected variety. “I loved Billy Crudup in Arcadia in New York and Paul Van Dyck’s adaptation of Oroonoco was very tight.” Aside from a good game of golf (in summer he tries to get in a weekly game), a heated poker match and the standard great meal with good friends, what makes him happy? Without hesitation Flicker answers, “If we get a standing ovation plus a great review plus full houses, then I can stand back and enjoy life. Right now is the favourite time of my life”. Concerning bad reviews all he had to say was, "I have respect for reviewers who write up a good 'bad' review".  

After producing more than 80 plays Flicker, who thrives on new experiences, decided it was time to direct. He chose a monster of a play to make his debut this March: David Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross. "I wanted a new challenge. I may not have any former experience as a director but what I do have is language and I think this play is as much about language as Shakespeare is." Desiring to collaborate with artists who would provide creative input as well as make his maiden voyage fun, Flicker assembled an extraordinary team of actors and designers. R.H. Thomson, Graham Cuthbertson, Tristan D. Lalla, Daniel Lillford, Mike Paterson, Michel Perron and Brett Watson make up the cast. Segal regular, Dmitri Marine, composes music and sound, with the infallible Luc Prairie designing lights and Michael Eagan on sets and costumes. 

Auditing countless rehearsals over the course of his time at the SBC/Segal, Flicker has learned from some of the very best practitioners working in theatre today. Of those he admires most, Peter Hinton is definitely in the top five directors. Flicker recently underwent the equivalent of an intense master workshop when he assisted Hinton’s direction of The Seagull. “Peter has a brilliant mind and a wealth of experience. He's incredibly respected by the actors he works with. They trust him and his methods because he cares so much about them and the work." Flicker added, "I have equal parts trepidation and excitement. I’m on the line for the success or failure of the play but even if I only direct this one time, it will make me a better producer. I didn't have to do this but I feel in terms of my artistic development and my legitimacy in theatre, it was necessary." 

Flicker is close with his siblings and proud of their accomplishments. He attends the World Series of Poker in Vegas annually where his younger brother has placed in the top 20, and stays at his sister’s place (he says she’s the smart one in the family) whenever he’s in Toronto. He’s also uncle to a niece and a nephew. A bachelor in a monogamous relationship with the Segal Centre, he confided that it would be grand to meet a lady who “has a high tolerance for attending plays but no interest in working in theatre.” 

Ms Right should apply now as Flicker unexpectedly announced in February that he will be stepping down as Artistic Producer with no immediate plans for the future other than taking a well-deserved rest. Golfing with his dad this Summer and travel to Asia in the Fall figure prominently.  

Flicker’s departure, which leaves Managing Director, Lisa Rubin, holding down the fort, adds a certain gravitas to both his Mamet production and the upcoming 2014/2015 season launch. There is also a bittersweet symmetry in Wasserman’s return to direct the last play under Flicker’s watch. Whatever new challenges Flicker sets before him, doubtless he will tackle them with the same intelligence, passion and energy he enlisted during his time at the SBC/Segal Centre. 

March 16 - 30 

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