Sunday, December 16, 2012

The Sunday Read: Interview - Alisa Palmer, Artistic Director National Theatre School (English)

(photo credit: David Cooper)

Feeding the Young
Alisa Palmer prepares new theatre people for a new world
by Rebecca Ugolini
As she leads me up a narrow flight of stairs in the National Theatre School (NTS) and into an office where we chat a little before the interview starts, I learn a few facts about Alisa Palmer that no amount of research could have revealed. The award-winning director, dramaturge, playwright and artistic director is already well-known to The Charlebois Post readers for her diverse repertoire and devotion to women’s theatre companies such as Nightwood Theatre. In-person, Palmer is humble, funny, and welcoming. And as her schedule at the NTS will attest—the receptionist told me Palmer was in a meeting before I arrived, and Palmer herself said she had another lined up afterward—she is busy, busy, busy. That’s because Palmer is set to take over as the school’s Artistic Director in January of 2013. I sat down with her to discuss her new role as Artistic Director, her relationship to young artists, and the future of Montreal theatre. 
CHARPO: So you’ve directed and taught at schools across Canada. What do you hope to bring to the NTS as Artistic Director?
PALMER: I think the really unique opportunity with the NTS is that it’s a conservatory and all the aspects of theatre are under one roof—and it’s bilingual. So there is more than one culture, and more than one area of specialty in theatre. So just as I do a lot of different types of theatre, I’d like to synthesize and take the most of all the different resources of the fields that are here and get a synergy of the place, get the most out of all of them by weaving them together, in a kind of coherent pedagogy.
I was so self-absorbed and driven on the work that I wanted to do to feed my own appetite that young artists weren’t a priority for me.
CHARPO: I do know that you have worked as a playwright, dramaturge, director—those are a lot of hats to wear. Is there one of those that is special to you or that you prefer over the others?
PALMER: I love directing. When you first come to theatre, you learn by following what you are passionate about and you enrich your self-expression by trying to explore the different ways of doing theatre. That’s how I ended up doing so many different things. Part of it is that appetite and curiosity, and I created a methodology for myself. But what really came through for me, and what I am most thrilled about, is just that—directing and working with actors, directors, and designers. What directing allows me to do more directly than any other thing, is to really connect with all the other people with expertise in the various fields. And that kind of reflects what my different priorities are in this school. It’s the school being a hub for working with people who are very gifted, passionate and expert in other areas. It’s analogous in that respect.
CHARPO: You’ve done a lot of work with young people as well. Why is that a priority for you?
PALMER: Well, there was a period of time when that wasn’t the case. When I was a young person  I worked with other young people as well. But when I started gaining more of a critical mass, more traction, I was so self-absorbed and driven on the work that I wanted to do to feed my own appetite that young artists weren’t a priority for me. I was teaching, and so in that case it was significant for me in that kind of context, but it’s only in the last five years or so that I’ve really been able to appreciate what working with young artists can give me. 
Some of it is taking the blinkers off, because I’ve been able to accomplish some of the things that are most meaningful to me, allowing me to open up my point of view, relax my drive. 
And some of it is something amazing that started to appear in my own life a couple of years ago, when young people started to approach me and ask for advice, and I was able to have the generosity of spirit to do it. It’s a very competitive field, art. And it’s very torn between trying to drive with your own ambition and trying to be open and to communicate and express yourself, so it had become very important to me, this opportunity to see from another point of view. And I remember what it was like, and how incredibly hard it is to get started. Euphoria and despair, euphoria and despair, and not a lot in between. I find it thrilling to be able to revisit that vicariously, so I have a lot of compassion, too, for how hard it is.
I have conversations with people who are struggling with whether they should go into the arts, and I ask them, “Is there anything else you would like to do?”
CHARPO: So these young artists who come to you, what kind of help do they ask about? Is it practical stuff like, how do I apply for grants, or is it with project concepts...?
PALMER: Oh, it’s everything. I think at the root of it in this context, people are coming because they want training. They want an experience, not only skills, but a sense of who they are and how to express that, how to go out into the world as a resilient professional who is fulfilling themselves as a remarkable human being. They want to be expressing themselves personally as well as manifesting those professional demands. 
And a lot of times I have conversations with people who are struggling with whether they should go into the arts, and I ask them, “Is there anything else you would like to do?” And if they say yes, if there’s something else that’s really burning for them, I’ll say, go and give that a try first. Because one of the most important things about working in the arts is that there is no B Plan. It demands a kind of enthusiastic obsession. And if you’re going into that, it will happen that way. So it’s about providing the pragmatic tools, and supporting them as a person so that they go into this field with a sense of well-being and resilience and enthusiasm, and be able to negotiate all these challenges that they will come upon personally. 
CHARPO: Yes, I’ve definitely seen that happen as a young person who has worked on artistic projects with others before, especially the ‘head’, like the director. 
PALMER: Yes, and I remember the volatility of the euphoria and the despair. A lot of it comes from not having the experience yet. It’s like climbing up a mountain. You see so much differently when you are at another point in geography and time will provide that for you. So I can look and see the weather changing and the trajectory. And I can help people with that, think about the project and say “Yeah, I can see that there’s something really great in here—keep going.” When you’re young, you can’t do that. And it’s a miracle we can cultivate that as time passes. And if we can get artists coming out of this school who have longevity, who can survive and work a long time, so much comes from just being able to keep going and be well with your art.
Some of it was, I think, a bias against women’s work, which has been studied and proven and is still persistent...
CHARPO: And something related to that, I guess, I’ve got an interest in taking about Nightwood Theatre Company. Why do you think theatre companies for women are needed?
PALMER: Well, at the time when I was running it, there were two things that were interesting to me. One was to address the inequity of the demographics. In terms of the world, women represent over 50 per cent of the population, but speaking specifically to the arts, we are under-represented. So our goal was to develop and disseminate and promote work by women, because we thought that people couldn’t seem to program enough work by women, we would do that for them.
And really, it was no matter what their reasons were. Some of it was, I think, a bias against women’s work, which has been studied and proven and is still persistent, and in some cases it was a lack of awareness that there was work by women that was available.
Another was that I have enjoyed working with women and being in plays that are written by women. I was in an improv troupe here in Montreal that was all women and I always enjoy the experience. So it was natural to me to work in that milieu as much as it is for people who love musical theatre to work in a musical theatre company. But nobody asks why there’s a musical theatre company. And it’s stunning to me, because I keep seeing the world as, “Well, the majority of people are women.” How can there only be one professional women’s theatre company in Canada? That’s the real question, on the flip side of it.
So I appreciate you asking the question—you were very neutral about it. I was doing an interview recently and the question came up about work by women. After I left Nightwood, I was freelancing, and I maintained my interest in work by women and tried my best to encourage companies who weren’t producing plays by women who do so. And I was looking over an announcement by one of the biggest theatres in Toronto, and they have 19 productions, and there is not one written by a woman, and I’ve been asked not to address that in public, because it keeps popping up. It’s so strange, so foreign, to me.
CHARPO: And why do you think this would be? Is it a prejudice against women specifically, do you feel, or is it about the themes or subjects that women may want to address specifically in their plays?
PALMER: Well, we’ll find out as we see more and more work by women. Is there different content? Like with working with young people, if I’m going to give an example, they seem to approach the world with an expectation of equity, and then there is an older generation who is responding with that I would say is an out-dated point of view. And maybe it’s been ever thus. Maybe there’s always been young generations looking at the world and expecting to see their own values reflected in society—that’s what the propaganda is, that everyone is equal. But when you come into the world you see that the people above you reflect something different. So that’s my experience, that a lot of young people I work with are interested in the same things as I am, whether they’re male or female or gay or straight, or whatever cultural background, the interests we are drawn to are very universal no matter what our identity is. And that’s one of the misfortunes of programming, women’s theatre work will be seen as a  play for women or as an issue play… but all good plays are issue plays. They’re about power, identity, inequity, figuring out who you are. 
What my impressions are so far is that there is something unique here.
CHARPO: And on the subject of being in Montreal and working with young people here—how would you describe the theatre community in Montreal? Does it have a different vibe than the rest of Canada?
PALMER: Well, I haven’t lived here in several years, so there’s a learning curve for me to figure it all out again. What my impressions are so far is that there is something unique here. The two predominant languages are what make it distinct to me, but in some ways it shares the strength of other places in Canada. There is a whole lot of work and energy that is busting out, and people are staying in their regional areas and making it happen. I feel like Montreal is distinct but also has a lot in common with other cities that are growing. I’m really interested in knowing what the English-language theatre community is doing here on the ground.
CHARPO: Well, this summer was kind of tumultuous. Hour closed down a while ago, and The Mirror closed, and independent theatres and dance companies relied on them for advertising and promotion. There have been a few other ‘hiccups’ as well. Sometimes it makes me wonder how we’re going to survive. What do you think an independent scene needs to thrive?
PALMER: I feel like there are people across the country who can speak to this really well, because in so many places I have worked, they have had to work really hard and creatively to make the independent scene thrive. What I’ve seen in other places is that the professional theatres cannot thrive on their own any longer, so they have had to make much greater connections with the independent scenes. So in Winnipeg, for example, I saw theatres coming together as part of festivals of the works of just one playwright. Every theatre puts on a play in their space—all kinds of different spaces, traditional, untraditional, you name it. That was one way—it brought everyone together and got a lot of networking done. It looked really good, from my point of view, and I got to see a lot of independent, new, young artists. 
But everyone in theatre needs to support each other. We can’t survive alone. And working at the NTS is one of the ways I want to feed into that, to support it by providing new and skilled and enthusiastic artists who can go out and give back and put their work into the community.
People thought that TV killed theatre, people thought that radio killed it, but I think these things are all transformative.
CHARPO: Definitely. Now for my final question: why do you think people keep going to the theatre in a world of TV screens, Netflix, and free movies and TV shows for download? Is it the personal connection aspect?
PALMER: You’ve put it really beautifully—you actually get a connection. And we know that people are on screens all the time, but I believe that people know the difference. They know that being connected online all the time isn’t really being connected. They know—they feel the difference. So they keep going to live concerts, live music, live performance because of that quality that is always kind of mind-blowing. There is something that is very sensual and spiritual and it’s absurd how easy it is to get a hit of connection. And there’s a beautiful paradox. The more we’re connected in terms of technology, the more isolated we feel. 
And I have a faith in my heart, because theatre has been there from the beginning, and it will always be there, and it has had its ups and downs through history but it has always survived. It has survived when it’s had to interact with different technologies. People thought that TV killed it, people thought that radio killed it, but I think these things are all transformative. But the personal interaction with story and being in the same room with people and experiencing things at the same time, it’s amazing, and it’s something that people can feel. 
Parties haven’t died—people still go to parties. Actually, a lot of technology has made parties bigger. And I have a lot of faith in young people who are working with this technology that they can make it work, but I don’t think that anybody is really fooled by what it does. Because really, people are always searching for a personal connection. They want to fall in love, they want to be connected, and that’s meaningful for everyone.  

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