Sunday, June 2, 2013

Sunday Feature: Interview - Eric Coates, artistic director GCTC

each other's resources
Eric Coates goes into the capital Fearless
by Jim Murchison

Eric Coates has fast established himself, not just  as an artistic director of an important Canadian theatre company but as a member of the Ottawa community. He has embraced not just his position but the community as a whole. He has found a different way to humorously make his point on cell phones by taking his pulse on stage while shutting his cell phone off and proving that survival is possible, to sending out security to confiscate them, to threatening to track people down at their place of employment. He is a natural showman and a passionate promoter. He takes theatre far more seriously than he takes himself. We sat down with him to talk about where he has come from and what's in the future. Hopefully we capture his excitement for his work in this interview.

CHARPO: First of all I wanted to thank you for doing this interview. It is wonderful how instantly you have become involved with the Ottawa community. Have you enjoyed the honeymoon period?

COATES: (laughs) Well yeah I have. It's been very busy. I've tried to see everything that I can. It's not an environment I've ever experienced before. The number of small companies, emerging companies in relationship to the one I'm running; it's a new experience, so I certainly feel that it's in my best interest to meet and greet as much as possible and see what's out there and hopefully turn it into something that benefits everyone. 

CHARPO: Well, it's been noticed. I see you and Jillian Keily frequently at stuff: everything from the Gladstone companies to the shows Evolution is doing. There is a mandate that you've indicated you're excited about. Where a theatre has a mandate to promote Canadian artists, Canadian ideas and Canadian plays, do you think that there is anything that limits you in what you can do within your mission statement? 

COATES: No, keep in mind that this answer is in line with my previous job where I was working with a similar mandate but a much more conservative constituency if you will, so for me it feels like the skies have opened in a good way. The clouds have parted and although I loved my old job, even within a Canadian context, I have so much more freedom to explore different topics. Just the simple fact that the political content isn't seen as something purely to agitate is a huge gift to me. The fact that there's not really the same concern about profanity on stage, things like that: it suddenly makes the palate a lot more colourful, there's a lot more artists I can work with.

I wanted people to get the sense that we're busy, that we are fearless; that we might be agitating a bit; that we're collaborative

CHARPO: Did you have that idea of Fearless as your opening theme from the minute you were offered this job?

COATES: Not really, coming up with Fearless as an active word to promote the season came out of discussions in staff meetings and with our graphic designer. Funnily enough the bee image though was something that hit me as soon as I arrived here and was looking at the well established colours in our logo, that they're yellow and black and I thought wouldn't it be interesting if we could find a way using those colours to express not necessarily what we're doing, but who we are! And a bee is a pretty compelling image and now I see how often people are using bees in advertising and that's what I wanted people to get the sense that we're busy, that we are fearless; that we might be agitating a bit; that we're collaborative: all these things that apply to the way we see bees, actually is a great analogy for theatre. 

CHARPO: Nice, and there's honey at the end of it.

COATES: Yes, and this is the trick now, everyone wants to attach funny little catch phrases and what I'm trying to do is to let people do that so that I don't have to do that part of the work and people can get as funny and cute with it as they want.

CHARPO: Well that's the thing about art, it's whatever it means to you. Perfect. Was it important to you with your work as an actor to play in a production this season [The Burden of Self Awareness]. Was that something you wanted to do; to perform this season or did that just happen?

COATES: That was a combination of a bunch of different factors. A huge part of this job is being the face of the theatre. It is the best way for an artistic director to get to know an audience and vice versa. Audiences are always intensely interested in an artistic director that steps out of the administrative role and I trained as an actor and it was an important part of how I came into the theatre so it's something I can do when I'm trying to put my personality forward to represent the company. The other thing was the play showed up as something of a surprise and as I was reading it, the central character was my age, my temperament... 

CHARPO: Good looking?

COATES: Yes (laughs) It was just a really good fit, he was going through changes in his life. It just made a lot of sense; the roles you can relate to in your own life are more attractive, you've got a leg up on the part, so that made it very interesting and then the third part of the decision was purely budgetary. I either had to direct a play to keep our expenses at a certain level, or I could give that directing job to someone else and take on an acting role and I decided to do it that way and give myself a little more variety. It's also good for me as a director to know what it's like to perform on that stage. It really informs the way you approach the show if you spend a full production acting in that space.

CHARPO: You touched on it earlier, is your audience different here than at Blythe?    

COATES: It is considerably different. Blythe is driven quite a bit by local concerns and local issues. We drew from a pretty broad spectrum but they were typically older and whiter than the GCTC audience. You know Ottawa has a much more diverse constituency to draw from and I suspect I can tackle a lot of different issues that wouldn't have been of interest to a rural audience. 

We sometimes forget that collaboration doesn't exist solely on stage and in rehearsal halls. It exists in the way we plan our years as companies.

CHARPO: It is a bit surprising how many theatres are in Ottawa for its size.

COATES: It is a new environment for me being surrounded by so many indie theatres doing really interesting work. My goal  is to try and figure out how the community can act as each other's resources. The GCTC has this spectacular facility. That comes with a lot of challenges. It means we have a lot more expenses to maintain operations but I also want to open the doors to other companies to use the space in ways that are mutually beneficial. That doesn't mean I'm going to be giving the space away rent free but it means I'm going to be looking for ways for local companies to come in and  really take advantage of what's here and not feel there's two solitudes happening.

CHARPO: The way Undercurrents does?

COATES: Yes the way Undercurrents does and there's also opportunities for people to do workshops, to meet together, to talk, to trade ideas for new projects. For all sorts of things. We sometimes forget that collaboration doesn't exist solely on stage and in rehearsal halls. It exists in the way we plan our years as companies.

CHARPO: And how soon does that happen? How soon after you announce a season is the next one started.

COATES: We actually already started that process. When I arrived we went straight into a multi year plan that's related directly to our funding from Canada Council.  In fact even before I had cemented the 2013-2014 season I had already confirmed  a couple of projects for the following year and  even one for the year following that. Now I am picking away at it by degrees. 13-14 is done; 14-15 is half done and there's one project done for the season after.

CHARPO: I think both Lise Ann Johnson and Peter Hinton stayed seven years. Whats the average term for an artistic director?

COATES: I think about five years. It can be considerably longer. My last job was ten years. You never know... what the marriage is going to be like. Some of our great AD's have spent their entire careers with one theatre and others have played the field. We'll see. I like Ottawa so far and I am not in any hurry to leave.

CHARPO: Excellent. Thanks very much. It's been great talking to you and getting your insight into theatre. Have a good season. Enjoy.     

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