Sunday, December 15, 2013

Sunday Feature: Interview - Simon Brault, CEO National Theatre School

(photo by Maxime Côté)

Shaping the Future of Theatre
I believe NTS will be powerful as long as it will stay absolutely connected to the pulse of professional theatre.
by David Sklar 

Simon Brault was named the National Theatre School’s CEO in 2008 and has held several key administrative positions with the NTS since 1981. In 1997, he initiated Journées de la culture, a Quebec‐wide cultural event; in 2002, he led a 20‐member delegation at the Sommet de Montréal and founded Culture Montréal. Since 2007, he heads the steering committee of the RV07 – Montreal, Cultural Metropolis. He is Vice‐Chair of the Canada Council, an Officer of the Order of Canada, an Officier de l'Ordre national du Québec, a Fellow of the CGA, and a recipient of the Keith Kelly Award for Cultural Leadership. On September 23, 2009, Mr. Brault launched his first book of essays on the rise of arts and culture on global public agendas. Titled Le FACTEUR C ‐ L'Avenir passe par la culture, it was published by La Presse / Éditions Voix parallèles and was released in English, in May 2010, by Cormorant Books (translation Jonathan Kaplansky) under the title No Culture, No Future. In 2011, the Presses de l'Université du Québec and the Chaire de leadership Pierre‐Péladeau published a monograph about Simon Brault: Prendre fait et cause pour la culture. It is a scholarly thesis on his personal and professional journey in the arts.

CHARPO: How did it begin for you in theatre?

BRAULT: I came to it when I was 26 years old; a long time ago. I was really looking for a job. I studied two years in law but I didn’t finish. I had just had a son and needed a job so I came to NTS (National Theatre School) with the firm intention of staying for ten weeks or so. I really just needed employment insurance. My plan was simple.  

Obviously what happened was when I came here, I immediately discovered a fascinating world. We were teaching theatre here so all of a sudden actors, dancers, musicians, and visual artists surrounded me. It was also a place where people spoke French and English, and having a lot of political debates. I was doing a modest job and wandering around. For me, this became a place to learn and live and make connections. 

Jean-Louis Roux, who recently passed away, was the director general and I had the chance to decode what he was doing. I was lucky because I realized that I could play a role in this institution on the administrative side because the school was facing financial problems. It was a vibrant place from an artistic point of view but they needed a helping hand. My law background didn’t help so I began to study accounting; I never imagined I would end up doing that. But I thought, 'That could be useful'. 

I went to university four nights a week while still working.  I got the degree and was promoted to accounting, then administrative director, then co-director and eventually CEO. It took 15 years. Learning and trying and going through lots of projects.  

While my focus was the law, I came from a family of artists, mostly poets and visual artists. My father was a painter and sculptor so that was the world I grew up in.  

After 32 years, I have seen hundreds of plays, rehearsals and writing projects but I don’t consider myself a theatre person. My passion was to organize and lead this institution. Re-framing and re-positioning the role of the arts in Canadian society.  That is why I decided to also play a role in the Canada Council for the Arts. For me the future of this place and theatre schools are linked with the future of the art form itself. 

I believe NTS will be powerful as long as it will stay absolutely connected to the pulse of professional theatre. Every time I notice there is possibility that we will shape ourselves into an ivory tower, I see that as dangerous. If we isolate ourselves from society, we become irrelevant.      

CHARPO:  You talked about building grassroots events and sharing spaces between professional and amateur productions. Is this what needs to happen for the art to survive?

BRAULT:  When I was listening to the ceremony of Jean-Louis Roux they explained how 50 years before us, the line between professional and amateur was very thin. They didn’t have theatre school training. They were doctors or lawyers who made the choice of becoming professionals. The professional is the one who decides to master an art form and do it as a living while the amateur will practice it but not as a living; having that link is really important.

CHARPO: I assume you are familiar with the Globe and Mail article published last year, stating that the English side at NTS felt neglected and under-funded. How do you feel when you hear students secretly saying they feel they are getting the short end of the stick? 

BRAULT:  I don’t think it’s true.  If you studied the history of this school, the past 52 years, at some moments, the English section was stronger or maybe one program was favoured or another team had more space. A lot of the time it had to do not with a decision from the institution but the section leader. 

Alisa Palmer, head of the English section, is the new kid on the block. She has a lot of ambition: A powerful vision and she wants the world for her students. And she will come to the Board with a lot of ideas, and my job is to provide as much support as we can. 

It may have created an imbalance when the English side might have had a stronger component for film than the French section. 

In the final analysis, the resources are distributed more for an Anglophone student. That’s normal because their teachers are coming from outside of Montreal. They travel and we pay for that. To support the Anglophones means more resources. For instance, the auditions are held across the country rather than simply in Quebec City and Montreal for the French side. 

The article was simply an opinion.  First, it’s not true. And if it ever was true during certain moments, you can be absolutely certain that the way we selected Alisa Palmer was really to make sure the English section would strive and be very strong. 

And so for me, all the leaders don’t have the same capacity.  We have had great leaders on both sides.  It’s normal for them to suffer from fatigue.  

There is no limit to ambition except of course for money. 

We just finished a fund raising campaign. It wasn’t for new buildings or groceries but organized to support big ideas relating to the future of theatre such as diversity, technology and new media.  We now have those resources. 

Theatre is an important art form in big cities and the cities are diverse.

CHARPO:  So is that where you see the future of theatre? What is your responsibility in equipping the graduates with the skills in order to work? 

BRAULT:  Where is the future of theatre going?  I don’t think we have an answer for that.  We try to articulate an answer. Our responsibility is to be aware of the shifting environment in which we work. The most significant shifts that are out there and we struggle with are the changing demographics. It’s an important factor. Theatre is an important art form in big cities and the cities are diverse. In the teaching body, the student body, the audience, the dramaturgic content, we have to take into account diversity in order to create new theatre. If we don’t, theatre will become more and more marginalized. 

In Canada, we have the end of the baby boom that today constitutes the biggest part of the audience in traditional venues. It’s an aging population who are white, who have resources. So those people are there, they have an important weight in the economy of theatre and a lot of the programming is designed with them in mind. 

At the other end of the spectrum, we have a very young audience that is diverse and connected with technology. A lot from the First Nations. It’s the youngest part of our Canadian population. So that segment of the population is a key to the future of theatre and they are currently under served.  One way to address it is through the fund for diversity but also through a program called Theatre Engaging Communities.        

That’s a fund I created with private money which supports projects that are articled by students and graduates to invent new ways of addressing those communities.  

Second, is the question of technology. It has a huge impact on theatre. The way we write, the way we research, the way we present and promote theatre. It’s a huge change. Ten years ago, we were not engaging with technology; it was seen as a component of production but now it’s impacting every program.  

The third issue for us is the notion of how do we engage with an audience. Because of technology, we know that all the conventions of theatre are imploding: lineal storytelling and subscriptions in medium to large sized theatres. For new generations, theatre will not be the way it is now.  

It’s due to the impact of globalization and the shifting of communities. Theatre is an activity where you need to relate with a community. And the notion of community is transformed by globalization. For theatre to be relevant it needs to address different communities that are not geographical. For us as a school, we need to be aware not only that these things are happening but also to make sure we take that into account when we select projects.

CHARPO: It’s all very good to invest in these projects and look to the future but, and I keep asking this question to many artists, how do you grab young people who have not been brought up with theatre or who have never been to see a show before?  

BRAULT:  I guess what we are facing is the notion of a live performance. There is a parallel with the music industry.  The way technology evolved over the last ten years totally imploded the model of the music industry.  The business model was created with selling CD’s. It was about selling a format and the live performance was just a means to an end. Now with easy access of that format, they had to reinvent, trying to use the Internet to give more value to live performances. It’s true for music and social change.  

Human beings succeeded to make the connection from life on the web to life on the street level. This call to action, 'you have to come out', is vital. 

What we see at the Canada Council is that the independent theatres that don’t have a lot of capacity are doing okay. It’s very difficult for traditional venues as well as medium sized ones. Independent theatre is strong and it has to do with the lack of protocol. 

However, the major difference between music and other art forms is that we in the theatre don’t have many chances. I think if someone goes and sees theatre and they don’t like it, it will be very difficult to get them back. 

power in a place like this is very limited because the root of what we do has to be constantly to conquer

CHARPO: It needs to be good all the time.  

BRAULT:  It needs to be powerful.  And meaningful. Something has to happen.  I’m not at all discouraged.  I am more hopeful for the theatre of the future and present than I am for the theatre of the past. 

CHARPO: Power and love are often seen as opposing values, which do you feel holds more influence in your decision-making?

BRAULT:  Love. For sure.  I think the proof of it is that I’ve been doing many different things in my life but I never accepted another job. And I’ve had other offers. But I decided to stay here because it has to do with the fact that I am very privileged here to be surrounded by students with huge expectations, dreams and a vision about what they want to do. Who are also not discouraged by the reality of life and who want to change the world. 

A lot of people just want to find a zone where they will be comfortable. I think a good school is a place where there is no comfort. Where you are constantly challenging, questioning, and self-criticizing to make it better. No structure, no power can prevent us from trying to be better. 

That couldn’t have been done in a university setting. Or a place full of rules and unions. 

Sure, power is needed from time to time. But power in a place like this is very limited because the root of what we do has to be constantly to conquer. When you say to someone, 'I am in the arts' it doesn’t impress people.

I still feel the same energy from students from 30 years ago to today. Every time I see a student production, it’s a constant renewal. I understand why teachers love teaching. I love the idea of being at the crossroads. You have artists from different backgrounds, different disciplines, different aesthetic value, who are coming to this place trying to transmit what they consider the most precious thing they have. That is moving for me.  It’s a place of possibilities. 

Read also: Interview with Alisa Palmer, Artistic Director, NTS (English)

1 comment:

  1. A great interview with an amazing man of the theatre. Thanks Charlebois Press


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