Wednesday, February 19, 2014

In a Word... Artistic Director Geneviève Pineault on Théâtre du Nouvel-Ontario

(photo by Alexandre Mattar)

Beyond The Minority Complex
Let’s just say that people who have a stereotypical way of looking at regional theatres and think that we produce and program 'quaint' little plays for mom and pop audiences don’t know the TNO!
by Gaëtan L. Charlebois

A graduate of the University of Ottawa’s Theatre Department, Geneviève Pineault has been active as a professional artist for 16 years. She has worked as a stage manager and a director for a variety of theatre companies, as well as film and television production companies. In 2004, she directed Ottawa’s Théâtre la Catapulte’s production of Alex Poch Goldin’s L’Hôtel. The production won two awards: the Capital Critics Circle’s Award for Best Set Design and the Le Droit/Radio-Canada 2005 Theatre Jury Prize. Since July 2004, she has settled in as the Artistic Director of Greater Sudbury’s Théâtre du Nouvel-Ontario (TNO). She won Théâtre Action’s 2009 Artistic Excellence Award for her staging of Mansel Robinson’s SLAGUE – L’histoire d’un mineur, translated and acted by Jean Marc Dalpé. The production was presented 67 times in 22 Canadian cities. It was judged one of the best theatre productions presented in Ottawa in 2008 by the local arts weekly Voir Outaouais. In 2012, Mme Pineault reunited with Robinson and Dalpé for II (deux), a TNO and Ottawa’s Théâtre de la Vieille 17 coproduction. In 2012-2013, she directed the TNO’s and the National Arts Centre’s Théâtre français’ coproduction of Tomson Highway’s Zesty Gopher s’est fait écraser par un frigo. At the same time II (deux) hit the road and toured in 16 Canadian cities. Since 2009, she has been teaching stage directing at Greater Sudbury’s Laurentian University. Among her other professional commitments, Geneviève has served on juries for the Canada Council for the Arts, including the 2008 Governor General Literary Awards  for Theatre, the Ontario Arts Council, the Manitoba Arts Council and the Hnatyshyn Foundation. She is a former Chairperson of Théâtre Action. She is currently a member of the Association des théâtres francophones du Canada’s Board of Directors.   

CHARPO:  I would suspect a lot of Canadians would be stunned to know that there is a French-language theatre company in Sudbury. But your company has a solid history and some of the country's biggest names have passed through it. Tell us which parts of its history you would hold up?

PINEAULT: For over four decades, the Théâtre du Nouvel-Ontario has developed and produced important Franco-Ontarian plays and worked with many gifted playwrights, directors and actors. Therefore it is not easy to sum up 43 years, but here is a quick overview of each decade.

The 1970’s
Le Théâtre du Nouvel-Ontario started out as a university-based theatre group at Laurentian University led by a young student leader and playwright, André Paiement. The company decided to make the transition to professional theatre in 1971, buoyed by the energy and excitement of the growing Franco-Ontarian cultural identity, with the Coopérative des artistes du Nouvel-Ontario (CANO) as well as  CANO musique, book publisher Les Éditions Prise de Parole and music festival La Nuit sur l’étang in Sudbury. The advent of the TNO also inspired the creation of other Francophone theatre companies in Ottawa a few years later. 

The 1980’s
In 1982, the arrival of author and director Brigitte Haentjens, who is now the Artistic Director of the National Arts Centre’s French Theatre (first woman to do so!) and recipient of the 2007 Elinore & Lou Siminovitch Prize in Theatre, along with playwright and actor Jean Marc Dalpé, three-time Governor General Literary Award recipient, as Artistic Director and artist in residence, was a major turning point for the company, from both an artistic and an administrative point of view. New plays were created, including the award-winning Le Chien by Dalpé, which toured in Québec and in France and was translated in English by The Factory Theatre in Toronto. 

The 1990’s
Sylvie Dufour, Artistic Director from 1992 to 1997, also committed to the creation of new plays, actively working with young and upcoming playwrights in order to expand the potential for new plays. The programming of new works was on a two-year cycle, producing one year and touring the next. It is under Sylvie’s leadership that the TNO developed a landmark partnership with Collège Boréal to build its theatre production centre as an annex to Northern Ontario’s Francophone College’s main Sudbury campus. The TNO’s new black-box theatre venue was inaugurated in 1997 and the arrival of André Perrier as Artistic Director in 1998 leads to another major turning point. 

The years 2000
The TNO increased the rhythm of its productions and started hosting guest productions from across Canada and developed a subscription season for adults. The TNO’s productions received provincial, national and international recognition with Du Pépin à la Fissure, Violette sur la terre, Univers, etc. The TNO’s new role as a performing arts presenter allowed us to reach a wider and more diversified audience (shows for kids, teens and adults). Since my arrival in 2004 as Artistic Director, the company has widened its artistic mandate to now include Canadian authors and not just Franco-Ontarian authors as before (translating works from Daniel MacIvor and Mansel Robinson, for example), pursued its touring mandate with shows like Slague and II (deux) which have been presented in New Brunswick, Québec and Ontario (22 cities, 67 performances / 19 cities, 59 performances respectively) and continued its quest for artistic excellence with many recognitions including two nominations for the Ontario Premier’s Award for Excellence in the Arts in 2006 and 2012. The TNO has done important work in audience development since 2006 and has increased the number of performances it provides, its annual audience attendance having reached 98% in 2009-2010!    

CHARPO: What is it like to keep a company like yours alive without seeming quaint?

PINEAULT: The TNO is primarily committed to the development of new works. Sometimes, we will present a new version of a previous work from the Franco-Ontarian dramaturgy (for example, Le Chien, originally created in the 80’s, got a second lease on life in 2008 for its 20th anniversary) but our main focus is premiere productions. By producing plays written by contemporary playwrights that deal with contemporary issues, such as the impact of the 'war on terror' on Canadians’ daily lives with “II (deux)”, we have no choice but to talk about our times, in synch with our community, our patrons and what is happening in the world. The TNO’s artistic vision, which I embrace wholeheartedly, is based on daring and original programming that inspires reflective thinking on our society and the human condition and that offers sometimes sensitive and sometimes critical – but always deeply human – perspectives on our world and times. Let’s just say that people who have a stereotypical way of looking at regional theatres and think that we produce and program 'quaint' little plays for mom and pop audiences don’t know the TNO! And strangely enough, it’s mainly our meaty productions that sell the most and that audiences appreciate the most – meaning that even our audience is not a stereotypical regional audience! And we are very lucky, and have worked very hard, to diversify our audience over the years. In 2011-2012, our audience was composed of teens and students (22%), adults (42%) and 55+ (36%). That also keeps us on our toes! 

CHARPO: I see from your season - a great one, by the way - that you do a lot of networking with companies across Canada (Vielle 17, PàP). How does that happen?

PINEAULT: Over the years, the TNO has coproduced with many theatre companies, mainly from Ontario but some in Québec, New Brunswick and France. I believe it has always been important for the TNO to break the artistic isolation of being a theatre company in a regional and minority context. It is also wonderful to be able to mix up teams of actors and designers, to prolong the life-span of a play, and it is wonderful for our artists to be seen/heard by new audiences (because not all of our productions will tour). What is important to the TNO (and to myself and I think a lot of theatre companies as well) is that the source of the collaboration, the reason that we decide to coproduce with specific companies is based on artistic affiliations and not for financial reasons. Of course the financial collaboration is important and helpful but artistically, it has to jive or else, it could be a long and painful process! 

As a show presenter, we also have to do a lot of networking with companies from across Canada in order to know what is being produced, what will be touring, and what is coming up. Through the years, we have developed artistic relationships with certain companies. For example, we have great affinities with Montréal’s Théâtre de La Manufacture who also acts as a performing arts presenter (Théâtre La Licorne). We have presented many of their shows over the years and TNO productions have also been presented in their space. I find that this allows for our TNO audience to also develop an artistic relationship with this Montréal theatre company. We see the company’s work and artists evolve over the years and I think this is great. They now can associate a certain style of staging, themes, and esthetics to that company.   

I don’t know if it is the 'minority' complex but we tend to work together!

CHARPO: Now tell us about your community. Both the French-language one and the larger English-language one around it. How does everyone get along and work together? (Or do they?)

PINEAULT: I moved to Sudbury from Ottawa in July 2004. I had been here a few times before with productions that I stage managed and toured in Sudbury (1998 to 2002) and I had also directed the TNO’s community-based (amateur) production in 2001 and stayed here for three months. What I found at that time and what made me decide to apply for the job was that the French community here is very dynamic and collaborative whether within the arts community, education, health, and so on. I don’t know if it is the 'minority' complex but we tend to work together! People here like their sports and outdoor activities but I feel there is a strong commitment towards the arts in general because how else can you explain the presence of so many theatre companies/groups (professional and amateur), an orchestra, contemporary and classical music, publishers, an international film festival, several music festivals and events, art galleries, and so on in a city with less than 160 000 people (2011 Census)! I sometimes feel that Sudbury should also promote itself as a Cultural Capital and not just a Mining and Educational Capital! I’ve noticed more and more collaborations between Francophone and Anglophone artists and organizations in the past few years and audiences are crossing over from one event to another. For example, the TNO presents some performances with English-language Supertitles (like the Théâtre français de Toronto). They are gaining in popularity and appreciation. We got some great feedback from English-speaking audience members that were happy to finally be able to come to the TNO and see what we do because they had been intrigued for years but the language barrier prevented them from coming – they did not feel comfortable enough in French to follow a whole show. Now they can! I think that collaborations between Anglophone and Francophone artists and organizations will keep increasing in the years to come and this is wonderful news for us all!   

We still have the potential to bring in more audience members, but our house, with its 105 seats, is often at full capacity.

CHARPO:  You're heading towards 50 years. You now have your own space. What are the big dreams which you wish to fulfill?

PINEAULT: In 2021, the company will be 50 years old – Wow! I celebrated the TNO’s 35th, the 40th… We’ll see if I will still be around but I know that the TNO will be! What I wish for the TNO when we blow out our 50 candles on our big cake is that we can blow them out in a NEW venue (that will have opened a few years before, cross our fingers). New space?! Yes, we need a new home – we’ve unfortunately outgrown our own. When the company moved into its current venue, it was in 1997, the company’s 26th season (1997-1998). Since then, the company has more than doubled in staff, we presented 27 performances in-house in 1998-1999, a number which has increased to 52 performances 15 years later. We still have the potential to bring in more audience members, but our house, with its 105 seats, is often at full capacity. We have no rehearsal hall and I won’t go into details about the challenges in our production area but let’s just say we have a single door to get our set pieces out of our shop! We are working very hard with seven other francophone arts organizations in Sudbury to create a new downtown venue. I strongly believe that our community could greatly benefit from such a space, as well as our artists also. The TNO cannot maintain the status quo much longer. That is my biggest wish for our 50th, and of course, that many people will be at the party!  

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