Arts & Icons

Take a bow, Roy Surette

Richard Burnett
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Roy Surette

After running Montreal’s venerable English-language Centaur Theatre as Artistic and Executive Director for 10 seasons, Roy Surette returns to his hometown of Vancouver, BC, in June to become Artistic Director of Touchstone Theatre.

Surette was originally Artistic Director at Touchstone back in 1984, before directing plays across Canada, including at the National Arts Centre and The Shaw Festival, as well as stints as Artistic Director with Victoria’s premiere theatre company, The Belfry Theatre, and Centaur in Montreal. His journey is now going full-circle.
 
Surette will be replaced by Centaur’s new Artistic and Executive Director Eda Holmes, who has been the Associate Director of the Shaw Festival since 2010.
 
I sat down with the out and proud Surette for a candid Q&A about his time in Montreal, queer theatre in Canada, and two upcoming gay plays at the Centaur, playwright Mark Crawford’s Bed and Breakfast and, next season, Hosanna by Michel Tremblay
 
 
It sounds like you are ready and primed to return home to Vancouver. 
The last couple of years I’ve been thinking about heading back west to see my family and nearest, dearest friends, and when this opening at Touchstone Theatre came up, I went, “Wow, what would that be like?” I’ve always believed in the company and their mandate. And I get to go home. I knew it would happen one day, though it is happening sooner than I thought.  
 
It sounds like it is time.
It is. My Mom lives in Victoria. She’s 86 and although she’s doing pretty well, nothing lasts forever and I want to be near her.
 
The Centaur has been a bastion of English-language theatre in Montreal since 1969. When you took over the reins in 2007, did you anticipate how language and politics is also part-and-parcel of the Quebec theatre scene?
I have to confess I was a little naïve to a lot of that. Like every Canadian, I loved visiting Montreal. There’s no question it is a vibrant city. I had been to Montreal before, for the Festival TransAmérique and to visit friends. I had seen shows at the Centaur and at the Saidye (now the Segal), but I didn’t know what the city was really like. It was a major transition for me. In terms of politics, it seems to always be shifting and evolving. At Centaur, there was a time, 25 to 35 years ago, the audience was triple the size it is now, and that’s been the toughest thing to wrestle with during my tenure here. Centaur has great importance to the Anglophone community and the city, but it is still challenging to capture the imagination of the local community.
 
How conscious were you of being responsible for the grand old dame of English Montreal theatre?
Pretty conscious! I was reminded of it every step of the way. One of the biggest tasks in my role is choosing the material that we stage, the artists that we work with. But there are only so many slots. My roots at Touchstone (in Vancouver) gravitated towards doing new works, provocative rather than popular mainstream plays. So when I arrived in Montreal I was excited that Centaur was a company that had staged Edward Albee’s The Goat or, Who Is Sylvia? and Angels in America. I must confess, though, that when I got here I found the overall support base a little more conservative than I thought they would be. When you think of artistry in Montreal, you think of it as bold and provocative. So I was surprised with the conservative streak that runs through some of our audience. 
 
Cape Breton playwright Bryden MacDonald told me that Centaur in 2009 was the only mainstream theatre in Canada that would touch his superb queer-stripper play With Bated Breath. How did Centaur audiences react?
I had already successfully worked with Bryden out west, so it made sense to work with Bryden again when I read With Bated Breath because it is a really interesting and provocative play. We put out a brochure featuring a Daniel Barkley painting of a naked young man and we got a lot of (negative) letters. So we had two versions – one with the penis, the other without. I was like, “Really? This is Montreal!” That was a bit of an eye-opener. 
 
Is the goal now to expand Centaur’s subscriber base beyond the Anglophone community?
It has to be that. Our grand old theatre is not within everybody’s sights. As the city grows more and more multilingual, we have to be attracting members of all communities, not just the Anglophone and Francophone communities.
 
You have mentioned to me that you wish you had programmed more queer plays at Centaur over the years …
I think queer theatre has moved forward in the international scene. I don’t think I have been as progressive as I should have been during my time here. I tempered things with what would work with our most loyal audience, and sometimes when you divert from that, when you are dealing with a specific cultural community with plays like The Adventures of a Black Girl in Search of God, you know that you will have significant appeal to that community but not necessarily to the wider masses.
In Vancouver, one of the biggest successes in Touchstone Theatre’s history – perhaps the biggest – was Mambo Italiano by Montreal playwright Steve Galluccio. It was a really interesting combination: queer and Italian. And it was an enormous success for the company. So it can be done. I think I should have been a bit more progressive.
Mark Crawford

«Mark Crawford’s Bed and Breakfast, [is] a gorgeous play. It made me laugh and [I] shed a few tears. (...) It is brilliantly funny.» Roy?Surette

 
But you are ending this season with the gay play Bed and Breakfast, and Michel Tremblay’s landmark 1973 play Hosanna will close Centaur’s 2017-2018 season – you are bringing back Tableau D’Hôte Theatre’s superb 2015 award-winning version of Hosanna directed by Mike Payette and starring Eloi ArchamBaudoin and Davide Chiazzese.
We were originally going to stage Hosanna (during Montreal’s 375th anniversary celebrations) but we nervous with all the free Montreal 375 stuff going on this summer. It was a big financial risk. It is such a good production that we decided the wisest thing to do was move it to the regular season when it has a much better chance of finding an audience. 
 
We are also closing this season with Bed and Breakfast, which opens on April 25. (Centaur communications director) Eloi Savoie and I drove to Gananoque to see a Sunday matinee of the play at the Thousand Islands Playhouse. It tells the story of two gay men who inherit a big old house in a small rural town where they decide to open a bed and breakfast. It’s just a gorgeous play, it made me laugh and shed a few tears. It’s not edgy like Bryden MacDonald or a Brad Fraser, but it’s not a complete soft-pedal on queer themes. It is brilliantly funny and got a standing ovation. I was completely charmed.
 
Whith bated breathWhat are you most proud of from your time at Centaur?
I’d have to say the number and quality of the new works we produced. I made a commitment to this community to premiere a lot of (new) plays, usually a couple per year, and subsequently local writers submitted so many plays. But there are only so many slots in a season. We premiered works by Bowser and Blue, Steve Galluccio, Vittorio Rossi and David Fennario. We have honoured some of the people who have made Centaur what it is.  
 
What do you think of the pool of Montreal talent?
I totally admire their commitment because there is not as much work here as there needs to be for a lot of them to make a living. I feel badly that we can’t work with them as much I’d like to, but I feel like we have opened our doors to this community on our stage. I want Centaur to feel like their home. 
 
I hope during your time in Montreal that you have enjoyed the city’s famed male-stripper bars!
I have been out a bunch of times, yes I have! Bryden and I used to joke that it was for research for With Bated Breath so he could write off all the hours he sat at Campus! (Laughs) I have a couple of dear friends who moved back to Toronto after being in Montreal and they are big patrons of the arts and strippers! I went out with them a couple times!.
 
Stripping IS an art!
Exactly! I have even been to Montreal stripper clubs to listen to writers read their novels and poetry. Now how Montreal is that? ! 
 
For more information about the Centaur Theatre’s 2017-2018 season, and to purchase tickets for Bed and Breakfast and Hosanna, visit centaurtheatre.com.  
 
Read Burnett’s national queer-issues column Three Dollar Bill online at www.bugsburnett.blogspot.com.