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Photo courtesy of GCTC.

GCTC Artistic Director Eric Coates says farewell to Ottawa

By Eric Coates on April 14, 2021


Editor’s Note: The following is a guest post from Eric Coates, the Artistic Director and Apartment613’s correspondent at the Great Canadian Theatre Company. Visit Eric’s Apt613.ca author profile to read his contributions to the blog. We’ll miss you, Eric! Thank you for the years of outstanding programming, from 2012–2021, and your thoughtful and generous contributions to Apt613.ca.


Between 1997 and 2012, during my commute between Stratford and the Blyth Festival, I listened to CBC radio for roughly 90 minutes per day. My favorite program, bar none, was Thomas King’s Dead Dog Café Comedy Hour, featuring Floyd Favel, Edna Rain, and King himself. Indigenous satire appeals to me for the ineffable lightness that skates across the surface while centuries of trauma lurk beneath, audible to those who choose to hear it, but unavailable to less receptive ears. A master of the genre, King supplied one of the great tag lines in the history of radio to Favel and Rain who each week would intone, “Stay calm. Be brave. Wait for the signs.” The lightness in their voices bordered on glee, pulling against the mock solemnity of the phrase, but underneath, the message still resonated—we have always been here, we are here now, and we will continue to be here.

During the last year, in this suspended state of trying to be calm and brave, I have also paid attention to the signs, external and internal. Among the cacophony of global signals—the earth is burning, fascism is back, I should have bought Zoom stocks—but one sign of personal significance has drowned out all others: it’s time for me to make this position available to someone else.

Before I go any further, I need to offer some thank-you notes. This is, of course, a treacherous exercise. The moment that one person is thanked, another will charge forward in my mind’s eye, followed by another and then another, until the entire piece is a list of names…except for the one that I’ll forget to include. I ask for your understanding, therefore, if I try to capture your contribution in a sweeping reference to one group or another.

Thanks to Nhanci Wright, Mitch Charness, Jeanne Inch and Sharon Peake, all of whom chaired the GCTC Board of Directors during various times since I arrived here in 2012. And I must include Brian Toller and Natasha Chettiar for their outstanding contributions in the Vice-Chair position. Your generosity of time, energy and spirit cannot be overstated—all of you. Thank you for supporting this organization and volunteering simply for the love of the art. Thank you to Nancy Oakley and Hugh Neilson upon whom I relied as tireless partners in the often invisible, but always essential, role of Managing Director.

In 1997, Anne Chislett, newly appointed Artistic Director of the Blyth Festival—a beloved haven for new plays in rural southern Ontario—asked me what I hoped to be doing in five years’ time. Without thinking about the audacity of it, I said, “Well, I think I’d like to have your job when you’re done with it.” Thus began an often chaotic immersion in arts administration, as I secured a grant from the now-defunct Theatre Ontario organization to work under Anne’s tutelage as the festival’s Associate A.D. Six years later, she was, in fact, done with the job and, well-known to the board and the festival audience as an eager apprentice, I was tapped for the position. Not unlike Mark Twain who, upon turning twenty-one, learned that his father had grown wiser over the last seven years, I quickly learned that I didn’t know nearly as much about running a theatre as I thought. Let’s just stop here for a moment and examine that phrase: “running a theatre”. Nobody in these positions “runs” a theatre. The theatre runs people—usually in multiple directions and often at odds with their job descriptions. For example, I did not gain a working knowledge of how and when to change the filters in a waterless urinal system by way of recreational hobby. It, like many other workplace puzzles, was introduced to me with the question, “what’s that smell?” I had no option but to investigate and, by extension, expand my skill set.

It’s not always that glamorous, however. The real learning—and I’m entirely serious, here—lies in the unexpected exchanges, during which you can choose to stay calm, be brave, and interpret the signs, or, alternatively, let agitation and defensiveness smear your windscreen with a film of doubt. I recall an instance at GCTC that I cherish as a defining moment of clarity and learning. I had approached the co-artistic directors of Propeller Dance, Renata Soutter and Shara Weaver, with a proposal to partner on GCTC’s premiere of The Boy in the Moon by Emil Sher, adapted from Ian Brown’s memoir of life with his son, Walker, who was born with cardiofaciocutaneous syndrome and lived with severe disabilities.

Propeller’s artists have informed my worldview in a way that will never leave me.

At the time, the Propeller Dance office was in a disused kindergarten room of a nearby school, where Renata and Shara listened closely to my pitch and then firmly, but compassionately, told me that they weren’t interested in stories that focused on how hard it is to be a caregiver—they were interested in stories from the perspective of the person with the disability. Sitting on one of those tiny chairs, scaled to the size of a kindergarten pupil, I recognized that this was an apt metaphor for the moment. GCTC forged ahead with the production, but the conversation stayed with me and, within a few years, Propeller Dance had taken up residence in our studio, on our stage, and in our office space. And even though I have never created a piece directly with them, Propeller’s artists have informed my worldview in a way that will never leave me.

My memories of individual moments in rehearsal and production are myriad, and I will treasure them all, particularly those that marked a leap forward for a young artist who was experiencing for the first time the thrill of working in a fully-supported professional environment. Erica Anderson nodding and absorbing an impossibly complex set of directions at the end of a long day rehearsing Gracie by Joan McLeod, then walking in the next morning to deliver the adjustments with surgical precision is a salient example. These are the moments that you live for as a director, and I was the beneficiary of more than I can share in this piece.

Ottawa meant much more to me than a place to work.

But Ottawa meant much more to me than a place to work. Ask me for my most notable achievement in nine years and I’m just as likely to cite the fact that I skied the full length of every groomed cross country trail in the Gatineau Park during my first winter here. Or that I was halfway through listening, from start to finish, to each individual vocal part of Janet Cardiff’s Forty Part Motet at the National Gallery before the pandemic sent me home. And the most humbling and moving moment of all, paddling slowly down the canal as part of the canoe procession before watching Lori Marchand and Kevin Loring launch the NAC Indigenous Theatre.

All of these moments combine with thousands of other memories to keep this time and space intact for me and I thank all of you who provided friendship, encouragement, and the occasional provocation as gestures of your commitment to theatre. Thank you to every artist, every technician, every stage manager, every staff member, every board member, every neighbor, every volunteer, every sponsor, every donor, every person who ever bought a theatre ticket, and, most of all, everyone who took the time during the last nine years to let me know that the work had reached them.

An assortment of projects and dreams lie ahead for me. My foremost plan is to increase time spent with my extended family on the west coast where I plan to build my language skills and help keep my ancestors’ dialect of Straits Salish alive. I am starting a contract to work with playwright, and my childhood friend, Hiro Kanagawa, on a play about the unlikely intersection of shipwrecked Japanese fishermen and Indigenous people of the Northwest in the 19th century. I will spend every available minute on skis when it’s practical, and it will be a rare day that I spend more time indoors than out. I’m going to write a letter to Thomas King and let him know that I borrowed something from him and I hope he doesn’t mind.

And, the minute that GCTC welcomes people back inside, and everyone’s abuzz with excitement to be back and to meet the new artistic director, I will be there to celebrate and to say thank you one more time. In person.

Sincerely,

Eric Coates
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