Eric Coates is the Artistic Director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. He also plays the character Michael in The Burden of Self Awareness. This production marks his stage debut at the GCTC. We caught up with him in advance of the production’s launch. Our interview with Arthur Milner follows.
Apt613: It’s the GCTC’s 39th anniversary season and it’s coming to an end with The Burden of Self Awareness. Why have you saved it for last?
Coates: That was partly just a scheduling necessity because of the availability of other shows. Also, from a purely practical point-of-view, I wanted to finish the season with a show that would get some attention because it’s traditionally a slow time for theatre-goers as summer is coming along so I wanted to have a big splash.
That’s what the show does as a world premier.
Apt613: You’ve mentioned online that you believe The Burden of Self Awareness is destined to become a classic. Why is that?
Coates: Well, Walker’s writing is pretty solid, typically. I think a lot of people will want to produce this show because it speaks so specifically to the economic disparity that we’re experiencing in the world right now. I’m actually very hopeful that it becomes a classic because I think it really addresses the divide that we have to tackle: the divide between rich and poor, between have and have not. I’m hoping that people flock to it and produce it in the future.
Apt613: You’re playing the character Michael who is described as a conflicted protagonist. I’m wondering, is it common for the artistic director to appear on stage as a cast member?
Coates: It depends. It just depends on who is doing the job. I grew up as an actor and I’ve spent half of my career so far as a professional actor so it’s a very comfortable fit for me. It’s something that I just don’t do very often anymore.
Apt613: You said also online that this role in particular is a way for you to connect with the GCTC audience and for them to get to know you. I’m wondering what the character Michael tells us about you?
Coates: What does he tell about me … I guess we’re the same age. We have similar conflicted views about wealth and poverty and having and not having. And he’s made a huge change in his life. And my move to Ottawa was a huge change for me. I don’t want to draw too many parallels between him and me but those are the parts of my psyche that I’m exploring to play the role. Or the vulnerable parts that I’ve learned about since changing my life and moving here to do this job.
Apt613: I found your YouTube video from a year ago [July 2013] when you were talking about taking over here as Artistic Director and getting the call from the agent from Mr. Walker. You described it as taking a call from Sidney Crosby asking to play pick-up hockey. So far, even through we’re a week from the premier, has it lived up to your expectations?
Coates: Yeah, I think the play is terrifically solid and it has been that exciting. I don’t actually know George Walker personally so I’m getting kinda giddy with the prospect of him being in the building and getting to know him a little bit better.
Interview with Arthur Milner, Director of The Burden of Self Awareness.
Apt613: Mr. Walker [the playwright] once said that the relationship between the playwright and the director can be tricky. Would you agree with that comment?
Milner: I think it can be tricky. Part of it is that we have a compressed amount of time to get to opening so everybody has different senses of where you’re going. And of course the director and the playwright have the most at stake, in a sense: the whole play. I think my job is to understand the play and make that play as good as possible on stage. I think other directors might have a more artistic or visual sense that they want to make something beautiful on stage. And I want it to be all those things but I really work from the page.
Apt613: When [George F. Walker] sees the play, is there anything different?
Milner: I think the set design might be different than he expected but I think that’s almost always the case. I don’t know and I’m kinda curious about whether that’s true or not. I had a conversation with him the other day about how tough he wanted the prostitute [the character Lianne] to be. And we had an interesting conversation about that. My sense of what comes out of the script was not as tough as I think he envisioned it. So now we’re trying to move in that direction and find something that works for the script and his vision of it.
We’ve done this before. Quite a few years ago I directed Criminals in Love and George came and sat in on rehearsals for a week. And I think it was a great collaboration. And I’m looking forward to it. I don’t think it’s a fight between us. I think it’s a fight together to get the best thing we can on stage.
Apt613: It’s before opening night but what’s been your most memorable part of directing this play so far?
Milner: We laugh a lot. We’re still more than a week from opening? No, a week [from] tonight. Good Lord, I better get to work.
But this is such a funny play. It’s got everything. It has sex, violence, and a lot of swearing. But we laugh and laugh and laugh because some of it is so funny. And then, in the middle of the sixth day, we’ll just laugh at home alone because we finally get it. And if it’s delivered in a particular way. That’s what I love about doing George’s work. It’s dark. It’s humane. But it’s very funny.
George writes about working-class characters or lower working class characters. Characters from broken homes, public housing, single families. They’re rawer than the characters you’d normally see in other plays because most writers don’t write about that but that is in fact George’s background. It’s what he knows and it’s what he lives and those are the people who interest him.