Shifting Institutions, Shifting Audiences
Brendan Healy and May Antaki in Conversation
May Antaki: Over the last couple of years there has been a big shift in leadership in the Canadian theatre scene: Ashlie Corcoran at the Arts Club in Vancouver, Eda Holmes taking over the Centaur in Montreal… What do you think about these changes?
Brendan Healy: There was a window within which all of these theatres were created—starting in the late 1960s—and I think now there’s a shift in generation. It’s exciting. Hopefully it’s a broader shift around how companies are run, not just who’s running the companies.
May: What do you see that looking like?
Brendan: In a way we can’t talk about the shifts in leadership without also addressing the shifts that are happening in culture and the shifts that are happening in audiences. One of the big ones is the expectations people have from their cultural institutions, whether it’s representation and the stories they’re seeing on the stage, or their ability to participate actively, have a real, personalized relationship with the institution, be active creators inside the experience of culture. We’re going to have to figure out ways to keep up with how the audiences want to intersect with us.
May: I wasn’t working in theatre when Matthew Jocelyn came in as artistic director of Canadian Stage in 2009, but my understanding is that he shifted pretty drastically what the company is, what the programming is and all of that. Is that kind of shift, something big like that, what you want to do? Or are you looking more to build off of the existing direction?
Brendan: It’s more of the latter. Matthew did a huge pivot around the aesthetic of the company and moved it into a more contemporary, multidisciplinary, international, curiosity-focused space. And that certainly is in line with my interests from a programming perspective.
I think sometimes when there’s a shift in leadership that pivot occurs. But I love the mandate of Canadian Stage, I think it’s really important, and I’m here to champion it, but also bring it to a different place according to what I feel is important to this city.
May: And what is that?
Brendan: I think the programming at Canadian Stage has to speak to the fundamental questions that exist inside of Toronto right now, and some of those questions have to do with identity, with what it is to sit inside the multiplicity and intersections of identities, which the vast majority of Torontonians sit within. What does that mean from an experiential level, from a social level, from a political level. It’s a massive question. And then, from there, what is the common identity that emerges, the shared identity, the shared values… Maybe it’s not even identity, it’s the shared values that are emerging in this city at this moment.
May: These changes are happening across Canada—do you think each city is different in the way they’re responding? And what about how the new ADs in different theatres across the country are?
Brendan: I would say two things are happening: in Canada, structurally, we all sort of operate in a similar manner—because of funding, because of Canada Council, because of history. We have these models that have been replicated from city to city. However, the various communities are so distinct and localized. That’s one of the weird things about the situation we find ourselves in right now: very standardized business models—functioning models—inside widely diverse communities.
May: Are you in conversation with any of the other new leaders who are taking the reins?
Brendan: Informally. But we talk, we share information. How you doing, pat on the back, it’s going to be okay. I’ve yet to have conversations where we go deep, deep, deep into, like, What are you really trying to shift, what do you think the major challenges are, what are some of the innovative practices you’re putting into place to try and affect some change.
May: Are you interested in that?
Brendan: Absolutely. It’s really important as we move forward. We’re going to have to share as much as we can with each other. I think our generation is into that. We’re much more comfortable with that openness and transparency. But what’s tricky, especially when you land in a role—it feels like I stepped into a pool and I had thought, I’m just going to step into the shallow end, and I went right down to the deep end, right away.
You find yourself completely immersed in day-to-day things, and you kind of lose that ability to look over the horizon and keep an eye on the strategy, the bigger picture. And that’s where you lose touch with your colleagues, because you’re so busy with your day-to-day stuff you’re not taking a moment to just reach out and connect.
May: Are you working with Matthew in a transition?
Brendan: No, Matthew left in May. We’re in touch, we’re friendly, but he’s no longer at the company.
May: I was wondering because I read David’s opening essay for the series where he talks a bit about different strategies people have—leaving fully, building a contract—so I was just curious if there was any of that there.
Brendan: Yeah it’s interesting. In that piece, I believe the gentleman was the founding AD and had been there and had retired out of the role, so in that context absolutely. When I was running Buddies (2009–15) [the world’s largest and longest-running queer theatre, based in Toronto], I had much more of a regular relationship with Sky Gilbert, who was the founder of that company, than I did with the ADs who were between me and Sky.
I like David’s idea around the impulse behind a company, that throughline. Stepping into a role, I feel the work is getting back to that impulse. Your predecessor had a mandate and an expression of that mandate, which is important for you to have a relationship with, but you need to not just stop there. I think you need to go back to the source and then understand, for yourself, what it means to you. And then you’re able to think, That’s how that individual related to that source. But I do believe, as David puts it, every company has a throughline, and really that’s actually what you’re trying to connect with.
An arts organization that doesn’t have artists who love it has no future, whereas an arts institution that doesn’t have an audience but has artists who care about it… You can find that audience.
May: I’m curious about what you learned from past transitions. You were at Buddies for seven years before passing the torch to Evalyn Parry.
Brendan: When I got the job at Buddies, an AD told me about how, when they had gotten their job, the person they took the job from said to them, Don’t call me now but call me when you’re leaving because that’s when I think I’ll be able to help you. I thought that was interesting, and then when I left Buddies, I understood it. There was a pain that I felt. I mean I left out of my own volition, I left because I was ready; I felt like seven years was a good chunk of time, it was time for a new voice, for a new perspective. It was a super peaceful transition. But it still felt painful—deeply, deeply painful.
I’ve known Evalyn for a very long time, and we have a lot of history, so that maybe defined how that transition went. I wasn’t part of the search process but I was so happy that Evalyn got the job—we’d worked together at Buddies, I’d known her from university, I felt so happy. It was easy for me to hand it off. If it was someone I was not as happy about, I might have behaved differently. But I knew that my role was to really step the hell away from that company because Evalyn needed to make it her own, she needed to take full ownership, and I didn’t want her to worry about my feelings.
May: So you’ve been in the position of leaving somewhere you’d been for a long time, and now you’re coming into somewhere where someone’s who’s been here for a long time is leaving. That’s an interesting experience to have under your belt, knowing what that could be like.
Brendan: Yes. How to have empathy and respect—real respect—for people who’ve left. Everyone in this building has poured their life into it. And it’s really easy to come into a role all, Bang bang bang! It’s a new day, I’m going to make it better! I’m going to change everything! And that’s a bit of an ego thing, really. I think this time around, especially after the experience of leaving Buddies, I feel very humbled. I feel humbled by the work that’s been done here and I feel honored to continue the conversation and to influence the conversation.
My understanding of what my role is as an AD has also shifted a little bit. I am responsible for articulating a vision, for sure, but I think as a younger guy I was probably like, I have a vision, and my vision is supreme, and that vision needs to be the guiding light. And now I see myself more as a social architect. I’m a convener, I’m creating containers for things to happen within, and maybe what happens within them is not what I expected it to be, maybe I’m just curating encounters that will have lives of their own. Maybe my goal is to actually, hopefully, have it look like something that I could have never imagined.
May: The Toronto theatre community is very particular, but everybody on my Facebook was so excited when you were appointed. There had been a lot of conversation before someone was chosen—as with all of these new positions that have opened up—like who is going to fill them, is it going to be a Canadian, is it not, all the things. And I wonder if you have a feeling of allegiance, maybe, to the community that cares so much about the goings-on versus, or next to, audiences?
Brendan: That’s a really good question. I think I feel an allegiance to both. I think that any arts institution needs to have artists who love it or else it has no soul. I really believe that. I want artists to walk into this building and feel loved, feel welcomed, feel like they are free, feel like they are protected. That is super important to me. I have such a deep passion for artists, I have such a deep respect for the work that they do, I believe they are the courageous ones out there who are showing us the way through all the shit. So I would say probably, first and foremost, if artists don’t feel safe, if they don’t feel good here, stop everything, we need to look at that.
That being said, we are the space where audience meets art, and so I have to love that—I have to have as much love for the audience as well, and make sure they feel safe, they feel contextualized, they feel like they’re having an experience that is meaningful and rich.
I really feel like I need to serve both. But I will say that an arts organization that doesn’t have artists who love it has no future, whereas an arts institution that doesn’t have an audience but has artists who care about it… You can find that audience.
May: Who is the audience for Canadian Stage?
Brendan: I know the audience here from being one of them, but I haven’t been here in this position long enough to really know. We’re just finishing up Shakespeare in High Park, and that’s a really awesome, multi-generational audience. When you go see a show at the Bluma, you don’t necessarily see those people—it really depends. We do modern dance, so the contemporary dance brings a very specific group of people. Then we have our theatre audience that loves really good stories. So I think there are many different audiences here. And that’s okay.
What I’m really interested in is how to cultivate curiosity inside the audience. So our really die-hard dance people, how do we get them a little bit excited about narrative theatre…
Brendan: That’s precisely it. I think we’re starting to see that happening. And for me, that’s when things are really happening. One of my favorite things about Buddies was how radically different communities would use that space. I remember this one very specific moment where the Penelopiad was playing. It was a Saturday night. That was a great show but it attracted a very specific Margaret Atwood crowd. And it was the end of the show, like 10:30 p.m., and it was one of our club nights. The doors open and all these sort of, like, gentile theatregoers poured out of the theatre just as drag queens were running up the stairs to get into the club. And there was such an amazing moment of juxtaposition, like, Oh excuse me, sorry. That’s when things are really, really rich, when you’re able to be a catalyst for different groups to come together.
I need to try to put my ego aside, try not to get too wrapped up in Brendan’s here, we’re going to do great things! I want to listen and hear.
May: So I imagine as a leader of a big institution that’s part of what you want to create.
Brendan: That’s a big part of it, exactly. I’m really into that.
May: Back to transitions you’ve been through… I have a question specifically about Magnetic North. Because you got that position in the fall of 2016, and then they announced they were shutting down in the spring. I’m wondering about transparency, in terms of the transition of leadership in that case. Did you know about the finances going into it?
Brendan: Yeah. For me, with Magnetic North, there was nothing that wasn’t transparent. We just couldn’t fix it. The board felt like we couldn’t fix it. We tried, and I think the hope was that with a new leader there would be an ability to figure it out. But certainly taking on the job, they were like, This is a troubled organization. I don’t think the troubles can be attributed to one specific person or problem; it was an organization that had struggled for many, many years. I didn’t feel like I was duped or anything. I wanted to try to fix it, and sometimes it’s just not possible.
May: Do you have learnings from that that you’re bringing to this position, especially with Canadian Stage being in deficit?
Brendan: I learned so much from that experience. It was painful because I really cared about Magnetic North and I really, really wanted it to work. And it just couldn’t. So the experience of really boring stuff, like the level of forensics, strategic conversations, redesigning… It was a very rigorous process that we went through, it wasn’t an easy decision, and the board came to its conclusion after deep, deep dives. I learned a lot from that kind of rigor. I carry that with me.
It’s true that we have a deficit at Canadian Stage, but there are so many other factors that come into play. I don’t think Canadian Stage is at all at risk.
I don’t know if you’ve ever experienced a profound death in your family—it’s difficult, but you come out of it transformed in a whole bunch of ways, like your DNA has shifted somehow. You’re more empathetic, you’re more understanding, you’ve gone through the worst. And I really felt like with Magnetic North I went through the worst possible outcome. It was very difficult, very painful, but I got through to the other side, and I feel as a leader I’m stronger because of it.
May: I want to talk about another transition of yours, working as artistic director of performing arts for the City of Brampton—
Brendan: I love talking about Brampton.
May: I’m so curious, because it’s in the Greater Toronto Area but also outside of downtown Toronto. I imagine audiences are quite different than a main audience at Canadian Stage.
Brendan: It was such a cool experience. It changed me in a bunch of ways. I was a city worker. And so the degree of accountability that I had to individuals was very different than the kind of accountability that is maybe expected in my current role.
When you’re a city employee, you’re funded by taxpayers. You are mandated to deliver services to the widest range of people. You’re not a specialized institution. At Buddies, I had a high degree of community accountability, but it was one specific community—well, the queer community is a very, very diverse community, but still there was a kind of container there. Brampton is this huge city of 700,000 people, super diverse; people of color are over eighty percent of the population there.
Being held accountable to such a huge range of individuals really forces you to take your head out of your ass. I had to really open my ears and have a kind of availability to people I’ve never had to have before. And that was awesome. It really challenged me, helped me to develop an even greater curiosity in other people, to really understand that I was there to serve, I as there to use culture to serve a population. That was transformative.
May: And that kind of listening seems easy to know that you have to do it, versus actually having to do it. And now you’re able to bring that here, to Canadian Stage.
Brendan: That’s right. And not be threatened by that. Because it’s scary, right? It’s super scary because, as all artists or artistic directors, it’s your soul, and you can feel very protective of it.
I really believe that running an arts organization, you have to be comfortable with paradox. Because, I agree: our duty to listen is huge. On the other hand, I was at a conference just a few months ago and a leader got up and said, “Don’t give your audience what they want, they deserve better than that.”
I was like, Oh, that’s also true. Because people want to be surprised, they want to be challenged, they want to be pushed. Our responsibility is also to do that. And that’s a real paradox. I think, if you want to step into a leadership role in arts, you really have to be comfortable in that paradox.
May: What’s it been like to come into such a big organization, with a big team?
Brendan: I’ve been trying to listen for as long as I can. I’ve met with every staff member, I let them tell me what it is they do, what their priorities are. What I try to do—it takes discipline—is to not try to fix too quickly or change too quickly.
There are a lot of people here, there’s a lot happening. And what I’ve learned is that sometimes things initially seem weird to me, and it’s really easy to go, Well we’ve gotta change that because that’s just weird. But actually there’s a real reason things are happening that way, and if you just give yourself a little more time you’ll start to understand the reasons why things are organized in a certain way.
Leadership is funny, because people want you to deliver. People are like, Alright, you’re here, now you gotta deliver. Do it. What’s your vision, what’s your priority, what are you doing? I feel that way as a director as well. When I direct a show, I try to just hear the play first—I just want to hear it. And once I feel like the play is in the room, that I’m hearing it, then I can start to work with it. It’s the same thing with an organization. But I need to try to put my ego aside, try not to get too wrapped up in Brendan’s here, we’re going to do great things! I want to listen and hear.
May: I imagine that patience can be hard. Especially when everyone’s excited.
Brendan: They want everything to happen, yeah. And I think it can be frustrating for staff because they’re like, We’ve been waiting for you, what’s the big idea, Brendan? And it’s, like: it’s going to come. It’s there. It just takes time to listen.