Theatre

All of the culture that money can buy

Adele Freedman October 16 1978
Theatre

All of the culture that money can buy

Adele Freedman October 16 1978

All of the culture that money can buy

Theatre

Item: One night last May, director John Wood headed for the wings of the National Arts Centre theatre to catch a few bars of his musical, William Schwenk and Arthur Who? “John who?” demanded an officious usher, promptly barring his way. But Wood had no reason to believe that he would be recognized, even after a year at the centre: hadn’t a security guard already

refused to allow him into one of his own rehearsals?

Item: Ted Demetre, the shy dance and variety administrator, books acts from around the world by telephone only. The reason? Fear of flying. The consequence? An annual round of safe musicals, dismal duds, and Engelbert Humperdinck.

Item: The theatre department boasts three directors: one each for English and French theatre, plus Jean Gascon, director of theatre. The triumvirate were told to work out their relationship by and for themselves. They still haven’t: “I don’t know whether I am a promoter, producer or artistic director,” admits Gascon.

The list of absurdities that plagues the NAC continues depressingly, indicating that, after nine years, it has failed to fulfil the promise of its unique $46million physical plant. Defining that promise is another matter. The terms of

the NAC mandate are hopelessly vague: “To operate and maintain the centre, to develop the performing arts in the National Capital Region and to assist the Canada Council in the development of the performing arts elsewhere in Canada.” The NAC does the following: it produces theatre and opera (and has even tried ballet), tours performing companies across Canada, showcases visiting

productions, rents out its facilities, caters and parks cars—all in the two official languages.

The NAC has always seemed a jealous god demanding artistic directors as live sacrifices. It has proven insensitive to the political and economic temper of the times: its annual operating budget is $15 million—and over half that comes in the form of a direct grant from the

secretary of state, making this Crown corporation particularly vulnerable to political pressure. The latest and largest example: Secretary of State John Roberts’ announcement that the NAC would receive an extra $1.1 millionswelling the annual federal subsidy to $10.3 million—expressly to develop a resident bilingual theatre company which would tour the country this winter under the banner of national unity. Donald MacSween, director-general of the NAC since April, 1977, explains: “If there was any message after the November election (in Quebec in 1976), it was that culture has political effects. Look at Pauline Julien.”

More to the point, look at Donald MacSween. A labor lawyer by profession, his prime theatrical credentials are 15 months of touring in the McGill University production of My Fur Lady in the late ’50s and four years (1973-77) as head of the National Theatre School in Montreal. The fact that these do not constitute an impressive curriculum vitae in the eyes of the theatre community at large might explain MacSween’s extreme defensiveness in public, and his painful sensitivity to criticism. But MacSween, 43, has never claimed to be anything other than an amateur—to the embarrassment of the professionals who work for him. His candor in referring to some NAC productions as “turkeys” on national television was not calculated to build esprit in the NAC ranks; neither was the welcome he extended last spring to the crowd assembled near the Rideau Canal to see a promotional event as he nervously assured everybody that the promotional gimmick hadn’t cost the NAC a penny.

MacSween’s greatest blunder was accepting Roberts’ extra million, strings and all, at a time when over 130 professional theatres in Canada are desperate for funding. Stratford’s Robin Phillips bluntly labelled the grant “presumptuous lunacy.” Even John Wood op-

posed the touring mandate, arguing for more time to assemble the company and consolidate its local audience. To no avail. Before long, the million-dollar feather in MacSween’s cap had turned into a bomb.

Organic growth has never counted for much with NAC brass, even the farsighted man who served as directorgeneral for nine years, G. Hamilton Southam. The worldly and impeccable scion of one of Ottawa’s most prominent families, Southam envisioned a La Scala on the banks of the Rideau complete with private opera boxes where elegant suppers could be served during intermission. With an eye to international prestige, he encouraged the NAC Orchestra and the opera festival while allowing Jean Roberts’ theatre plans (she was artistic director of theatre from 1971 to 1977) to languish. Film he didn’t consider an art. Southam prided himself on running the NAC with panache and protocol but the institution paid the price. “In many ways,” comments Hugh Davidson, formerly with the department of music, “Hamilton Southam did the NAC a disservice. He ran the place like an embassy. We were all batmen and he was our commander.”

Under Southam’s regime, the NAC began to swell with bureaucrats. The need to keep records in the governmental way means that a flotilla of accountants are kept busy adjusting the performing year (which ends in June) to the government fiscal year. Bruce Corder, deputy director-general, sums up: “We built up a surplus in the early days during our growth period which lulled us into a sense of security. We went ahead to expand the opera festival too fast and overreached ourselves in 1973 [when a ballet company was assembled just for the festival, with disastrous results]. Suddenly we were on a slippery slope— and one of the answers was to juice up the administration. It became very turgid and heavy.”

Not to mention cheerless and paranoid. The NAC’s four departments—the-

atre, music, dance and variety, the opera festival (known as Festival Ottawa)—are like four duchies whose borders are zealously guarded. “There’s no competition outside the centre,” says director of French theatre Jean Herbiet, “it’s all inside.” Every artistic director must fight for his share of the budget against his opponents down the hall. Muttering in dark corners is common practice; sharing ideas is not. Complains Gascon: “People don’t want to leave their doors open because they’re afraid the shit will flow in.”

The fact that artistic directors are surrounded by secretaries, administrators and translators with varying degrees of interest in the arts only frustrates them more. Inevitably, programming suffers. When the music department was offered the superb pianist Lazar Berman, who is allowed out of Russia every decade or so, former administrator Ken Murphy refused because he couldn’t contact Bernardi.

Despite everything, however, the NAC has fostered some excellence, Mario Bernardi’s 46-piece orchestra being the obvious example. The festival’s opera productions are often of international calibre and attendance is high. Yet even here there is evidence of terrible waste, a sign that Bernardi’s double role—conductor of the orchestra and festival artistic director—might be too much of a load to carry. Last summer’s $500,000 production of The Magic Flute, for example, received only three performances; this year’s A Midsummer Night ’s Dream, only three as well. Neither has been sold elsewhere (though the Flute sets were rented out to two opera companies. The festival doesn’t run in repertory, making it inconvenient for visitors. Instead of developing the festival to peak potential, the NAC is rushing its fledgling English theatre company to the Bay of Quinte, or Little Heart’s Ease, or ...

The NAC’s worst problem is that it serves many masters: the secretary of state, external affairs, the box-office, critics, constituents of all shades of belief. Something is clearly needed to prevent the muddle from demoralizing the people the NAC should in fact be serving—the artists. “A beating heart,” is Gascon’s suggestion. To which may be added: a thinking head. The NAC should forsake touring for the sake of touring and try art for art’s sake, with the option to tour productions as they merit touring and as funds become available. Meanwhile they might continue to showcase the best productions from across Canada. One thing is for sure: If the NAC doesn’t get some fresh air, it won’t be long before Ottawa has a new tourist attraction—a seven-acre monument to the futility of force-fed art.

Adele Freedman