My recent Zoom call with Montreal’s Artistic/Executive Director of the Segal Centre, Lisa Rubin, led me to discover that she has had an interesting mix of training. Lisa’s major was in Drama at Montreal’s McGill University, but it was more academic based and not a conservatory program. During her McGill years, she spent three consecutive years at the Charlottetown Festival. For Lisa, that was training for her and what an opportunity to be trained with this prestigious company.
Lisa has had years of dance training and singing and voice lessons. She grew up in theatre programs of acting, singing and dancing.
Lisa has been the Artistic and Executive Director of Montreal’s Segal Centre since 2014. A bit of my own online research revealed she has had an important part in the development of new musicals including ‘Prom Queen’ in 2016.
In the online blog ‘The Montrealer’ in 2019, Peter Kerr had written that “Lisa is understandably proud of the reputation that the Segal has garnered…while honouring the history of the Centre, their audiences and donors.” I couldn’t agree with him more as she is an articulate, passionate and very calm lady who clearly is ready to take the reins and move the Segal forward once we are all given the clearance to return to the theatre.
Thank you, Lisa, for taking the time from your schedule for our conversation:
It has been an exceptionally long eight months since the pandemic began, and now the numbers are edging upward again in Ontario and Quebec. How are you feeling about this? Will we ever emerge to some new way of living?
Yes, I do, I do think that when there’s a vaccine the clouds will part. I do believe that. Unfortunately, it’s the only time the clouds will part. Over the last eight months, people’s hopes and expectations have been giving us all whiplash. There’s an acknowledgement at this point that a true return to normalcy, the crowds, and our ability to connect with family, friends and the community will be post vaccine. It will take time.
I’m sure there will be remnants of everything we’re doing now in terms of health and safety and protocols will stay with us for quite some time.
How have you been faring? How has your immediate family been doing during these last eight months?
For me, personally, it’s been very good. And I think that’s one of the struggles that have is balancing the acceptance and enjoying the change in my life that this has brought on while my other love and work love and work life and the industry is suffering. Personally, it has been five, almost six years in my job that has completely devoted to it in terms of travel, in terms of weekends, in terms of evenings, in terms of long, long hours. I have been grateful for every minute of it and I love it so much. It’s such a privilege to do what I do.
It’s also taken me away from my family. It’s taken me away from finding the time to invest in myself. I’m not Oprah and not getting up at 5 am to exercise. I’ve exercised pretty early, but 5 am is just a tad too early for me.
Reconnecting and just being home with my kids and cooking again and exercising daily is something I didn’t realize how much I loved. As a dancer, it’s made me want to sing again and dance again. I have incredible healthy kids at a good age, they’re 12 and 13. They have their independence, and they need it as they’re beginning their teenage journey. They also still like to hang out with us at night a little bit too, and cuddle. We spend a lot of time together.
I remember very clearly what it was like to have little kids and I think this pandemic would have been very different for me and my family if my kids were younger. To me, parents and little kids are heroes right now, and the teachers, the doctors, the nurses. I’ve seen a lot of silver linings for myself. It hasn’t changed how hard I work or how many hours I sit in front of the screen. It’s just a different way of doing it because I’m home. I want to get back to seeing shows, to directing, to travelling, to being in the room and all that, but I don’t want to forget what this gift of time at home has meant.
As an artist within the Montreal performing arts community, what has been the most difficult and challenging for you professionally and personally?
I am seeing that show business is hard enough. To see people from back stage to technicians to the painters, the designer to the actors, to not have access to any work right now and leaving the business and going through mental health issues and financial crises, that’s where the guilt and trying to do the best that I can with the power that I have. I have a lot of power in my position and I have a job.
There’s are things we’ve been talking about at the Segal Centre right now. What can we give back right now? And how do we continue to support our audiences and how do we continue to raise money? But how do we really look at what we have and how lucky we are to have what we have and give back to the community.
At the Segal Centre, we’re giving away free space. We’re hiring and engaging with independent companies than we ever have before so we can put money in their hands and funnel it through. Although we don’t want to be doing online theatre, we’re doing online programming so we can just hire people. We can put money into companies and artists, and all of the things we want our audiences to enjoy and to help find some joy during this time.
Another difficult and challenging thing we want to overcome is not getting done on what we had before. Let’s focus on what we have right now and remembering that everyone is dealing with this so we can get back to do what we love and want to do. Prior to the pandemic, the Segal Centre was on an incredible trajectory. Our new musicals keep getting better and stronger. There is so much potential and collaboration out there.
To work now under this condition that we don’t have a season and only do some things, that’s okay. Even though I love musicals, we can’t do those right now and that’s okay. Instead let’s just focus on what we can do. I found it helpful to focus on the immediate future – such as looking at three months ahead – with the budgets we have and be motivated by what we have right now and the gratitude that comes with that.
I know and feel very lucky so when I see others suffering, I want to help. I just can’t help everybody. I don’t think everyone is expecting me to, but artists look to the institute and organization for support as well.
Were you in preparation, rehearsals, or any planning stages of productions before everything was shut down? What has become of those projects? Will they see the light of day anytime soon?
Yes, it was ‘Oslo’ which is a Tony award winning play with a cast of 15. We were a week and few days away from first rehearsals starting. The entire set was built. Actors had memorized their lines. ‘Oslo’ was a really hard one to cancel as it’s a phenomenal show. I’m absolutely going to do it again. But it’s one of those shows that may have to wait until we get back on our feet because it is so big.
We also cancelled a world premiere play, a world premiere comedy called ‘Siberian Summer’. This one I’m determined especially since it is a world premiere and the playwright can re-invent the piece so that it makes sense in a post-Covid world or an on-going Covid world that the story holds true and the relationships that we build the characters on all hold true.
Now what happens if they have to wear masks? What happens if they have to stay 6 feet apart? How does that affect their life in this context? There are some exciting things coming up for ‘Siberian Summer’.
We also cancelled the Yiddish Theatre. That was hard too because that’s community theatre. So community theatres around the city all had to cancel and that’s hard too. We also had to cancel our musical fundraiser for which we were rehearsing for 3-4 months. That was hard as we were ready to move into the theatre in March for Tech week.
Some other things may never happen that we were working on or they might.
Art is always changing. Art has to change so the shows we do will reflect the time and the artists we want to work with. We’ll see what makes sense for us to keep doing or what doesn’t.
What have you been doing to keep yourself busy during this time?
I have to tell you that I work a lot of hours. (Lisa laughs as she shares this) I still work a lot of hours. Outside of the work hours, I exercise, I go to COSTCO. I take care of my kids. I run errands.
I’m also part of a volunteer group from The Federation. I’ve done quite a bit of deliveries. Volunteering is also something I personally enjoy because it makes me feel like I’m contributing. I’ve taken my kids with me when I volunteer, and we really enjoy bringing food and bringing gift bags to seniors’ residences.
Reading a lot. I think about how I did everything before when I travelled so much. I think a busy person can do everything, and yet I’m also making more time for disconnecting because the connections are so intense during the week that Sunday I’m going for walks or bike rides or just lying on the couch and watching Netflix like everybody else. This is a change from my life before and I’m enjoying it.
I’m never bored. I miss my friends, socializing, I miss my family. I haven’t seen my dad in a year.
Any words of wisdom or advice you might /could give to fellow performers and colleagues? What message would you deliver to recent theatre school graduates who have now been set free into this unknown and uncertainty given the fact live theaters and studios might be closed for 1 ½ - 2 years?
There are two messages. One is perhaps a tough love message and that is our industry will have shrunk a little bit. There will be less opportunities for a bit than there were before. There will be smaller productions maybe than there were before. In order to excel in this field, you have to train, you need your technique. You need to keep singing. You need to keep dancing. You need to do all these things.
I understand there may be this need of “I don’t want to” and permission to allow yourself to not also. But when the time comes, artists, you need to keep yourself and your SELF healthy. So, the training, the work, you can’t stop investing in yourself as an artist.
I believe it will come back. Theatre is one of the things that if you like it as an audience member OR if you’re in it as an artist, you can’t live without it. It doesn’t matter. Nothing is going to change that. It’s going to come back, so will Broadway. Theatres will open again. It’s not going away.
Hang in there. I know it’s hard, but you have to invest in yourself as an artist because if you want to work that’s what it’s going to take. As a result of what’s happened with Black Lives Matter and the major racial revolution and changes happening, the Segal Centre and others will be investing even more in mentorship opportunities and apprenticeships and training, and ensuring that we make that marginalized communities or voices that don’t belong in white American theatre WILL BELONG and will have opportunities for artists. That’s ongoing investments in artists.
Do you see anything positive stemming from Covid 19?
Oh, yeah. Access and having online programming, even if it’s not theatre, even if it’s our ‘talk show’ format presentations or educational opportunities gives people access to those who cannot attend the theatre. I feel as if I’ve become closer with my Board. I’ve become closer with leaders in the Montreal community. I’ve become closer with members of the French community. I’ve become closer with arts workers in the US because I do weekly Town Halls.
It’s actually strange in how well you start getting to know people because you spend so much time online with them. There have been so many wonderful connections made as a result of not being able to travel to establish connections. This is going to make us appreciate the in person work even more.
I also think many of us have been hustling, and I just hustle in a different way because it’s my job. The hustle of the working independent artist, whether he/she is or they are trying to work, investing in themselves and auditioning OR the working artist who goes from contract to contract to contract, they have not stopped. You can’t stop this.
This forced stopping from the pandemic in the beginning, I think, was a wake up call for so many. If you talk to many artists who were non stop in the beginning, these artists realize they were forced to concentrate on other things like baking, reading, relaxing where they don’t have to study the script, learn lines or audition. I know it’s too long of a break, but I think artists deserved that break, actually, big time. These artists deserved not to hustle for a little bit.
Now, we’re eight months later, so artists you are going to have to put the work back in for sure.
Do you think Covid 19 will have some lasting impact on the Montreal/Canadian/North American performing arts scene?
I think it’s going to be the same around the world. It’s going to take a lot for the vulnerable, regardless of age, who have been afraid these last eight months to find their way back and to have trust. There’s a whole group who would attend tomorrow if they know they could.
There’s an inevitable loss from Covid as well. We may not be able to be at full capacity for some time so I think by the time we’re at full capacity happen again truly, it will have been this gradual 100 more, then another 100 more, so it will be a slow re-instatement of people to have that trust. We’re going to have to see it reflected in the numbers.
We’re in for a slow re-awakening in the theatre industry but it will happen. I think this is the same for everywhere around the world and not just in Canada. It is what it is. I have hope but we will have to look at the audiences who will come to the theatre and program accordingly and just think differently. Everyone recognizes that old models may change and may shift. I’d like to be one of the innovators. We’re all a little burnt out just dealing with the whiplash, the HR, the granting, the cancelling. If it’s not me, someone else will and I’ll be grateful to them. We’ll help each other.
Some artists have turned to You Tube and online streaming to showcase their work. What are your comments and thoughts about streaming? Is this something that the actor/theatre may have to utilize going forward into the unknown?
I think it’s so wonderful that artists who have done their own thing on streaming. I’ve seen some awesome work. Good for them.
If actors are going to be hired and used for online streaming for our audiences, then yes, they should be compensated appropriately.
Despite all this fraught tension and confusion, what is it about the art of performance that Covid will never destroy for you?
Covid will never destroy the energy I feel even connecting during an online dance class. It doesn’t change. Being in person makes it better but it doesn’t change. It’s like an addiction. Once you’ve tasted it, you just know. Your love of food, your love of music that does not go away.
Again, Covid will never destroy that energy.
To learn more about Montreal’s Segal Centre, visit www.segalcentre.org.