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Mike Payette

Theatre Conversation in a Covid World

Sabrina Reeves

Joe Szekeres

Toronto’s Tarragon Theatre welcomes its newest Artistic Director, Mike Payette.

And what an impressive resume he holds.

Mike is an award-winning actor, director and educator. Born and raised in the borough of Nôtre[1]Dame-de-Grace (aka NDG) in Montreal, Quebec, he was introduced to the arts from a young age and quickly dove in. He remarks this introduction as a significant moment that helped him see how theatre truly lifts and inspires potential. While completing his BFA in Specialization in Theatre and Development from Concordia University, he was the co-founding Artistic Director of award-winning Tableau D’Hôte Theatre (now celebrating 15 years). Later, he became a founding member of Metachroma Theatre, served as Artist[1]in-Residence for Neworld Theatre in Vancouver, and was Assistant Artistic Director for Black Theatre Workshop where he helped lead the creation of one of the country’s most acclaimed mentorship programs for BIPOC emerging artists.

He has served on the boards of the MAI (Montréal, arts interculturels) and the Quebec Drama Federation, and currently sits on the board of Maison Théâtre as well as serving as Vice President of PACT (Professional Association of Canadian Theatres).

For six seasons, Mike has been the Artistic and Executive Director of Geordie Theatre, Quebec’s largest English-language Theatre for Young Audiences company. As an actor, he has worked in some of Canada’s finest theatres including The Citadel, MTYP, The Grand, Factory Theatre, Neptune, and the National Arts Centre, as well as with great local companies Geordie, Black Theatre Workshop, Imago, Scapegoat Carnivale, Repercussion Theatre, Centaur Theatre and Segal Centre among others.

Directing credits include the Montreal premieres of ‘A Line in the Sand’ by Guillermo Verdecchia and Marcus Youssef, ‘Elizabeth Rex’ by Timothy Findley, ‘Another Home Invasion’ by Joan MacLeod, and the Montreal English-language premiere of Michel Tremblay’s ‘Hosanna’ (Centaur/Tableau D’Hôte Theatre). Other credits include the Quebec premiere of ‘Harlem Duet’ by Djanet Sears (Black Theatre Workshop), ‘Around the World in 80 Days’ (Geordie), the Canadian premiere of ‘Choir Boy’ by Tarell Alvin McCraney (Centaur), and the national tours of ‘Angelique’ by Lorena Gale (National Arts Centre/Factory Theatre/Black Theatre Workshop/Tableau D’Hôte Theatre) and the ‘Tashme Project: The Living Archives’ by Julie Tamiko Manning and Matt Miwa (Tashme Prods/Factory Theatre/Firehall/Prismatic).

Mike also directed the French-language premiere of Lorraine Hansberry’s ‘Héritage’ (A Raisin in the Sun) with Théâtre Jean-Duceppe; marking a large Quebec institution’s first time producing a Black playwright helmed by a Black director and featuring a predominantly Black cast.

Mike has commissioned and developed many works by some of the country’s most vibrant emerging and established voices with Geordie and elsewhere, and he continues to be inspired by the evolving ways storytelling can take form; inviting new audiences and artists to be engaged in the many facets of theatre creation and practice. He is a two-time META (Montreal English Theatre Award) recipient and has been a guest artist and speaker for McGill University, Brock University, University of Calgary, as well as the National Theatre School of Canada, among others.

I find the following words by Mike extremely important given what we have witnessed during this pandemic:

“The work that I am attracted to leans into stories that dig deep into the complexities of the human condition. Embracing the visceral, challenging assumption, and empowering the silenced. Discovering stories that seemingly encompass one individual, or individual community, and emboldening the ways that story, through the shared experience of theatre, champions empathy and understanding of one another. I seek voices and stories that open doors for audiences and communities that have never felt welcome to the theatre and to share a space with those that have enjoyed its impact for years. I am motivated by the urgency of our current world; highlighting the value of theatre as a means for discourse between each other.”

We conducted our conversation via Zoom. Mike, I look forward to speaking with you in person very soon:

Well, Mike, we are one year where the doors of live theatre have been shut. How have you been faring during this time? Your immediate family?

Not unlike so many of our colleagues in the rest of the sector, never mind the sector but the rest of the world just trying to cope with these new realities, I’ve been okay, thankfully. I’ve been in my little home office bubble for most of the year, really. My family is healthy and safe and that’s all I can ask.

Certainly, on the work end of it, it’s been really non-stop. It really does feel that since late February early March (of last year) that time and space have completely gone out the window. Thankfully, with the conversations we’re still having great mobilization of the theatre and arts sector, not just Canada but regionally and in Montreal, there’s a lot of advocacy that we’ve been doing, and I’m super proud of all that has been accomplished with my company Geordie.

We’ve been really active; we shifted our program fairly early. We had a touring show that went into livestream. We are still doing mainstage productions that are recorded so the work is still going, but it’s a different kind of work and different kind of headspace. The biggest checkpoint is just making sure we are okay in mental health.

Some days are better than others, but I’m generally okay, thanks for asking, Joe.

In preparation of your new role as Artistic Director at Tarragon Theatre, how else have you been spending your time outside of theatre?

Oh, Joe, I wish there was a fancier answer beyond. I’ve been all about the work, but I’m going to search for some things that have been fun outside of theatre. Diving into cooking, building some recipes that I haven’t necessarily used before. Finding new music and listening to new artists, that’s been really cool. And reading a lot about the great things that the other companies across the country have been doing to keep connections with their own communities and their artists, and really looking at how art is shared and how to invite audiences into the development and the artistic process.

That is something I’ve been really inspired by, not just here at home but across the country. So much has been in balancing the reactionary versus being proactive, and so because Geordie and myself we are pro-active entities that’s why there seems to be a lot of work.

I’ve been teaching as well which is great at Montreal’s National Theatre School. I taught a class in December and am teaching a class right now so it’s good to get outside sometimes to see some fresh voices and fresh artists who thankfully get to practice and train, and I get to be a part of that so it gives me life, it gives me energy. It’s good.

Many artists I’ve profiled and interviewed have shared so much of themselves and how the pandemic has affected them from Black Lives Matter and the BIPOC communities to the staggering number of illnesses and deaths. Could you share one element, either positive or negative, from this time that you believe will remain with you forever.

I can give you a few things. I can tell you in terms of the resurgence of BLM or the mainstream acknowledgement of historical injustice, that’s what shifted. In terms of the actual stories and events, nothing has really changed, just the attention to these stories and to these realities has shifted to a more global conversation which has been a positive step forward.

In terms of my relationship to it, I’m still on the heels of generations of artists and BIPOC artists who have really tried to mobilize this conversation for decades before me. I’m just riding that wave along with them in terms of this generation. It’s a deeply personal conversation when it comes to the representation of the kinds of stories or the kinds of artists that we want there.

For me, there hasn’t really been a shift or change in terms of the work that I have been doing or the work I will do. I will continue fostering those new voices and ensure that everyone has room at the table.
I do think a positive thing from a societal or social level – it’s forced us all to take a great pause reflecting our relationship to what it is that we do, how we exist and communicate with each other, and to actually meaningfully and significantly value somebody else’s story. I think it’s given us a lot of time to do some deep soul searching about who we are as individuals and who we are as a greater community.

Artistically speaking, it has given us agency to re-connect or re-check ourselves in how we connect with our audiences. How to maintain those special relationships we’ve maintained over the years. If we can’t all be in the same room together and can’t go into theatres, how do we keep art alive, how do we keep theatre alive, and the conversation that theatre provokes alive for communities and audiences. So that’s why we’ve seen so many shifts in digital investigation OR virtual investigation of works and inviting people into our companies and our companies work.

Institutionally, the merging of the various crises during this time has put a huge, this might sound like a trite wind and I can’t think of another polite word or way to say it right now, it’s forced us to ‘SHIT OR GET OFF THE POT’ kind of thing. Okay, so we know what it is. We’ve got this thing happening, we’ve got this pandemic happening, what are we doing in terms of our art and our audience? We have the social and racial injustice, Indigenous lives are dying, black lives are dying, these are two facts, so what are we going to do about it, as opposed to resting historically on the laurels of what we have done before.

There is no more room for that. We’ve been given this opportunity for that deep, deep, deep reflection. After this is done, we will come back together, and we’ll see who makes it. We’ll see the artists and we’ll see the companies who have been able to ride wave and come out greater on the other side of it.

Because this is all a big test.

I see this as a huge test of ourselves mentally, emotionally, artistically, all of those things and it’s huge wait and a big burden for us all. We will find triumph at the end if we invest and deepen that reflection process.
I think that’s what this time has afforded us, and I think it will continue to go for awhile. When we come back together, we will be checked. We will check ourselves and force us to check why we do what we do during a time when we are seeking that valuable connection and understanding of each other on a social level.

The late Hal Prince spoke that theatre should trigger curiosity in the actor/artist and the audience. Has Covid sparked further curiosity in you as an artist yourself and how you will move forward in your new designation as Artistic Director for Tarragon?

That’s a good question, and Joe you’ll discover that I can’t just give one answer, I have to give multiple answers (and Mike and I share a good laugh).

Fundamentally, the belief that the theatre has always been the vessel for that discourse. The theatre, the piece, the experience of the time in the theatre being in a room with others, experiencing a live story all together at once.

The second part of that is the conversation that comes from that story itself

And theatre has always been that agency for that discourse. I imagine that won’t change but the content may. The content – we have a responsibility to humanize ourselves in terms of what it is the audience needs when they come back. Does it mean what kind of content we are bringing forward? We will need to think about that more wholly.

On an artistic front, intimacy is a huge thing. Just seeing two characters hug, all the things we miss. With the National Theatre School, I directed the graduating students in ‘Indecent’ by Paula Vogel and this play is all about intimacy and connection. What we discovered even in that training ground what are the moments we can embrace in a heightened theatrical world that doesn’t necessary mean you have to physically connect, but you see an emotional connection that allows for tension that the audience feels even more so.

I’m curious about how to embrace that, to actually elevate those moments of suspended tension when you want something because you legitimately cannot make it so. What does that do in terms of storytelling itself and how moments are executed? Or how those stories that crave intimacy are actually executed? I think that’s a test for all of us creators at the end of the day.

It’s an awesome opportunity because it means that we’re actually giving more interest to the audience to fill in the gaps. And so, that’s a really exciting thing.

I think we’ll also learn in what the digital platform has afforded us. It’s communicating, working, developing and still creating works virtually that has cut geographical issues. Now we can expand that, have more collaboration or discussion with artists that are outside of our geography. That’s nothing but good because we want to include a multitude of creative voices.

What are the opportunities of connecting with a company in South Africa and seeing how that company works? Or seeing a company in Belgium? Or Australia? How are artists working and how can we exchange ideas so that we can learn from each other in a shared knowledge kind of way.

That is an exciting thing, and we’ll still be able to develop meaningful connections because geography is no longer an issue. We’ll see how far that lasts, but I’m excited by and to bridge that digital dramaturgy with the parts of live theatre we love so much that we create a really unique experience, a hybrid that encompasses both.

Margaret Atwood has spoken of Canadians as survivors who are able to withstand anything thrown in their path. Would you share what has helped you survive in this time of uncertainty.

Oh, wow! I suppose I could get a little emotional about this when I reflect on it for real.

What has allowed me to survive is to try to go outside myself a little bit to remind myself why I’m doing this in the first place. It’s not for me; it’s an acknowledgment of others that they don’t have the same platform or agency that I’ve been afforded; that are creating breath, levity, light, life, escape and that has been a driving force for me in recognising what folks have been missing during this time.

If I have the opportunity to give something because of my role in the community or my role with Geordie, then that’s all I want to do. That’s why I’m here is that I want someone to feel after seeing something that I’ve been a part of in some way, shape or perform that there was a moment of remembering their value and why they’re important.

We’ve lost a lot of people during this time. Yes, because of the pandemic but also artists, our technicians, our production people, that one shop that had that one special thing that no other store in the city had that a set designer would go to.

There has been a lot of loss and a lot of darkness and it’s not to say that I haven’t endured that darkness, but the thing that gets me up in the morning is recognizing the purpose is greater than myself. That I feel a greater responsibility to make someone feel okay through theatre, through my work.

Even though it’s taxing, hard work and exhausting, there’s great personal cost to it. I believe in empowering the other.

I hope this doesn’t sound cheesy.

I agree that we as human beings are, in essence, survivors and this has been a test for us all. We need to acknowledge those who have needed the support that they didn’t necessarily get, and to do everything that we can to be that supportive mechanism for others.

I have my partner, she’s amazing; I have my stepdaughter, so there’s also the everyday realities as well in making sure my mom is healthy. That’s super important to me as I want them to be okay.

I want them to survive.

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