Great Canadian Theatre Company takes new programming direction

The exterior of the GCTC on an evening with purple lights shining from the theatre
The Great Canadian Theatre Company during a regular summer season in June 2019. Photo by Ted Simpson.

By Ted Simpson

Over the past year, the Great Canadian Theatre Company (GCTC) may have seemed dormant from the outside, but on the inside there has been a fundamental shift in the organization that will determine a new and more inclusive course for the months and years that follow the pandemic’s end.

The shutdown that began last spring was a worst-case scenario for a business like the GCTC. The theatre’s Artistic Director Eric Coates called it “a crisis that no one was equipped to anticipate.” 

As the reality set in over those weeks in March and April, the company realized that they were no longer in a postponement situation — it became necessary to just cancel everything and regroup.

The time gave the company the opportunity to come together and start thinking in a more introspective direction. With the constant cycle of jumping from one show to the next finally broken, the work shifted to defining a place for the GCTC to belong in a rapidly changing world. 

“It coincided with a massive public awareness of the Black Lives Matter crisis, and that sent us into a really extensive, internal assessment of our organization as a symptom of systemic racism,” says Coates. “We started to do a deep dive into this as a staff and as a community of artists, unpacking what is GCTC and what is our role in this.”

Their professional soul searching led to a massive phase of consultation over the summer months. Theatre directors conducted over 50 online meetings with independent artists and art organizations from all over the city. From these Zoom calls, the company built an inventory of conversations that would guide their programming in a new direction. 

One of the key changes in the GCTC business model that came out of these consultations was to transition away from a focus primarily on traditional theatre, and adopt the mindset of a multidisciplinary performing arts centre. That means welcoming spoken word poetry, live music concerts and more visual art into the space and, in doing that, building more collaborative relationships with a diverse group of artists.

“I would say the most impactful new relationship is with Origin Arts and Community Centre, which operates down in Mechanicsville,” says Coates. “That has kicked things off as we move into more online activity; we’ve asked Origin’s lead artist to take the space and do what they want to do in it. Our goal is to help that work reach a broader audience.”

Haviah Mighty is seen on the left side of the GCTC stage with a DJ behind them
Haviah Mighty performs in a GCTC livestream performance on March 27. Photo courtesy of the GCTC.

The first event in this collaborative series took place in March as a livestream concert from Polaris Prize-winning rapper Haviah Mighty. And the series will continue on April 24 with another livestream featuring double headliners Blakdenim, an eight-piece hip hop band, and Dwayne Morgan, a poet, author and motivational speaker.

Alongside this new programming, the GCTC is finding a way to incorporate the traditional theatre it’s known for. The first “unstaged” performance took place in March, a live recording of Margo MacDonald’s one-woman show, The Elephant Girls.

GCTC has plans in the works for shows that will span the upcoming fall and winter season into 2022. The scheduling aspect remains very much up in the air, of course. But when the time comes to bring audiences back to the theatre, the directors have a plan for where to begin, says Coates.

“We want to try and reopen the building when the time comes with Daisy, which was the play that was onstage when we closed; that structure is still just sitting on the stage and because of that we’ll be able to come back quickly with a big shiny, sophisticated piece of theatre, without having to build anything from the ground up.”  

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