By Bradley Turcotte
After nearly a decade at the Great Canadian Theatre Company (GCTC), Eric Coates is departing his role as artistic director (AD). As he exits stage left, he leaves behind a legacy of championing challenging and political theatre.
Raised in Guelph, Coates began his theatre career as an actor at the prolific Stratford Festival before moving to the Blyth Festival where he worked for 19 consecutive seasons as an actor, playwright, and finally AD from 2003 to 2012. Additionally, Coates served two terms as president of the Professional Association of Canadian Theatres from 2009 to 2015.
When Coates made his debut at GCTC in 2012, he was determined to reflect “the nature of the political game in Canada” and this intent was well received by Ottawa audiences over his nine years as AD.
With GCTC since 2014, managing director Hugh Neilson says when he first met Coates in the 2000s, he took notice of Coates’ “savvy sense of humor.”
“Behind that is this indelible intellect and a wonderfully political mind,” Neilson observes. “As I watched him work for these past seven years, I discovered he has an unparalleled commitment to the intentions of the artist and the playwright.”
With his heritage including Samish First Nation, Coates says he felt a “stronger sense of accountability” to produce diverse programming. Productions under Coates’ watch included Trey Anthony’s How Black Mothers Say I Love You and Fisheyes by Anita Majumdar.
Playwright Darrah Teitel’s work Behaviour explores heavy themes, and the writer says Coates’ support of female artists is exemplary.
While attending a workshop Coates organized, Teitel “scrawled some words” in a notebook and read them out loud. This powerful prose struck Coates, and what would develop into Behaviour was born.
“He knew from the very beginning that he wanted to do something that would be incendiary, and together we did it,” Teitel says of Behaviour, which has also graced the stage in Montreal.
“He was really great for Ottawa theatre. I think it’s sad he’s leaving in many ways because he produced some of the better plays I saw in the time I lived there,” Teitel adds. “He’s going to leave a big Eric-sized hole. I want people to realize how supportive he was, particularly of young women.”
When asked to reflect on his time in Ottawa, Coates describes the city’s theatre community as “an interesting beast” that needs another organization like GCTC to keep talented players employed. Yet it is the atmosphere of Kitchissippi he will miss the most.
“It is one of my favourite places I have ever lived,” Coates says. “It’s busy and exciting. People who don’t live in Ottawa aren’t aware that there are neighbourhoods that are active and full of young, enterprising folks — at least it was before the pandemic hit.”
COVID-19 has devastated the theatre community, Coates says, especially for independent artists who rely on self-employed income. Yet the pandemic has allowed the opportunity for reassessment, which also played a role in Coates’ decision to move on from GCTC.
“We are in such an unexpected time, but the future is looking good,” Neilson says. “We’ve had an opportunity to really look at the organization and you will be seeing restructuring that will have an impact on how we work. We are going to be back in a big way.”
While Coates has delivered his GCTC soliloquy, the 2021-2022 season is his programming, and Neilson says it is “different from anything you have seen in the past.”
Coates will not be leaving the Canadian arts scene when his time ends with the GCTC in May. He plans to split his time between Stratford and the west coast where he will learn and write about the Salish language.
Coates says he hopes his time at GCTC will be remembered, not for personal triumph, but for the impact he made on emerging artists.
“A number of people came through the organization as interns or through mentorship programs who would have gone on to really interesting vibrant careers,” Coates says. “That is what you always wish for: that the next generation had a good experience working with you and that it helped them make the next leap.”