Enchanting, entertaining, and educating theatregoers since 1980, Geordie Productions has long established itself as Montreal’s leading English-language professional theatre company for audiences of all ages. Its 36th anniversary is being celebrated with an exciting – albeit ambitious – forthcoming season which includes the Canadian stage premiere of Ray Bradbury’s The Halloween Tree, the landmark 2Play Tour featuring Water Weight and Instant, and the all-new Geordie Theatre Fest. We sat down for an insightful conversation with Geordie’s Artistic Director Mike Payette about his new gig, the 2016-17 season, and the landscape of youth and theatre in Montreal. Read the full interview with the Hub’s Editor-in-Chief Camila Fitzgibbon below.
It all began when he had stepped onto the stage for the first time as Winnie the Pooh in the gym auditorium of his elementary school, and it was in that same building that he thereafter had the life-changing experience of seeing his very first play – coincidentally, a Geordie production.
“A Promise is a Promise came to our school one day and that was one of the first instances in my life where I realized that there was something that was happening right in front of me that deeply spoke to me,” recounts Mike Payette. “I couldn’t articulate it at the time, but suddenly I felt as if I was given permission to explore and enhance my imagination. That moment was a huge spark for me to pursue theatre, and all I knew was that I wanted to be a part of that world somehow.”
It has only been a mere three months since Dean Patrick Fleming – who finished a respectable decade-long tenure at Geordie – has handed over the reins, but it’s been ever since the announcement of his successor back in February of this year that the Montreal theatre community has been buzzing with enthusiasm as to what the new director will bring to uphold the beloved theatre company’s existing legacy. Mike is relatively young in comparison to other A.D.s around the nation, but he began building his performing, directing, and producing résumé early as a child and already holds many impressive credentials to his name (among them, he is the co-founder and outgoing Artistic Director of Tableau D’Hôte Theatre and served as the Assistant Artistic Director for Black Theatre Workshop here in Montreal).
One of his first professional gigs as an actor was, opportunely, a Geordie production. “I was still in CEGEP. It was incredible that Dean, who was directing that show, was willing to take a risk on someone so young. To have been given the privilege of having that kind of experience at such an early age has allowed me to believe in the power and the potential of young people to do amazing things when they’re given the opportunity, and that outlook has trickled into my philosophy here at Geordie.”
On spirit, purpose, and philosophy
Upon receiving the call for submissions, Mike admits that initially he wasn’t entirely convinced that he was the right person for the job. “Just because the opportunity unveils itself to you doesn’t mean that there’s a natural fit. I wanted to make sure that there was a purpose, that I had something to offer, and that I could be authentic within that work. When I realized that there was something that I could do in the next stages of Geordie’s legacy, that’s when I made the move to actually apply.
“What I can appreciate the selection committee in seeing is that I was offering a fresh perspective on what theatre was and could be in terms of creating discourse and dialogue about the world that we live in and also with regards to representation on stage. If we enter into the discussion of diversity and inclusion and that kind of thing, I’m really interested in giving all artists and all people the opportunity to have their stories be told on a larger scale.
“Arguably I believe it’s a bit easier to have an actor of colour onstage, for example. But it’s a lot harder to have artists from different backgrounds – not just in terms of ethnicity, but also gender and physical ability – lead, write, or direct a story. Those opportunities are so shockingly low on a national level and locally as well. Ultimately what I’m thinking about as I come into this is to make sure that we’re not serving a single demographic and that we’re investing in projects that speak to various groups. Theatre can be seen as a luxury, and there are things that we can do as a company to invite those communities that simply don’t know that the arts are available or accessible to them and to make sure that we are representing them as equally as we do everyone else on the main stage.”
Geordie has long been known for its shows for young audiences in Montreal, “but also we have this philosophy of theatre for all ages,” he adds. “Our plays may be focused around a young person’s experience, but we as adults can certainly empathize. In fact, I think one of the reasons people do like Geordie so much is because it reawakens their inner child.”
Mike credits his playful, big-kid-at-heart spirit and his ability to tap into his youth as a determinant in his appointment. “So much of what I do is inspired by my upbringing, my family dynamic, and my own experiences as a child. I look back at the things that were challenging and difficult and that I couldn’t comprehend back then and now try to understand and observe them as fairly and honestly and as objectively as possible because I assume that there are other people that have also shared those experiences.
“Theatre and performance was the medium that allowed me to recognize that there could be more to myself, that I could have a sense of expression, that I could foster my voice, and because I recognized that at a younger age, I knew there were kids like me that I could also offer that to.
“When you see a child entirely engaged in what they’re seeing, you know that they’re taking something in. Years down the line, they will remember that story. Whether or not they go into the arts, they will have been impacted in some way and will have had a transformative experience that shaped their future. I really do believe exposure to theatre makes you a stronger, more well-rounded person.”
On the landscape of youth theatre
Upon asking Mike what he suspects might be currently missing in children’s theatre, he elaborates: “There’s always a matter, thematically speaking, of how far you can push the envelope. Theatre has to be risky. There has to be an artistic gamble and some element of conflict and ‘good danger’ in what it is that’s being told. The question is, how far can you push that barrier? You want to respect your audience and the families that come and see it.
“However, I think children are very resilient and can handle things that we as adults would consider to be heavy and scary. It’s really more of an issue of adults being afraid of having kids be exposed to certain content; but why do we think that they’re not already being exposed to it anyway? So, how do you deal with a subject like the charter of values? How do you talk about gender and politics? How do you bring up systemic racism and invite kids into that conversation? These are affairs that we’re having trouble as adults trying to understand. Then there’s the question of how to represent it. How overt do you want these stories to be? Is it superfluous or deep?
“There’s not something that’s missing per se, because Geordie has been through various of these examples and has been successful at managing them. The challenge is, how do you consistently build upon it? There are production companies around the world that are all about providing families with a fun, entertaining afternoon, and there is absolute value in that. However, Geordie is also about education and evoking an engaged discussion about topics that are relevant and relatable.”
On “Opening Doors to New Worlds”
Aptly named, Geordie’s 2016-17 season stems from Mike’s artistic vision of wanting to expose untold stories and unchartered territory. “I was truly fortunate enough to be implicated in creating this season; getting the license and that freedom to do that gave me immediate ownership. All of the chosen plays have to do with how we perceive ourselves in the world and how we recognize each other.”
This year’s mainstage production is Ray Bradbury’s The Halloween Tree, to be adapted and directed by Amanda Kellock. “The world Ray created is brilliant,” gushes Mike. “Here we have this group of friends that go on an epic adventure to find the hidden meanings of Halloween and to save one of their sick friends. They travel through time and various cultures and learn to deal with the fears that they have of death in order to appreciate life. It’s huge and it’s a little bit spooky, but in a real cool, fun way. Whenever I think about it I get chills because it’s also truly heartwarming.”
As for the 2Play Tour, Instant (which will tour high school/CEGEPs) is a fast-paced exploration of the impacts of social media in the lives of teens. Written by Erin Shields and directed by Dean Patrick Fleming, it follows three students: one wants to become a YouTube sensation, another aspires to become a pro hockey player, and the other is trying to crowdfund to get donations to support her dad who is suffering from MS. “They all have a different reason why they want to reach fame, but in order to reach it they have to realize what they are willing to sacrifice; and in doing so, deal with the ramifications of their actions,” describes Mike.
Jesse Stong’s Water Weight will tour elementary schools and will be directed by Mike himself. Tackling the issue of body image, it tells the story of two children whose dreams of becoming a water polo player and a professional diver are washed up by their insecurities with their appearances.
“Both of these shows are about recognizing who you are as an individual and what you are willing to risk in order to achieve your ultimate goal,” he explains. The script for the two plays were developed with Playwrights’ Workshop Montréal, which is in alignment with Geordie’s commitment to giving life to new Canadian works.
Closing the season is the all-new Geordie Theatre Fest which will allow Montreal families to see both of the aforementioned 2Play productions in addition to Marcus Youssef’s “Jabber”. The three shows will be playing in rep for a week at the Monument-National, also a first for Geordie. “We’re really happy to establish this new relationship with the Monument and we’re excited to present this festival which offers something for everyone.”
On the challenges of the new gig and next steps
Regardless of the changes in direction, Mike reassures us that the heart of Geordie has remained the same. “The passion is still there. Geordie has been around for over 35 years and has a respected, established infrastructure. The goal is to keep the foundations that have made us unique in the city and in the country and to see what the next launching pad for the next 35 years is going to be.
“As far as some of the challenges to come, there’s no shortage of ideas and that’s something that many Artistic Directors can empathize with when they’re first coming into a new organization. There’s always new ideas and our job is to make sure that they’re filtered in a patient and calculated way.”
The biggest challenge right now, however? “Finding the time to get a haircut,” he laughs. “It’s the self-maintenance that seems to be the real struggle!”
“I had a very good and extensive transitional period. I received support from many A.D.s from across Canada and the community here has been extremely warm and welcoming for me to accept this. It’s been three months since I’ve started and I’ve already recognized the breadth of the job, which is great to know now. It’s been really rapid fire and things have moved extremely quickly, but I have a really supportive and incredible staff who have been here long before and they’re all staying onboard. This is really exciting times for the community and I’m happy to be a part of that wave.”
Geordie’s 2016-2017 season begins with “The Halloween Tree”, playing at the D.B. Clarke Theatre (1455 de Maisonneuve West) from October 21-30.