Interview: Theatre creation in times of COVID with En Pointe’s Mathieu Murphy-Perron

Tableau D’Hôte brings live theatre back to Montreal this summer

Mathieu-Murphy Perron in his home neighbourhood of Pointe-Saint-Charles – the community upon which his new creation, “En Pointe”, is based. Photo credit: Isabelle Jetté

Montreal Theatre Hub Editor-in-Chief (and Tableau D’Hôte Theatre Apprentice Artistic Director) Camila Fitzgibbon speaks to Tableau D’Hôte Artistic Director Mathieu Murphy-Perron for an insider piece on the company’s upcoming premiere of En Pointe. Opening on August 6th, the production marks the return of live professional theatre in Montreal.

June 28th, 2020, 9:58 PM, an e-mail lands in my inbox.

“Hey Camila. I took a first stab at an episode/play. It’s in the drive. I’m still very much struggling with what we’re creating. I want it to be mostly about folks coming out of isolation, but these gentrifier characters keep coming back […]. I’m going to try my hand at another one or two today. My goal is to have a rough draft of 8-10 episodes by Friday. Would love to hear your thoughts. 

Talk soon,
Mathieu Murphy-Perron”

A week later, the scripts for 9 original episodes of Tableau D’Hôte Theatre’s all-new “spontaneously-created socially-distanced series of short plays” are in.

I’m giddy for the first time in a while. After the frustrating postponement of our May production of Thy Woman’s Weeds at the Centaur – along with the suspension of essentially all other Montreal theatre due to the coronavirus pandemic – there is a glimmer of hope towards a sooner-than-expected return to the stage.

July 13th, another e-mail comes in:

“I just got off the phone with CALQ and we have received the full amount of our grant request. This project is officially ON.”

Tableau D’Hôte was the first company to apply to the new crisis relief fund from the Conseil des arts et lettres du Québec – mere days after the program was publicly announced and the industry shutdown order was lifted in the province. En Pointe will be the first live-in-person, full-scale professional production to premiere in English Montreal since the reopening of theatres from COVID-19 closure and confinement. Needless at all to say – it’s exciting times.

From top to bottom: Actors Richard Jutras, Anne-Marie Saheb, and Devon Hardy in rehearsals for “En Pointe”. 13 additional performers round out the cast. Photo Credit: Mathieu Murphy-Perron

A play development process that normally takes 3 to 5 years from concept to realization has here been compressed into an airtight few weeks. At Tableau D’Hôte we’re abruptly shifting gears from the heavy grind of grant-writing into “spontaneous creation” mode. There is a fluttering of risk and uncertainty to it all. But it feels right – les arts vivants is what we’re here for and what we do. And this particular work finds itself hauntingly apropos to the realities of these unprecedented times.

“I wanted to create something for the here and now,” begins playwright-director Mathieu. “It was impossible to not set it in a pandemic world because that is where and what we are living. I had to lean into that.”

My mind traces back to a previous Hub piece published in April on the theatre artist’s duty during these times. What is needed now is our absolute presence.

En Pointe is a 9-part bilingual play series that follows the (all-too-relatable) humorous adventures and encounters of interconnected characters emerging from their homes after 108 days of quarantine. Living in a working class neighbourhood undergoing transformation, they seek connection and contact after months of isolation. Through slice-of-life storytelling, we get a glimpse of the eccentric humanity that divides and unites the neighbours through conflict and crisis.

Rest assured: it all happens outdoors, with actors and audiences safely distanced within the action.

“Adapting to the public health guidelines has actually not been too tricky; the rules are pretty clear,” says Mat. A COVID coordinator has been hired for the project to implement, monitor, and reinforce measures during rehearsals and performances. “What’s been harder is having to replan our programming while not knowing what’s going to happen in a year or even a month ahead. That has sort of then pushed us to do something in the windows of time this summer where it is still possible to make theatre – before a second wave of the virus hits.”

Therein came the idea of an episodic short-play format.

Running over the course of 8 weeks throughout the neighbourhood of Pointe-Saint-Charles, each of the 9 episodes in the En Pointe series is played only once in a different secret location (to be revealed on social media on the day of the respective performance). Recurring characters give the stories a throughline of continuity, although each play can be enjoyed as a standalone piece.

Live, site-specific, immersive, and yet physically distanced, it’s a wholly experimental formula – one that is conceived to make theatre as ephemeral as possible.

“I was intrigued by the idea of creating a universe, but didn’t have the time to write a full-length play in one go,” he further explains. The protracted show schedule buys the production precious days for some development of the latter plays in the lineup. “There’s also the fact that public health guidelines may change all of a sudden and that we are forced to stop mid-production again. At the very least, though, some of the 9 plays will get out there. It would be sad to not get through all of them, but at least our artists wouldn’t have put years into this work only to lose it all in the end.”

Mathieu-Murphy Perron and Olivia Woods (Assistant Director of “En Pointe”). Photo credit: Isabelle Jetté.

The thought of a repeat quarantine cycle is unnerving. It then again dawns on me how rapidly this is all moving. The team has only just finished a week of workshopping and casting the 16-actor show. As I draft this interview piece, I find myself in a rare moment of emotional stillness, sitting against a tree trunk in a park at our first rehearsal. We open in 5 days.

Mat is calm. “For the first time, I don’t have to worry about ticket sales and box office,” he smiles. CALQ and the other granting bodies have our back.

Being a non-venued independent company has shown its advantages during this period. “Tableau D’Hôte is lucky in that we don’t have the same stresses that larger arts organizations are experiencing right now,” he reflects. With low overhead, little administrative salaries, and an informal board structure, “I’m not burdened in the same way that these housed theatres with full seasons are. That allows me to take risks in ways that others can’t. And, as a producer, I feel a responsibility to create opportunities for artists to work if there’s all these grants going out and if I have the logistic capacity to do so.”

The company’s compact operations may factor into its ability to have quickly responded to the unexpected reopening of the performing arts industry in Montreal, but it is my hypothesis that Mat’s trademark gumption would have driven some kind of a pandemic project regardless. Intrepidity is in his nature. It’s impressive to watch.

“I’m a believer in ‘done’, not ‘perfect’.”

The mindset explains why Tableau D’Hôte has consistently been a first mover over the course of its 15-year-history. En Pointe is set to be a pioneering prototype in the city – and across Canada – for “spontaneous creation”.

“We have to fully recognize that the craft here is not going to be the same as it is when we’re planning a play for years and when we have a longer rehearsal period,” he says, “but it’ll still be something and I believe it’ll be something quite special and magical – especially for the people in the neighbourhood who will have never seen professional theatre here before.” The Pointe is where the Artistic Director resides and the community upon which the fictionalized series is inspired. He often describes the piece as a love letter to his historic home.

Ultimately, however, Mathieu’s hope for the future of theatre creation is one of healthier, more sustainable approaches to professional artmaking.

“Right now I know we’re doing things in full speed to adapt to the limitations of COVID, but I do hope that once we’re back to ‘normal’, we will find new ways to make our work processes a little easier for everybody.” (an aside: he references PACT-Equity agreements and the French creation models of spread out development.) “4 consecutive weeks of rehearsal, 6 days a week, 8 or more hours a day is clearly untenable; no wonder so many of us burn out, and the art suffers because of it.”

“There’s a lot of things that people have liked during this time: the slowed down pace, the extra hours with family, more quiet time for the self. If anything, I hope this all shakes up our traditional theatre creation models so that people can have a life, that they can sit and live with their work and their art. Maybe the system will collapse so much, we will have no choice but to build something new. And I believe we can and will adapt.”

Tableau D’Hôte Theatre’s En Pointe, written and direct by Mathieu-Murphy-Perron, runs for 9 performances between August 6th to September 27th, 2020 across Pointe-Saint-Charles. Free admission. Bring a mask.

For more information:
Facebook: @tdhtheatre
Twitter: @tdhtheatre
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Disclaimer: On top her role as Editor-in-Chief of Montreal Theatre Hub, Camila Fitzgibbon is presently serving as Tableau D’Hôte Theatre’s Apprentice Artistic Director as part of the Conseil des art de Montréal’s DémART–Mtl program. Some of the hours of her internship have gone into the research and writing of this article. 

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