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The Role Of Artistic Director: Creating, Connecting and Hosting

By Martin Frenette

Whether they’ve been naughty or nice, it does feel like the most wonderful time of the year for theatre enthusiasts as they impatiently wait for a new load of surprises, to know more about the good times ahead, and excitement fills the air while theatres are preparing to release their new programs for the season to come.

Will this year be about re-visiting classics, diving deep into some experimental directors’ staging or being moved by an award-winning foreign play’s very first translation and adaptation? Forget Santa, the only ones who know for sure, sometimes up to two years in advance, are the Artistic Directors. These are the people in charge of coming up with a different amalgam of interesting and innovative productions that will inspire and reach both the audience and the industry.

If directors behind plays are often compared to conductors leading orchestras, the Artistic Director could be seen as the one who chooses, gathers and leads them. Making sure that the theatre is moving in the right direction and reaches its misson’s goals are two important components of this role that goes far beyond picking a few titles to shine on the marquee!

Whilst most artists can only dream of being paid to attend a maximum amount of shows to then pick their favourites, that is only one of Lorraine Pintal’s several duties as the Théâtre du Nouveau Monde’s artistic director. TNM is one of Montreal’s most famous theatre companies that has been producing and presenting shows since 1951. Ms Pintal is the institution’s fifth Artistic Director, the only woman to occupy this position to date, and as she’s getting ready for her 26th season at the TNM: She can’t hold her laughter when she exclaims “I’m easily seeing 50 plays per year and will sometimes even squeeze three in one day!”

“Diversity” seems to be the perfect word to summarize both an Artistic Director’s work and Ms Pintal’s path to get there.

In the two decades prior to her nomination in TNM’s highest artistic position (even though she’s extremely quick to point out that it’s all team work) she earned a solid reputation in the industry as someone with an interesting vision. She co-founded an independent theatre company and directed for some of Montreal’s most important theatres, acted on stages around the province of Quebec year-round and juggled the roles of director, coordinator and talk show host for the French-Canadian National TV Channel.

Her role as Artistic Director is at least as varied, if not more, as her resume and both passion and drive enlighten her voice when she’s describing her work:

“Creating, connecting and hosting are the artistic director’s triple threat. Getting involved with each and every creation of the company requires to have a strong artistic vision and to be very creative.”

“Every theatre also needs a good leader, someone who’s not afraid to reach out, who can easily connect with others and make them meet. Additionally, being a gracious host to the guest productions that we are welcoming under our roof is an important aspect of this position, hence, being generous, humble, curious and a skilled communicator who knows when to speak up and when to step out cannot be over-looked.”

No need to drop out of “Directing 101” and to major in “Calculating in Character” to understand that, by attending an average of 50 shows annually for 25 years, the 66 year old woman of theatre has seen more plays than all our TheatreArtLife readers combined and that the selection process for a new season can be lengthy. “Reading, reading, reading again, seeing shows here and going abroad to see some more” is always on top of the to-do list in order to surprise and satisfy the audience and to make sure that the impressive pile of “to produce some day” projects never stops growing.

“By meeting with directors, designers, actors and authors with whom I wish to work, a main idea will come out or naturally impose itself as the clear thread that will allow the TNM to weave each story properly and to somehow link them all. Finding this new theme and sharing it is always a very exciting part of the creation process, which is why these meetings and new encounters are fundamental. Random plays with apparently nothing in common will sometimes stand out and finding a way to connect them in one cohesive program turns into a chess game!”

She also mentions those cases of love at first sight where the text, the director or the challenge that a production represents are all influencing and affecting that theatrical thread.

Once the program has been released and ticket sales have started, the artistic director puts the guide’s hat on and is actively involved in every show from day 1, by attending casting sessions, following the creation and rehearsal process and re-adjusting the team’s trajectory if necessary, until the foundations are solid and the ensemble is ready to take off. The guide then becomes the gracious host by making sure that the theatre is ready to welcome a new production.

Some will also personally direct a play, like Lorraine Pintal who tries to lead one every season, as she cannot imagine being artistic director without directing. “I’d miss the fun of a rehearsal room and the simple joy of creating something new that I see in every director.”

“Bonding with impassioned artists and staying close to their reality are also allowing me to keep a good artistic eye, to feel like an active part of the industry and close to our audience.”

Making sure that the theatre’s 830 seats are occupied for each representation and that the audience is always pleased are also priorities for this dynamic woman whose eyes shine a little brighter whenever she’s mentioning them. Since theatre companies are relying on memberships and on loyal spectators to survive, the “Cercle des Abonnés” was created to stay connected to the audience and have them feel involved and valued.

Members of this club have monthly gatherings, often with the director, to discuss the shows, the company’s plans, what works best and what could be improved. In addition to those exchange sessions, Ms Pintal tries to be as present as possible to personally greet the spectators before the show and to listen to their impressions as they are leaving the theatre. Direct and regular interaction with the audience helps to elaborate a program that will speak to their needs and interests.

“Our audience, actors and creators are always on my mind, the different and possible ways to have them meet are also informing and guiding me in the decision process.”

The frequency at which the terms “different” and “diversity” are finding their way into TNM’s artistic director’s speech might partly be the reason why many Canadian actors and creators say that working with this company is an important step, a sign that their career has reached a higher level. In a successful attempt to surprise her audience and to keep the company from repeating itself, Lorraine Pintal has made some audacious choices over the years, by adding musicals and contemporary circus pieces to the company’s repertoire, strengthening their reputation as the theatre of yesterday’s AND tomorrow’s classics.

“Constantly finding ways to renew ourselves is a possible, but definitely uneasy task! Giving a fresh take to a 200 years old classic that keeps being revived or adding something new and exciting to a play that has already been presented here, even if it has been 15 years, can be tricky, but all these new, emergent creators are making it almost impossible for a play to be irrrelevant by growing ‘too old’ nowadays. To me, THE most important question is whether or not it will interest our audience.”

To every talented artist who is as curious and impassioned by theatre and who aspires to be artistic director, this Order of Canada’s member (which recognizes outstanding contribution to the country in various fields) says that one has a better understanding of this world and will find it easier to get credibility and to earn respect within a company by being a trained actor first and that a broad variety of any kind of directing experiences is the next best tool , as instinct and vision can’t be taught.

“Rise to the occasion and take every opportunity that comes your way to create and to let your inner artist grow. Keep in mind that creation ain’t factory work and accept that the recipe has to change, that you can’t keep repeating the same steps and, finally never stop reaching out, that is how you’ll create and connect with others and know that you are still at the right place.”

Other interviews with Artistic Directors on TheatreArtLife:

Tara Young: From Broadway To Dubai

Christie Coachman: Directing Entertainment On Cruise Ships

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