Tuesday, November 02, 2004

Theatre is a conduit for culture ~ The Link (Concordia)

Theatre is a conduit for culture

Sikander Hashmi, The Link

“I’m holding on with my fingertips. How much longer I can hold on, I don’t know.”

That’s how Bryna Wasserman, artistic director of Montreal's most renowned multi-disciplinary art centre, the Saidye Bronfman Centre, described her feelings about the future of Anglo theatre in Montreal.

Wasserman was the latest guest at the weekly journalism lecture series for Concordia’s first-year journalism students held Tuesdays at Hingston Hall.

The lecture began with Wasserman asking the students what it was that “this little woman standing in front of you is so passionate about?” She went on to answer her own question.

Wasserman made it clear that she was passionate – very passionate – about theatre. Her mission is to foster an environment that permits English theatre to survive as a minority, she said, pointing out that each of her choices must have a “social significance”.

In describing her job, Wasserman said: “A theatre play doesn’t exist on paper. I call it from the page to the stage.”

The award-winning director said her passion is fuelled by the importance of preserving English culture.

“I’ve watched the erosion of cultural institutions. Theatre passes on culture.”

She recognized that other theatres may show translations of English plays, but she sees staging a play in its original language to be of special importance.

The cultural community needs to keep flourishing, said Wasserman. She described two essential elements for achieving that: keeping it open to everyone and anyone, and government support.
“There should be no one in the city who can’t see a play at the Saidye,” Wasserman declared.

After praising the provincial government for recognizing the role of the Saiyde and supporting it financially, she criticized the federal government and the Canada Council for the Arts.

“The federal government doesn’t understand. We are unique. We need special attention,” she said. The Council, a federal agency, recently turned down the theatre’s request for an operating grant for the seventh year in a row.

The theatre is struggling, cutting costs, and trying to make ends meet, said Wasserman. “Whether that can continue, I don’t know.”

Still reeling from Matt Radz’s unflattering review of Man of La Mancha – a play that she not only chose but also directed – in The Gazette (October 17), Wasserman seized the opportunity to lecture students on their responsibilities as future journalists. Among other things, Radz had expressed surprise that the Saidye Bronfman Centre “defied the prevailing box-office wisdom by staging […] a full- bore musical produced in Montreal.”

“Do you understand the power you have over the population?” she asked. “You have the power to create; you have the power to destroy.”

“Use your privilege, your authority, your pen to create,” she advised.

Wasserman said she found Radz’s criticism to be unfair and unsubstantiated. She also said that since there is only one English daily in Montreal, one review can make it or break it for a play. Toronto, she said, with its multiple newspapers, has room for dissenting opinions. But not Montreal.

She acknowledged her helplessness: “I cry; I’m depressed for two weeks.”

According to Wasserman, reviews have a profound effect on the box office. In this case, ticket sales for Man of La Mancha dropped by half.

Still, she’s not against criticism, she said. “That’s not to say that I don’t expect a negative review. We can all accept criticism.”

She also took shot at Radz’s October 23 Gazette article on the Montreal English Critics' Circle Awards, in which he reported that Saidye Bronfman took an award, but then suggested that in his opinion, the runner-up was a “more worthy, if not entirely satisfying” top choice for the award.

For Wasserman, it’s a matter of responsibility.

“Is it about you and how clever you are, or is it about the material you’re writing about? Do you want to destroy what already exists?” she asked the students.

The one-hour lecture ended after a question and answer session in which Wasserman discussed funding, fringe arts, and the role of theatre in today’s day and age.

Past guests at the journalism lecture series have included Alan Allnutt, publisher of The Gazette, Saint-Laurent borough president and Montreal city councillor Alan DeSousa, and documentary filmmaker Barry Lazar.