Going Home: A Conversation with Roy Surette

By: Max Mehran

On a beautiful spring morning, when the sun finally decides to make an appearance, Deborah Forde and I are seated in the beautiful Ted Katz Family Trust Gallery at Centaur Theatre to meet with Roy Surette, the outgoing Artistic Director and Executive Director of Centaur Theatre. As he sits in front of us, I am faced with the reality of his imminent departure and, as a newcomer to the Montreal theatre scene, I am left wondering about who Mr. Surette is, where he is coming from, and where he is going. Deborah asked the questions I wanted the answers to, and with this intimate interview and my role as silent observer and note-taker, I found myself absorbed in a fascinating conversation about theatre and Mr. Surette’s legacy.

As the questions left Deborah and the answers came from Mr. Surette, I got to know better who the man is and where he came from. Originally from British Columbia, Mr. Surette found his passion for theatre right in the middle of high school. As with many other high school students today, at the time he wasn’t sure of the path he wanted to take in life. Though he recognised a passion for visual arts in himself and saw a career in the creative arts for himself, a clear path wasn’t evident. That is until he joined the High School Drama Festival in his junior year and started getting involved in the theatre scene where he met a diverse palette of people from different backgrounds- which is the beauty of the theatre scene – and got a taste of the life in theatre.

A wonderful surprise was to learn more about Mr. Surette’s private hobbies: a passion for playwriting and puppeteering developing since middle school. Then he had the cast of Laugh In made of marionettes, or, as he playfully tell us, “a cast of actors that do not talk back, which is a director’s dream.”

At this point, I start to know the man behind the Centaur better, and oddly find similarities with my own story, which makes me eager to hear more. After High School graduation, he still didn’t know where he wanted to continue his studies, but he knew it was going to be in the arts.

“To be honest,” he admits, “I didn’t look for other fields.” He had heard of a new theatre program near his hometown, and although the program wasn’t as professional as he hoped, he met a lot of great people who became his colleagues and friends.  There, he was introduced to Studio 58, a program founded by professional actor Anthony Holland, as one of the alumni accepted to the school and invited him and his friends to watch a production. This is when Mr. Surette saw such impressive work on stage that it inspired him to apply to the program the following year.

“The good thing about Studio 58,” he explains, “is that they invited professional teachers for each department and involved every student in the different aspects of creating theatre.” He also explains that the school was treating its students as they would treat professional actors in the field. “We were under the same watchful eyes professional artists were,” he says. He explains the press was allowed in during performances and were giving reviews of their work, which can be harmful and incredibly enlightening. Studio 58 is where Mr. Surette trained in the theatre discipline, and it is with pride that he says he was the first student to graduate as a director from the program.

The conversation then jumps to many years later after Mr. Surette graduated from Studio 58 when he was faced with the decision to either stay in theatre or move to the film and television. After he ran Touchstone Theatre for 12 years (the company he is going back to when he leaves Montreal), he was shortlisted to run the Vancouver Playhouse. When he learned he didn’t get the position he thought about switching gears and moving to the television and film industry. A lot was happening in Vancouver at time in that sector; The X-Files were still shooting and there was more work offered in those industries. Instead he accepted the position of Artistic Director at Belfry Theatre, which he couldn’t refuse, and we are happy he didn’t because this is what led him to Centaur Theatre ten years later.

Mr. Surette was also offered the position to coordinate and lead a group of fifteen recent graduates from Studio 58, Simon Fraser University, and other training facilities for a program called Opportunity for Youth (OFY) for three summers. With his team, he produced great classical and contemporary plays and first started to notice what brought people into the theatre and what didn’t. This is when Mr. Surette learned about programming for the arts, which ended up being a tougher role than expected.

Looking back on his time at Centaur Theatre, Deborah’s follow-up question resonates the inevitable dispute every Artistic Director is faced with that tackles the challenges of presenting captivating works on stage while maintaining good box office numbers.

“I beat myself up regularly” he jokes. “I had to make sure to bring programs that will please the audience, challenge the artists, but also bring in the money, which is the hardest thing to do,” Mr. Surette openly confesses.

I can see he is enlightening us about the challenges of trying to please an established audience, while trying to attract new comers and present a landscape of different works and trends all in a themed program. One of the biggest challenges remains meeting ambitious box office numbers, but Mr. Surette thrills at the ability to offer opportunities for young, emerging artists to produce their work on a Centaur Stage.

“One thing that really excites me,” he says, “is the level of skill and talent out there that gets better every time.” Programming also means giving opportunities to young artists and taking on the role of mentor, which Mr. Surette was able to do during his time as Artistic Director at Centaur Theatre.

Deborah, already driving an incredible conversation about theatre that allowed me to glimpse this man at a very intimate level, asks about his first arrival in the city and what surprised him city.

He answered honestly that he “was a little surprised of how conservative much of the audience was here.” He had visited Centaur Theatre in his past as an audience member, and looking at some of the shows that were presented, such as Angels of America, he was very excited at the idea of this position. However, Mr. Surette was surprised of how much more careful he had to be of the language and themes of the plays programmed. Being a small Anglophone community in Montreal, he quickly realized that “if 60% of the population was satisfied, I did my job well. You have to factor this reality and expect a variety of responses to any given shows. You can’t ignore your audience,” he tells us.

After 10 years in this position, Mr. Surette is most proud of the access he provided to the community and “the fact that [Centaur Theatre] has weaved in young, emerging, and diverse artists” and given opportunities to emerging directors and playwrights to showcase their work in a larger theatre. He is also very proud of opening the door to High School and CEGEP students who can now start a fruitful and intelligent conversation about theatre. However, he admits it is very hard to get the older student population and the twenty-somethings involved. “It is as hard to get people committed to going to the theatre as it is to get funding and give salaries. Finding ways to nurture new audiences was a big challenge,” he says. “I also wish,” he continues, “we’d managed to get more young aspiring theatre people to see more work at the Centaur – there’s great QDF ticket deals, if you plan ahead!”

As we are getting close to finishing this interview, it is with melancholy that we tackle the final questions. Mr. Surette fondly tells us that his experience in the city was amazing. “I loved that the people really enjoyed the variety and programming I brought to the Centaur,” he says. Something he observed and appreciated about the Montreal Theatre Community was how resilient and scrappy artists are here and the sense of play that resonates in the community. “I am going to miss being part of that play.”

“It’s time to go home,” Mr. Surette tells us. He wants to be close to his mother and to the friends and colleagues he started his theatre practice with. His first hundred days will be filled with vacation time, but also a lot of real estate visits as he still needs to find a new home in the city of Vancouver.

He will dive into September when he starts rehearsal for his upcoming project, Touchstone’s Happy Place by Pamela Mala Sinha. As Mr. Surette says goodbye to the city and to the community, I feel fortunate to have been able to see his latest work on stage, Bakersfield Mist and You Will Remember Me and to get to know the man behind Centaur Theatre, someone who has done so much for the community and opened doors for so many emerging theatre artists. It is with pleasure that I was part of a friendly conversation between Deborah Forde and this man who contributed so abundantly to the theatre community in Montreal for a decade. A deep, wide, and warm thank you is most deserving as we bid farewell to Mr. Roy Surette.

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