By Max Mehran
This week, I made my way to the beautiful, black box theatre Tuesday Night Café (TNC) calls home where I met with Production Manager Holly Hilts and Publicity Manager Sophia K. Metcalf. We talked over coffee and tea about student theatre, the Montreal theatre scene, mutual friends, and dark secrets I can’t repeat. With laughter and sincerity, we had a passionate discussion about the place of student theatre in the community I am happy to share with you. TNC is an independent student run theatre company living in the heart of McGill University. While being independently run, the company receives funding from an anonymous donor yearly, grants from the Fine Arts Council at McGill, as well as physical and emotional support from the English Department. ‘Let’s Get Intimate’, as TNC’s mantra says, and let’s get to it.
The place of student theatre in the general theatre landscape in the city varies from training facilities and student run companies from one another. For TNC, the message is clear. Holly explains that TNC is “a place to grow and learn, and […] transition into the Montreal theatre scene.” She further unveils that this statement comes from her personal journey. “I also think that there are many more ways to develop this transition, and building contacts and a support network is a step in this direction; getting the word out beyond the school environment.” Sophia adds to Holly’s statement that TNC, “being a small black box theatre with only 40 seats in the audience, is a training ground for new plays where we often produce edgier work where we can take risks and try things on stage.” This is illustrated in their past season programming which has included but is not limited to: an original script, an adaptation of a graphic novel, a contemporary piece about austerity.
While the company is proud of their mandate to produce experimental work, they also participate in supporting other student companies and emerging artists by welcoming actors and directors outside of McGill University. You can see on their stage graduates from Dawson College, directors from Concordia University, and exchange students from Edinburgh’s theatre scene, but they also include actors who major in Engineering. TNC offers a palette of artists from different backgrounds at each of their plays, and is dedicated to bringing people together to create incredible and unique work. In the end, the audience can never know what to expect on the TNC stage, which is a great asset for the student company.
The challenge remains, however, bringing an audience to their theatre that extends beyond McGill students. Holly explains that by opting for more experimental works, they already eliminate a certain population of theatre goers who are more used to classical theatre typical of other larger theatres. The goal becomes then less about trying to reach a wider audience, but specifically and willingly targeting the audience for the type of theatre TNC does. ”Our goal should be more to focus on how to get the word out beyond campus and not necessarily to cater to the large and well-established audience at other theatre companies.”
Another challenge with reaching a wider audience is to break the stigma that student theatre does not offer the same quality of performances as professional theatre companies. Sophia strongly argues that “not only is there incredible work here by the cast and crew at TNC, but [it is] also incredibly inventive.” She continues highlighting that “students learn about theatre theories in class and then go to rehearsal and use the tools learned the day before. It becomes a very active and innovative way of making theatre, in that you are going from the classroom into the theatre and experimenting with the things you learned.”
Holly goes into detail about how TNC is run, how decisions are made, and which plays are chosen. The student company is run by consensus, which means that every decision is made in harmony while making sure everyone in the team is comfortable with the final decision. With a team of 11 executive members with each a specific role, they ensure the proper functioning of a theatre company during the year. In a way, each of the members are left to their own devices and regroup once a week to discuss and make sure everyone has covered their task and are feeling supported. Holly then explains that, “everyone in the team is directly related to the show in some capacity, which is great.” From being a designer to organizing talk-backs with the directors and members of the school faculty, the executive team works together harmoniously in each production, which ties their bonds even further.
When it’s time for the company to organize their next season, TNC gets very busy trying to program the best of the best. “We send out a form that applicants can fill out where they apply with the aim to direct a show, providing their initial vision and technical needs and [performance] rights” Holly describes. Then, the TNC team schedules interviews for chosen applicants and conducts them in a single day. Later they discuss their options before coming with a final line-up of 4 to 5 shows per season. In a director, the team is looking first and foremost for passion. “We are looking for someone who is open-minded, whether or not they have previous experience” Holly tells me. “One of the great reasons that we exist is for people to have opportunities to get experience” she adds.
TNC, as a company, has short and long term goals to respect their raison-d’être and to grow as a credible, legitimate theatre company. One of their short-term goals is to “end the year with a bang and set up for next year to run smoothly”. They are also writing their own ‘TNC Bible’ which breaks down every good and bad scenario that could happen on stage and provides advice on how to handle it. “There is a wealth of knowledge from some of our executives this year that we are trying to gather in a physical place so that is easily accessible and adjustable” Sophia explains. In terms of long term goals, they both emphasize that they want to make sure that the company remains open-minded and willing to take risks, which is a real strong suit for the company. Their slogan is ‘let’s get intimate’, so they want to TNC to keep being a “homey space, talkative and welcoming” Sophia explains.
The hope for TNC is to continue being this “high functioning, well organized student run theatre that is inventive, out there, and groundbreaking.” Holly says. She “feel[s] people have this idea that student theatre is run and created by students who are not really committed. I want people to get the idea that tickets will be sold by professionals, they’ll go in and feel from start to finish that the show is worth their time and money and feel welcomed and warm.” She finishes her thought by mentioning how she wants people to “feel the intimacy of TNC” while not being pushed back by the “student aspect” of the works they are putting out. “We are like the Sia of student theatre” jokes Sophia, referring to the songstress of ‘Chandelier’ fame, and rightfully so, “sometimes we get forgotten about but then put out a great album and it’s like ‘oh yes, oh my god”, while still being funky, edgy, and ready to party.”
Holly warmly recalls their past season and still feels excited about it. “It was so eclectic as we had an adaptation of a graphic novel, a pedagogical piece about austerity and anarchy that was very much inclusive and informative, a student written and directed show about Tweens, and then “When Five Years Pass” which belonged in this dreamscape universe.” She ends her thought reflecting on how TNC is “one of the few companies that will be the host to that many different genres.” Sophia also stresses how inclusive the company is as far as their members themselves. Composed by all women and primarily women of colour, their inclusivity and open-mindedness is reflected in their programs as much as their executive members.
Their final piece, ‘Stop Kiss’, opens Wednesday 22nd of March. Sophia tells us how the play is “a whole existential question of what love is and is about how dangerous queer love can be.” Directed by Alex Levesque and written by Diana Son, the show is an exploration of relationships and responsibility. The play tells the story a first date and first kiss, interrupted by tragedy. Although non-linear and dialogue-based show, Stop, Kiss, Sophia insists, is a wild ride. “It is an incredibly emotional work with heart and soul and it is an incredible way to end of the year” recalls Sophia. Considering that this season is for students marked by hours spent studying, “the goal of the piece is to provide a lift and bring people out of the space of extreme library stress and allow an exploration beyond the classroom and beyond your own life experience” Sophia finishes. Here is more information about the play on their Facebook event page.
A huge thank you to Holly and Sophia for giving QDF their precious time out of their busy agendas running a successful theatre company while being full-time students. TNC is most likely to continue growing as their mandate and program span out of McGill’s Roddick Gates and into the community, being recognized as a legitimate production company who produces quality and professional level works.