By: Max Mehran
QDF met ‘online’ with Jason Howell, director of John Abbott College Theatre Workshop’s production of Anything Goes. Thanks to technology, the QDF team met with Jason ‘online’ and was able to prepare this interview by email exchanges. QDF Musings is proud to bring you this conversation with the director and teacher about the place of student theatre in the community and the joy of putting on a student production.
[QDF] Tell me, in your opinion, where does student theatre fit in the grand scheme of the Montreal Theatre Community?
[JASON] For me, the long and the short of it is that training institutions help mould future theatre practitioners and, even more importantly in many ways, the theatre goers of tomorrow. I am not too well versed with the Francophone training institutions and their methods, but I know that on the Anglophone side, it is very important for us to have students not only appreciate theatre by seeing it, but also by doing it. I think that if professionals, and the general theatre-going community, go back to their roots and support student productions, they will ensure that they have that reciprocal support into the future. They also have the opportunity to watch their future colleagues coming up. I do want to mention that Roy Surette did support student and amateur theatre companies during his time as the Artistic Director at the Centaur Theatre Company. He came to many of our shows and hired many of our graduates over the past decade. And I know it was the same for other institutions. I know that at John Abbott we are very grateful.
[QDF] How can we change the preconceived notion that student theatre does not produce plays at the same professional level as other ‘Professional’ Montreal companies?
[JASON] On a purely technical/design level, I would venture to say that, at John Abbott at least, our production value can match many professional productions. Our design and technical program puts out some of the best sets, costumes, lighting, video and sound that you will find in Montreal. You just need to travel to Ste-Anne-de-Bellevue to witness it!
In terms of acting however, I don’t think one can change that notion – or that one should change that notion.
Students are not professionals. Audiences just need to look past that and they also need to work a little harder to suspend their disbelief. Most student productions have a very limited pool of actors to pull from, namely the students enrolled in a program or institution. And a student production is always hindered by obvious and unavoidable limitations that a professional company doesn’t have, such as, the age of the actors. Student productions notoriously cast young people as old people because they have no choice. That is an extra hurdle the audience needs to leap over to buy into the reality of the play. Also, there is a gender discrepancy in the student theatre demographic. That is to say that a majority of students registered in theatre programs tend to be female, but the majority of plays that are large enough to support student sized productions are heavily male driven.
This all makes programming a season for students as a teaching institution complicated. An obvious example from my side of things is that I am generally asked to choose a show to do in, let’s say, the spring of 2018 by the end of June of 2017. That is before I even know the number, gender, cultural background or talent level of students that will register into the first year of the Theatre Workshop program at John Abbott in September. Those mystery students will end up being half of my cast!
So to reiterate, I don’t think one can change that notion. Student productions are not professional productions. Just like community theatre productions are not professional productions.
That being said, there are bad professional productions and there are fantastic community and student productions. A great student production often has an intangible feeling of ensemble that professionals can’t necessarily always recreate. Most student or community theatre productions rehearse over a much longer period of time, so they get to know each other and bond in ways professionals on an Equity contract don’t necessarily get a chance to do. They may do it in a repertoire company that has a core ensemble that works together all the time, but not on a professional “show to show” basis. Also, schools can put on some classic shows that professional companies can’t afford to produce because the casts are too big.
And one cannot discount the spirit of youth, which is also an intangible and positive quality in a student production.
[QDF] How does John Abbott reach out to its audience?
[JASON] Our audience is generally the college community and the family and friends of the students. We do have some community outreach beyond that in the vicinity (Ste-Anne-de-Bellevue and the rest of the West Island through to the Hudson/St-Lazare area), but it is very hard to convince people who live east of Lachine to come out, even if it is only a 25 – 30 minute car ride from NDG and the 211 arrives at our doorstep. We don’t really have an advertising budget either, so word of mouth and support from alumni is important too.
[QDF] How does John Abbott choose the play to put on?
[JASON] We do four to five shows that are open to the public every school year. Two are produced by Theatre Workshop (which is a course/option in the two-year pre-university Arts, Literature and Communications DEC program) and two or three are produced by the Professional Theatre Program, which is our three-year DEP in Acting or Production (Tech/Design).
Each director in our rotation is given the opportunity to propose whatever show they would like to do, and then the department considers and ratifies the decisions. As each director gets to make their own decisions, I can only speak for myself about my process of choosing a play.
The first thing I need to take into consideration is the number of roles in the show. I need to cast at least 16 students in the fall and as close to 30 as possible in the spring. I then take into consideration the difficulty of the show for a student actor (whether I feel it is within their ability to successfully perform with the training that they have received), the technical/design requirements and, finally, whether it is something I actually want to work on. That last one is lowest on my priority list, but it is still important. I feel that a director shouldn’t force themselves to appreciate a project they work on, professional or amateur.
[QDF] What audience reaction do you wish to receive after a performance?
[JASON] I hope audiences enjoy the play we have just presented, and that they appreciate the hard work the students have put in. The show I am directing now is typical of a Theatre Workshop rehearsal process. We have about 15 hours of rehearsal scheduled per week for eight weeks, then a full tech weekend before we open the show in week 9 of the semester, and that is just the acting. Our shows also have a technical crew that is led by our 3rd year professional theatre design and technical students who also have 15 hours of build per week for eight weeks. All of these students work very hard in a very short amount of time.
Artistically, I usually try to choose a show that has some sort of relevance to modern theatre goers. So in those instances I do hope they come away with questions about the world they live in. But theatre also needs to be about entertainment and appreciating the human condition even in folly and madness. I always try to remember the quote I heard once about Brecht making the audience laugh and then feeding them their medicine while their mouths were open.
[QDF] What are your hopes for the graduates (or soon to be graduates) after the closing night?
[JASON] I know it is difficult for the designers and technicians, but it is harder for me to speak to their plight, as I have always focused more on the acting side in my career. I do know that many of our technicians and designers have gone on to work all over Canada, the USA and Europe.
Most of our Theatre Workshop students go on to university and study in other fields, though some do go on to continue their studies in Theatre. Many are active professionals today, like Amanda Kellock who is the Artistic Director of Repercussion Theatre. On the Professional Theatre side, I encourage graduates to continue training (with workshops and the like) while finding work or starting their own companies.
I don’t have any illusions about the chances of our students working full-time in the Theatre immediately upon leaving the college. The Anglophone Theatre community in Montreal is very small and there is very little “professional” work for those who don’t make work for themselves. And the recent trend of professional companies importing shows and actors from other cities, provinces or countries makes it even harder. So I let my students know that if they want to work in the Theatre (in English) they can’t be tied down to one place. They need to be willing the go where the work is. Unfortunately for Anglophones that means leaving home more often than not. But it is also an exciting prospect for someone who is hungry and young. What better time to take a leap of faith then in one’s youth when one has less to lose and optimism on one’s side.
All of that said, there are other things that our students get out of a Theatre education that I hope they take with them: a sense of the importance of the arts in their lives and in their communities as well as an ability to communicate clearly with others and to work with others. The most important thing is that they have a desire to support the arts the rest of their lives, and that they want to be patrons of the Theatre, if not working in the Theatre.
[QDF] Tell us about Anything Goes and why perform this play now?
[JASON] To be honest, Anything Goes, which is the Cole Porter musical I am currently directing, is a replacement for another show we couldn’t secure the rights to. It is a show I’ve been looking at for a few years though, because it does have a rather large cast (we have 28 students in this production) and some great opportunities for learning. It is an old-style Broadway show (I call it the “pre-Oklahoma style”) where the book is written around the songs and is in the vaudeville tradition. However, regardless of functional-nature of the writing, it does ask questions about relationships and our seemingly communal need for sensationalism. The song Anything Goes itself has modern relevance in pointing out how we constantly push the boundaries of “how much is too much.”
[QDF] As a director, what is your favourite part of the rehearsal process?
[JASOAs a director, watching the production come together during the production week is usually the best part. It is always a magical sight to watch the curtain go up for the first time with lights and sound at the Q2Q.
As a teacher/director, I would say that seeing improvement in the students is the best part. Sometimes you can actually see a concept click in their brain. It is a great thing to witness. I think everyone should teach or mentor someone to have that experience in their lives.
[QDF] Any final comments?
[JASON] If you have never come to see a play at John Abbott, you will be surprised by the quality of all of the aspects of our shows. The trek from downtown will be worth it!
Thank you to Jason Howell for his honest answers and thank you to technology for allowing us to conduct this virtual interview.
Anything Goes opens March 23rd and plays until April 1st. You can get tickets online at http://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/2872009
John Abbott will also be producing The Crucible (directed by Terry Donald) and The Gut Girls (directed by Tracy Leigh Campbell) with the Professional Theatre starting May 2nd. Those tickets will also be on sale at www.brownpapertickets.com