Resident Theatre Companies at the NAC
By Gerry Grace
The archival content you are viewing in this website dedicated to the NAC Maquette Collection refers to the many “in-house” set designs created for resident theatre and opera companies and directors over the past 40 years. This body of work underscores the vital contribution of resident artistic companies to the artistic success and relevance of the NAC, as well as the part set designers and builders have played.
These valuable and fascinating archival records are perhaps better understood when placed in historical context. The brief chronological history of resident companies and directors for theatre and opera at the NAC that follows will guide you in your virtual visit through the NAC Maquette Collection.
History of Resident Companies
The National Arts Centre first opened its doors to the public in 1969. But even before the gala opening night on June 2nd of that year there had already been considerable debate about the concept of resident artistic companies at the NAC.
Jean Gascon, one of Canada’s greatest theatre figures, and in the early 1960’s a member of the NAC Advisory Committee on Theatre, insisted that the NAC had to have “a heart that beats.” Gascon meant that Canada’s newest and biggest performing arts centre couldn’t just be bricks and mortar; to be successful it had to be enlivened and animated by resident companies of artists: actors, musicians, directors, designers, playwrights in residence and production staff.
The debate over resident companies has been at the very core of what the NAC aspires to be, and it remains one of its most important concepts. The National Arts Centre Orchestra, the NAC’s first and longest lasting resident ensemble, was formally created in 1967 and presented its inaugural performance in 1969.
Original plans for theatre called for the Stratford Festival Theatre to take up winter residence at the NAC and present a season of theatre in English. The Stratford Festival Theatre, established in 1953 in Stratford, Ontario, and one of Canada’s most prominent theatrical companies, renamed itself the Stratford National Theatre and planned to split its time between the NAC, Stratford and its other commitments.
For French Theatre audiences at the NAC, a new company, Le Théâtre du Capricorne, was established. Le Théâtre du Capricorne was headed by Artistic Director Jean-Guy Sabourin.
Neither Stratford nor Capricorne lasted long as a resident artistic theatre company; Stratford found itself overstretched and the NAC partnership was terminated after a couple of seasons, while Capricorne collapsed after just one season as a result of disagreements within the company.
Replacing Stratford and Capricorne as resident theatre companies at the NAC were the Studio Group, under Artistic Director Michael Bawtree, and Le Groupe du Studio, headed by Artistic Director Jean Herbiet. Again, both companies were short-lived.
An innovative and now all-but-forgotten resident company of young actors and technicians was also established at the NAC at this time to present theatre to young audiences. Acting on a portable stage called Le Portage, the company toured to city parks and school parking lots in the national capital region to perform for children during the summer holidays. Sadly, Le Portage lasted only a few years.
The 1971-72 season saw the appointment of NAC Director of Theatre Jean Roberts, and a welcome period of stability. Resident acting companies for young theatre audiences were established: The Hexagon Company in English Theatre, led by Marigold Charleworth, and L’Hexagone, under Jean Herbiet, in French Theatre. Both companies launched ambitious and successful programs, especially L’Hexagone, which toured very extensively to present professional theatre to young francophone audiences in many parts of the country. L’Hexagone continued until 1982.
Also under Jean Roberts, a program was launched to establish what became known as The Student Young Company and Les Jeunes Théâtres. Comprised of the best drama students from the national capital region’s English and French high schools, they came to the NAC to create theatrical productions under the guidance of theatre professionals, and then tour the shows to high schools. This was one of the NAC’s first forays into intensive arts education for youth.
Les Jeunes Comédiens, a company of young graduates from Canada’s National Theatre School (Montréal) also performed and toured under the auspices of the NAC during this period.
With Jean Roberts as Director of Theatre, Oh What A Lovely War (1973), directed by Jean Roberts and designed by Brian Jackson, and The Rivals (1972), directed by John Neville with set design by Maurice Strike, set high in-house production standards. Renowned designers such as Guy Neveu and Michael Eagan worked very successfully with NAC French Theatre Artistic Director Jean Herbiet. The NAC’s scenic shops and craftspeople began to build a national reputation for excellence.
Opera Companies at the NAC: 1971-1989
One of the most important resident artistic programs in the NAC’s history was established at this time. Opera had always been envisioned to be an integral part of NAC programming, but it was not until 1971 that the first in-house production was staged. Festival Canada (renamed Festival Ottawa in 1978) was the name given to the summer festival of opera at the NAC.
It was an ambitious and highly successful program of mostly in-house opera productions under the leadership of Artistic Director (and National Arts Centre Orchestra Conductor) Mario Bernardi and General Manager Bruce Corder. Festival Canada soon achieved the highest international artistic standards. By the mid-1970’s, such internationally famous scenographers and designers as Josef Svoboda and Peter Rice had found commissions at the NAC.
In-house opera at the NAC was suspended after the 1983 production of Eugene Onegin, with a brief return to fully staged opera from 1988 to 1990 during the tenure of National Arts Centre Orchestra conductor Gabriel Chmura. Ottawa’s Opera Lyra – never a resident company at the NAC but an important partner nonetheless – has since Festival Ottawa’s demise satisfied the demand for opera with energy and flair.
The 1977-78 programming season saw the NAC enter its most active era of in-house theatrical production. New resident repertory companies in English and French Theatre were established under the leadership of Jean Gascon, with Artistic Director Jean Herbiet heading French Theatre and John Wood appointed Artistic Director of English Theatre. They were given a national mandate that called for extensive touring across Canada, actor apprenticeship and training programs, playwrights in residence, play development and repertory seasons on the NAC’s own stages. L’Hexagone, the French touring company for young audiences, continued to tour to many parts of Canada. Leading designers such as Robert Prévost and John Ferguson established close relationships with NAC resident theatre companies and directors, and their designs feature prominently in the NAC Maquette Collection.
With the suspension of resident repertory theatre companies by the mid-1980’s, the NAC entered an active period of co-production with Canada’s regional theatres. André Brassard had by this time been appointed Artistic Director of French Theatre and Andis Celms assumed overall responsibility for English Theatre. Brassard directed outstanding in-house productions of Periclès and Les Bonnes, with superb designs by Francois Séguin. Jacob’s Wake, directed by Neil Munro, with a remarkable set design by John Ferguson, was one of many fine in-house English Theatre productions from this era.
1990 to Present
In 1990, visionary theatre artist Robert Lepage succeeded André Brassard as Artistic Director of French Theatre. His three programming seasons marked an artistic highpoint for the NAC, which included his own in-house productions of Alanienouidet and national capitale nationale.
Under Lepage, a resident company of actors was established at the NAC Atelier, a small experimental theatre and rehearsal space. ARTO (Atelier de Recherche Théâtrale d’Ottawa), focused on the works of Shakespeare.
Robert Lepage was succeeded as resident Artistic Director of French Theatre by Jean-Claude Marcus. As Artistic Director, Marcus initiated productions such as Chère Mademoiselle Éléna (1995), designed by Roméo Savoie, were seen on the NAC’s stages.
In 1997 the NAC revived Festival Canada and appointed Brian Macdonald as Senior Artistic Director. Under the rubric of Festival Canada, Macdonald directed a revival of his renowned Stratford production of The Mikado and staged a new production of The Prodigal Son. (Macdonald had also briefly been Artistic Director of the only resident dance company in the NAC’s history. That company lived just long enough to present one Macdonald ballet, Star Cross’d, in 1973.)
Marti Maraden’s appointment as English Theatre Artistic Director for the 1998-99 season marked the beginning of a renewed emphasis on in-house production. Working with designers John Pennoyer, Christina Poddubiuk and Judith Bowden, she increased activity in the scenic shops of the NAC and won praise for her direction.
The 2000-01 season saw the arrival of Denis Marleau as Artistic Director of French Theatre. Marleau staged challenging, acclaimed theatre with such productions as Quelqu’un va venir.
Current Theatre Artistic Directors
With Marti Maraden’s departure after the 2005-06 season, Peter Hinton was appointed Artistic Director of English Theatre. His ambitious plans have energized English Theatre at the NAC.
One of the strategic goals set out for the NAC in recent years by its Board of Trustees, senior management and artistic leaders has been the intention to reaffirm the vital role of resident artistic companies. And in the last year NAC English Theatre Artistic Director Peter Hinton, successor to Marti Maraden in 2006-07, announced the establishment of a new resident company: the NAC English Theatre Acting Company.
Wajdi Mouawad’s appointment as Artistic Director of French Theatre has re-emphasized the importance of resident artists to the artistic success of the NAC. Since his first season in 2008-09, he has expanded the tradition of artistic director as creator and catalyst, exemplified over the years by Herbiet, Brassard, Lepage and Marleau.