Ontario and Quebec are the home of so many artistic epicentres in our northern country. We have Montreal, we have Ottawa, there’s the Stratford and Shaw Festivals, oh and I guess there’s this small town you’ve probably never heard of—Toronto. During my time studying playwriting at the National Theatre School of Canada (NTS) I got to experience Montreal firsthand. And it was during my time there that I realized: I didn’t think I’d ever spent any significant time in Toronto. It seemed ridiculous considering how close I was. So I changed all that in my last year, packed up some friends, some luggage, and armed with a train ticket, went to explore the city during spring break.
Honestly, people had only ever told me how terrible Toronto was. Whether that was in Montreal or from mentors in Edmonton, I had this image in my mind of this terrible place where people were always mean and dreams went to die. But to my genuine delight, I actually really enjoyed my (brief) time there. It seemed like a pretty amazing city–and I was actually kind of sad to leave.
As such, this is a continuation of a series where I’m talking to emerging artists from across Canada. What is it like to be an ‘emerging’ artist in different parts of the country? This time I’m focusing on Quebec and Ontario.
Before we begin, I’d like to acknowledge that all of the locations mentioned in these articles are the unceded, traditional, and current lands of the Cree, Blackfoot, Métis, Nakota, Sioux, Iroquois, Dene, Ojibway/Saulteaux/Anishinaabe, Inuit and so many others. This series’ geography spans across several treaties and locations. If you would like to learn more about Indigenous territories, visit Native Land.
One of the first people I talked to was Kathleen MacLean—a queer Métis artist originally from Saskatoon who has recently moved to Toronto after graduating from the acting program at NTS. When we talked, she was very much settling in, trying to process her move, “It feels weird being here. [I’ve] lived in Saskatchewan for all of my life– the reason I first moved was for school. Now I’m in Toronto without the same [school] structure. We found a home and I feel very fortunate for that. We have a place to land – but it still feels very strange.”
We then talked about her experience at school. MacLean explained, “It’s a very interesting thing for me because I worked really hard while I was at NTS to be able to call myself an Indigenous artist. People look at me and say: well you’re incredibly white-passing. And sometimes people look at me and think: oh no I can kind of see it. But it doesn’t change the fact that [most people think]: I’m white. I’m so afraid to go to Toronto and have to assert myself as an Indigenous artist and have so many people say: nah . . . [But the move is the] newest chapter of my life. Not knowing what lies beyond crossing the limits of the city.” When she drove in to the city for the first time was, “mind boggling. It’s so crazy how much bigger Toronto feels.”
Next I spoke to Crystal Lee, a freelance production manager based out of Toronto. Immediately she told me about her stress nightmares. Lee explains, “We’re doing The Little Prince this spring (out of Crow’s Theatre), so we have to do these fragmented rehearsals. We’re running on private donations right now and the nightmares are like: oh no, what if it’s as far as we get. What if there’s one rehearsal and there’s no money after that.” She then explained a specific nightmare, “We’re in the middle of rehearsal [and] someone bangs on the door and is like: this is illegal activity because you can’t pay your actors, so get out. Stop making art.”
I then asked about her experience so far in Toronto after moving from New Brunswick. She described, “We’ve all heard about what the Toronto theatre community does. I find the community is just so saturated in work and projects that it’s hard to really understand–if there’s a communal theme or how theatre should be today. I think everyone kind of works against each other a little bit. Toronto just wants to be really individual in every way that they can be. It’s such a problem in Toronto–everyone is a little bit hoardy in materials and resources. I find it so difficult coming into the city and being the heart of finding all these resources so other people don’t have to worry about it. And then not being able to access it because I’m new.”
I then shifted over to Ottawa and interviewed Cullen Elijah, a queer theatre creator and writer based out of Ontario who studied at the University of Ottawa, and founding member of Second Step, a theatre collective. Cullen explained part of his background, “I grew up on a farm in Dover Centre Ontario which is South-Western Ontario in Chatham-Kent county. So between London and Windsor, I went to the University of Ottawa. It was a really small program so I got to do anything and everything that I wanted to. I got a lot out of it because I put a lot into it.”
This has led to a whole whack of things for Elijah working in multiple locations including Toronto and Banff and most recently, Newfoundland. Elijah explains, “I went to school originally wanting to be an actor, and I still really do love acting, but ultimately I got into lighting because I knew there’d be more jobs in tech. Which is how I got to the Banff Centre . . . But I also write a lot. That’s the avenue I’m pushing to now that I’m out of school. [Because of this moving around,] I legitimately don’t think I have a home.”
Speaking about Ottawa, Elijah explains, “Ottawa is kind of a hidden gem of Canadian theatre. There are only two full-year professional companies [there]. Which means all the gaps are filled with a lot of independent theatre. There are a lot of cool little festivals. Ottawa is really good for fostering new work if you have a dedication to it. It’s pretty cool though because the [community is so small] everyone knows everyone. It’s very relaxed compared to places like Toronto.”
I then spoke to Déja Dixon-Green, a Black actress from Scarborough, Ontario who is currently entering her second season at the Stratford Festival. She’s passionate when she explains, “Stratford is great. It kind of felt like I didn’t leave school in a lot of ways. I feel like the National Theatre School of Canada prepared me for the amount of stamina I would need there. From rehearsing from ten a.m. to six p.m., six days a week. It was pretty crazy. I’m still on the wave of what I was doing in the past eight months. It was a whirlwind.”
She then talked about the town itself, “It’s a cute, quaint little town. I love it because it’s very touristy. People are welcoming for the most part. But I did feel the ‘there’s a Black person in my vicinity’ stare a few times. There were these emails about there being a black Music Man and how females shouldn’t be playing these [male] roles in Julius Caesar . . . [Someone] wrote an article about how, basically, there are too many ‘people of colour’ taking on ‘voices of white people.’”
Despite this, Déja explains that, “this [didn’t sully] the whole town or season. [Instead] it was a moment of realization: wow. This is the world we’re living in.” Dixon-Green clarifies, “It’s not that [Stratford itself] is at fault for this . . . It’s just those people who are very right wing. And they will exist wherever you go. That’s why the work we’re doing is so important.”
Kalale Dalton is a playwright from Toronto who has been based in Montreal for the past couple of years. Speaking about Montreal, Dalton is passionate when she says, “I think the mentorship I received in this city is really important. I think a lot about Mike Payette, I think a lot about Jesse Stong . . . These people as pillars of support which I think is a really nice think about the Montreal English theatre community. It’s large enough to be diverse and interesting, but it’s small enough that you don’t feel like people who you want to meet are so far away from you.”
We talked doubts and Kalale mused, “It’s very hard to do the work. [The feeling of] did I choose the wrong career? I think I’ve definitely felt [that] in the past. [Feeling like] I’m bad at this . . . Or it’s always an uphill battle.” She describes that her high school teachers were sceptical about theatre, they said that “If you can do anything else–do it.” Dalton then continued about some surprises she’s found in the industry, “It’s a bizarre thing for me to think that people would WANT to help you make work–it’s just a strange thing. I can’t really wrap my head around that relationship and how to navigate that.” Currently a second year in the playwriting program at NTS, I asked her for any advice she’d give someone. She said, “Start building your net.”
The last person I talked to was Gabe Maharjan a queer performer/theatre creator born and based out of Montreal. They’re a graduate from Dawson Theatre, a performance program that’s mostly based around acting. They mentioned Jesse Stong, Black Theatre Workshop and Playwrights’ Workshop Montréal as huge mentors and sources of support in their career. Maharjan explains, “Montreal is a big city with a lot of theatres but not many English ones. It’s a small English community. You see that a lot of people are creators, they HAVE to write for themselves, they have to produce for themselves because there aren’t a lot of place with the programming spaces or the guts to really do something radical . . . I think the independent scene is really vibrant because of that.”
On acting they describe, “I try to audition for as much as I can. As a queer gendered person–especially in film and television–when there’s a role, I’ll go for it. But there aren’t many. I think that’s why I’m doing more theatre. With the stage I’ve had collaborators and friends who let me perform as everything.”
And we got into the French/English divide as well. “The culture here is weird,” Gabe explains, “French is a minority language in the larger scope but English is the minority language in Montreal . . . I think it’s an interesting relationship when you’re talking about funding. It really forces the English community to come in tight. More and more I’m seeing bilingual theatre being produced. [After all] it’s only sustainable if we have people to see the shows. Otherwise you’re only talking to your own bubble–it’s the same echo chamber. And that’s the same on the French side. It limits . . . the width with which we can understand each other.”
Thus concludes my (admittedly brief) look at Quebec and Ontario. I’d like to acknowledge that there are so many communities, both in Quebec and Ottawa that I didn’t get a chance to feature here. The sheer population that exists in this part of Canada is staggeringly immense. Much like the rest of the places I’ve already interviewed, this is but a brief snapshot of some of the interesting people who’ve chosen to base themselves where they are.
It’s also the first time I was able to interview people in places I’ve personally been to before. There’s something so incredibly wonderful about comparing my own perception of the area with everyone else’s. It really hammers home the fact that each artist, each person’s experience will be different. We all bring our own set of perceptions/views in every circumstance. But within this–I still maintain that there’s a core that’s similar. Different young artists, different skills, jobs, perceptions, all trying to find their way in different parts of Canada.