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“The Work Is Fruitful”: In Conversation with Mike Payette

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/By / Sep 2, 2022
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He’s a fan of Insomnia’s chicken and waffles. He’s a new Torontonian, a Montreal native and champion of new voices in Canadian theatre. He’s effortlessly charming and articulate, a captivating speaker and clear leader of the small-but-mighty Tarragon team.

Now in the role for a whole year, Tarragon artistic director Mike Payette is deep in the throes of his first full season, bringing to life Ho Ka Kei (Jeff Ho)’s Cockroach while also spearheading an impressive, diverse season of programming in one of Canada’s most prolific incubators of new work. Cockroach, according to Tarragon’s marketing materials, is “a coming-of-age play about the stories we tell ourselves to comfort, to survive, to resist, to overcome, and to be.”

On Cockroach, Payette says it’s “a real gift” to open the season with this group of collaborators.

“The team is really quite lovely. So much laughter. There’s rigour and hard work but it’s going so well.”

Payette’s had a year to settle into the role before the start of his first full season. 

“That’s mind boggling,” he says. “It feels like so much longer. In the best way. But it feels a lot longer than a year.”

“The learning curves and the immersion into the community and the theatre have been quite quick. I can’t believe it’s been a year, how much has happened already, how much I’ve grown myself inside the company. It’s been non-stop, taking on this role and booking appointments in this spirit of building and re-building, and it’s taken a lot of mind and spirit and heart. But the transition has been great, and the staff and board have been so supportive,” he says with a laugh.

“I’ve been given the wings I need to succeed. Of course I miss my family in Montreal. But the work is good. The work is fruitful.”

The work is fruitful.

Payette follows in the footsteps of former Tarragon AD Richard Rose, who led the theatre for nearly twenty years. Payette’s vision for the future of the company honours Tarragon’s rich legacy, but zeroes in on areas of potential for the Toronto theatre community.

“Some of those first few months were about taking a deep dive into what our responsibility and opportunity is as an institution. A lot of the work has been internal with staff and board, looking at our overall vision and navigating questions: what is it we believe in? How do we reground ourselves in this moment in time, as it relates to our mandate and our mission?”

“There’s no question about Tarragon’s empowerment of new work and creation and development,” says Payette, “but how can we work, and who can we work with, to be stronger and more representative of the scope of storytellers in Canada, in Toronto?”

Payette doubles down on Tarragon’s commitment to new work. The passion shines through the phone.

“We believe in the power of dramaturgy. We believe in social advocacy as it relates to the theatre. That’s our responsibility. It’s not art for art’s sake. I’m asking the question: what is the impact of theatre and theatre-making in Canada now? That’s what’s driving the programming decisions, the residences, the commissions. They’re all speaking to that larger umbrella of impact.”

We believe in the power of dramaturgy.

Following an expansive chat on organizational planning and artistic trajectory, Payette and I pivot towards more lighthearted fare. 

“You know what? Add this to the article,” he jokes as we wind down our phone call. “If anyone wants to donate art to my wall as I transition to my place, they can. And I’m down for solicitations of furniture,” he adds with a reverberating laugh.

“But seriously. We’re playing with possibility. We’re having these exchanges. And it’s all just so incredibly exciting.”

Find out more about Cockroach, playing at Tarragon September 13 – October 9, here.

Aisling Murphy
WRITTEN BY

Aisling Murphy

Aisling is Intermission's senior editor and an award-winning arts journalist with bylines including the Toronto Star, NEXT Magazine, CTV News Toronto, and Maclean's. She likes British playwright Sarah Kane, most songs by Taylor Swift, and her cats, Fig and June.

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