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Sunday, December 16, 2012

Ford's Focus: Elsa Bolam

(photo credit: Dory Reimer)
The Pioneer
Elsa Bolam IS the history of Montreal English-language theatre
by Barbara Ford

Elsa Bolam grew up in Newcastle upon Tyne (known as Geordie country) in Northern England. Both parents worked office jobs unrelated to the arts but her sister, Margaret Dale, was a ballet dancer with the Sadler’s Wells Company, later the Royal Ballet, and Bolam remembers going to the theatre often from a young age.

She studied English Literature at the University of Leeds and while there, became involved with the student theatre group making sets and doing a bit of acting and directing.  After Leeds, she continued her education at Durham University and then received her Master’s degree in Drama from Syracuse University, New York, thanks to a Fulbright Scholarship. 

After returning to the UK, she continued to learn her craft working for two seasons at the Royal Shakespeare Company, first as an Assistant Stage Manager at Stratford, and later as an Assistant Director at the Aldwych Theatre (London). When ABC television ran a competition for young theatre directors, Bolam entered and won the prize: a year in repertory working as Assistant Director at the Theatre Royal, York.  Following York, she free-lanced around the British Isles and directed and taught at the Central School of Speech and Drama in London. For a year and a half she also directed television plays at the BBC in London. 

Maurice, Nicholas, Alison, Elsa
It was during this period that Bolam met her husband-to-be, South African ex-pat Maurice Podbrey. During her year at the Theatre Royal, she directed him in such roles as Papa Baker in Come Blow Your Horn, and the infamous villain, Mr. Murdstone, in David Copperfield. 

In 1966 Podbrey received an invitation from acting colleague Bill Davis (known for his ‘smoking man’ character in the hit TV series X-Files) to come to Montreal to assist the head of the English section of the National Theatre School of Canada. After visiting Montreal during Expo ’67, Bolam decided to emigrate the following year. 

Bolam and Podbrey married in 1969 and took up residence in Old Montreal very close to what is now the Centaur Theatre but was, at the time, the vacant Old Stock Exchange building. Both he and Bolam were teaching at NTS, with Bolam also working part-time at Sir George Williams University (now part of Concordia).  Podbrey was hard-pressed to understand why there was no English theatre apart from the fledgling  Saidye Bronfman Company (run by Marion André), and Instantheatre, Mary Morter’s lunchtime theatre initiative in the basement of Place Ville Marie. “Maurice always blames me for starting Centaur,” Bolam reminisced, “but really I was just tired of hearing him go on about how someone should start a theatre. I finally got fed up and told him to open one of his own.” Behind every great idea is … well you know.

You had to climb up a ladder through a hole in the floor to reach a communal dressing room with no bathroom...

Billy Bishop Goes to War with Paul Stewart,
Elsa Bolam, Bruce Dinsmore & Robbie Burns
Jacques Languirand, actor and host of Radio-Canada’s Par 4 chemins, had tried to launch his project,  Le Centre culturel de Vieux Montréal, in the Old Stock Exchange, but the money ran out before it got off the ground and the half-renovated space lay dormant for a year. Quite suddenly, Herb Auerbach and Peter Duffield from Instantheatre’s Board of Directors, asked Podbrey to take over and get Instantheatre back on its feet. Podbrey agreed as long as they would help him launch an evening venture in the Stock Exchange building.  Sadly, Instantheatre never managed to rally but the evening enterprise took off.

The two Stock Exchanges (Montreal and Canada) each had their own distinct space. There was nothing but a huge pile of rubble in the larger of the two, but in the smaller lay the remnants of Languirand’s abandoned cultural centre production of John Herbert’s Fortune and Men’s Eyes. Bolam remembers going in for the first time and seeing the set still on the stage. Further investigation revealed the artists’ backstage facilities as functional, barely meeting building code requirements. “You had to climb up a ladder through a hole in the floor to reach a communal dressing room with no bathroom, but with one toilet sitting magnificently in the middle of the room!” With the help of friends, they managed to find old cinema seating, carry out renovations and make a theatre in the smaller space. 

To tell the truth, I don’t know where they got the name Centaur.

Bluenose from top Julie Tamiko Manning,
Omari Newton & Lindsay Pierre
“We didn’t know what to call the theatre so we started a public campaign to find a name. The whole city got involved which was a good omen. It showed us how eager people were to have a new English theatre. But in the end we kept the name of the foundation that was running Instantheatre. To tell the truth, I don’t know where they got the name Centaur.”

In the Fall of 1969, with a tentative three-month contract, Centaur Theatre opened its doors with The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie followed by a second production, Joe Egg. The contract was extended and they delivered an eclectic first season with an impressive eight productions:  Androcles and the Lion, The Odd Couple, The Birthday Party, A Lily in Little India, Luther and The Great White Computer. Bolam laughed as she recounted the weekly payroll procedure. “Herb and Peter were able to get us a bank overdraft. Every week we borrowed enough money on Thursday to pay the actors  and by the time the weekend was over, we’d made it all back in ticket sales and returned it to the bank on the following Monday.” And that’s how they rolled that first season.

While the city appeared hungry for English theatre, the buzz that Centaur’s inaugural season created was overshadowed by a violent police strike, surpassed the following season by the October Crisis. “I remember one terrifying night in particular. There were looters on St. Catherine Street taking advantage of the police strike. And during the October Crisis, many artists were being arrested and jailed. It was quite alarming.”

We wrote letters to everyone that had seen the plays asking them to subscribe.

Despite the turbulence, Centaur’s triumphant opening season enabled them to apply for government grants. “It was the Trudeau era: there was a lot of grant money available for artists back then,” Bolam explained, but they weren’t about to rely on those. “We wrote letters to everyone that had seen the plays asking them to subscribe,” amassing an astounding 3,000 subscribers.  It wasn’t just the government that had money to spend on the arts!

In 1970, Bolam and Podbrey had their first child, Nicholas, and in 1974 their second, Alison. Bolam continued to teach, sometimes up to 80 hours a week, hauling Alison to school with her whenever the babysitter was ill, unintentionally introducing Alison to her future career.  In all, she worked a total of 12 years at NTS, five of them running the English Technical Section.  Bolam admitted, “I suspect they [the kids] each felt a little neglected at times with parents working in theatre.”

Wizard of Oz with Aidan Devine, Carla Napier
& Ross Leslie
As her two children began trundling off to school, Bolam returned to directing around the country. At that time she noticed that there wasn’t a lot of opportunity for new theatre practitioners nor was there much theatre for youth, especially in the more remote areas of Quebec.  Seeing a need, she attempted to fill it by incorporating Geordie Productions in 1980. “It was a way to create work for new actors. There were so many theatre department graduates every year but not much to keep them in Montreal,” she reasoned. “I remember Maurice constantly hiring actors from out of town for Centaur.” 

Geordie’s first touring show, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, took place in 1982. With strong support from the Protestant School Board of Greater Montreal, the company took one production a year to Montreal elementary schools. Then the Catholic Schools joined in, and soon the touring circuit enlarged to two plays each season going right across the province.  Suddenly Geordie was bringing English theatre to areas like Thetford Mines, and Bolam remembers being called by a nun, Sister Margaret Rose, who, in no uncertain terms, wanted The Wizard of Oz ‘for my children.’ “It was a challenge having to come up with creative ideas to enact scenes like a melting wicked witch when you’re performing in a brightly lit school gym or cafeteria. We had to be very inventive.”

A Promise is a Promise with laura Teasdale
& Julie Tamiko Mannings & First Nation kids
Soon the company was taking their children’s shows to James Bay Cree territory, and then, through the Kativik School Board to villages on the Hudson’s Bay Coast. Bolam had an unforgettable experience visiting Inuit audiences in Kuujjuaq and other settlements in the Ungava Bay area of Nunavik. She also accompanied the Billy Bishop Goes to War cast when they went to perform at Canadian Forces Station (CFS) Alert - as close to the North Pole as you can get.   

By 1985, Geordie was able to set up shop in the offices they now occupy at 4001 Berri, a few steps from Bolam’s current home. “When we first moved in, we shared the space with PWM [Playwrights’ Workshop Montreal] and CQT [Conseil québécois du théâtre]. I remember the rehearsal room had a terrible, creaky floor and Nicholas Pynes [current Artistic Director of Théatre Lac Brome] was the administrative assistant.” In the early 90's, Geordie Productions was able to develop a small theatre space in their own premises for rehearsals and for showcase performances by other companies. What was called the Geordie Space back then has evolved into Espace 4001.

A Geordie highlight would have to be the U.S. showcase in which Geordie was chosen to 
Howard Bilerman & First Nation Kids
participate at the Kennedy Centre in the late 90’s and which led to extensive US tours two years in a row. Touring so far afield was a feather in Geordie’s cap but they had their share of mishaps too.  Bolam recounted one of the more harrowing episodes when they were driving back from Washington during a howling snow storm and a block of ice fell from out of nowhere, breaking their vehicle’s windshield. 

The approach of the new millennium was exciting and with an injection of monies from government coffers for special millennium projects, Geordie used the additional resources to upgrade. The extra funding allowed them to start presenting their productions in a main-stage family series at the D. B. Clarke Theatre on the Concordia University campus. The aftermath of 9/11 brought Geordie’s U.S. tours to an abrupt end but the calibre of their productions and the size of their audiences continued to grow on this side of the border.

The Adventures of Emily Bronte-Saurus
Q&A with James Douglas, Collin Doyle,
Miranda Handford, Brandy  Yanchyk & Gareth Potter
Bolam said that she thinks most of Montreal’s mature actors have come through Geordie at one time or another, and of that she is very proud. “We were able to give them valuable experience and a decent salary when they were starting out.” A short list would contain such actors as  Paul Hopkins, Laura Teasdale, Glenda Braganza, Julie Tamiko Manning, Michel Perron, Al Goulem, Bruce Dinsmore, Robbie Burns, Matthew Kabwe (Little John in this month’s Geordie production of Robin Hood), Andreas Apergis and France Rolland. Bolam feels that Geordie owes much to fruitful collaborations with established directors such as Barbara Poggemiller. Looking back, she said, “Many, many people gave of their best to the company. Though starting Centaur and Geordie was a hard slog, it was all worth it.” 

Howard Bilerman, Christine Gagné,
Laura LaChance & Ross Leslie
By the spring of 2006, Bolam felt it was time to pass the reins to someone else. Dean Patrick Fleming had acted in, stage managed and directed for Geordie. Knowing what a talented director he was, Bolam applied for a six-month grant that enabled Fleming to round out his theatre knowledge by learning the administrative side of things too. “I always wanted it to be Dean,” she confided. “I didn’t want the next director to come from a headhunt, to be someone unknown to the community.” As anyone who’s seen a Geordie production in the years since Bolam left can attest, the Board made the right decision in choosing Fleming.

Brahm and the Angel, designed by Patricia Flood, Directed by Barbara Poggemiller
with Paula Jean Hixson,  Dean Fleming, Omari Newton & Robin Wilcock
Bolam’s energetic spirit did not rest long. In 2011 The English Language Arts Network (ELAN) launched Arts and Community Culture on the Road (ACCORD) with the goal of bringing English cultural events to remote Anglo areas of Quebec … sound vaguely familiar?  Bolam applied and interviewed like all the other candidates but with her years of touring experience and a wide network of artists at her fingertips, she was the natural choice. As Bolam described the challenges and accomplishments of the initiative, her eyes danced and she became more animated. Clearly she loves a new adventure and I imagined how invigorating it must have been working alongside her in those formative years at Geordie. 

Mouse with Mike Hughes, Daniel Schneiderman,
Caiobhse Shanahan, Sarah Allen & First Nation Kids
Stage one of the ACCORD effort was to organize a database of artists/projects and interested Anglo communities or organizations on the ELAN ACCORD Web Site. Stage two was to hold workshops for community groups not familiar with presenting cultural events, and Stage three consisted of creating a number of events across the province. Working with such organizations as the Quebec Community Groups Network (QCGN), much has been achieved during  the two-year span that Canadian Heritage allotted to the program.

With the collaboration of QDF, Laura Teasdale’s Honky Tonk Blue musical about Patsy Cline has toured to Grosse Ile in the Magdalen Islands and to  Deux-Montagnes, with performances coming  up in the Townships and Wakefield on the Gatineau River. The popular team of Bowser and Blue have taken their signature brand of music and comedy to Sept Isles and will shortly head out to Rouyn-Noranda. Singers, songwriters and storytellers like Matthew McCully, Kate Morison, Sarah Biggs, Patricia Hortop-Benson, Emily Nyman and Michel Thibault have also shared their talents in Anglo pockets around the province. 

Wnnie the Pooh Designed by Eo Sharp,
Directed by Corey Castle with Eric Davis,
Laura Teasdale, Kevin Ryder & Michelle Heisler
Managing various types of events, working with different artists and small communities with few resources at their disposal has its stresses, not unlike touring in hazardous snow storms. In the middle of our interview, Bolam took a call from Teasdale who had just returned from Grosse Ile. Bad weather had postponed all the tightly scheduled travel arrangements, threatening to jeopardize a voice-over gig for Teasdale. Bolam is an old hand at dealing with the unexpected and in the end, it all worked out.  ACCORD funding lasts until March 31, 2013 so if you’ve got a project you want to take on the road, act now!

“So what happens when ACCORD shuts down at the end of March?” I ask. Bolam says she may stay on as a volunteer with ELAN.  Right now she happily confides that the whole family will be in Montreal for Christmas contrary to most recent years. With her son, Nicholas, living and working in film in Vancouver, Maurice working in South Africa for half the year, and Alison busy with Scapegoat Carnivale, a local indie company she co-founded in 2006, it’s difficult to find a time when everyone is free. 

Off-loading Air Wemendji
Bolam is on the Board of Directors and actively works to support Podbrey’s production company, the Mopo Cultural Trust. Mopo is currently co-producing the world premiere of Waiting for the Barbarians with the Segal Centre, in association with Cape Town’s Baxter Theatre Centre, from January 27 to February 17, 2013. Alexandre Marine has adapted the script from J. M. Coatzee’s novel, and directs the new work. 

Teddy Lee Dillon, Ross Leslie &
Aidan Devine loading eordie van
Previously Mopo produced Lara Foot Newton’s Tshepang, a disturbing play based on an actual incident, at Theatre La Chapelle in 2009, and the production went on to win a MECCA for Best Visiting Production.  Foot Newton, CEO and Director of the Baxter, is a partner of Mopo and last February, Mopo produced another of her fact-based plays called Did We Dance: The Sinking of the Mendi.

During her career, to date, Bolam has directed over 20 productions in UK theatres and more than 80 across Canada. She has received several awards and honours including The American Film and Video Association’s Blue Ribbon Award, Avon Canada's Women of Inspiration Award for Arts and Culture (2002), a Queen's Golden Jubilee Medal and the Sheila and Victor Goldbloom Distinguished Community Service Award. She is a member of the Order of Canada and in October 2012 Concordia University presented her with an honorary PhD, so the next time you run into the quiet, unassuming Bolam at one of the myriad theatre openings she never misses, remember to address her as ‘Doc’ Bolam.

[A personal thank you from this writer to Howard Bilerman, James Douglas, Dean Fleming, Mike Hughes, Steve Lecky and Elsa for their kind help identifying the artists in these photos.] 


  1. Beautifully done Barbara! Bravo and congratulations Elsa!

  2. Well done Barbara!

  3. Fabulous article about an inspirational woman whom I'm proud to call a friend and mentor. Bravo!

  4. Elsa continues to be a strong asset to Canada's theatre community.

  5. I really enjoyed reading this. I continue to be inspired by Elsa Bolam.

  6. A great article. So many of us owe a debt of gratitude to Elsa, and now I know so much more about why.Thanks


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