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Friday, November 2, 2012

Opinion: On The Training Ground and Hamlet

The Folly in Youth
by Nanette Soucy

Montreal is home to at least half a dozen theatre programs. Consequently, its relatively small Anglo theatre scene is inundated with recent grads in search of challenging work to build up their résumés and hopefully pay the rent. With an arguably educational mandate, several local companies have elected to meet this demand for work by choosing to work almost exclusively with erstwhile students, offering them opportunities to perform roles they wouldn’t otherwise have been cast in.

I must confess, I am past the point in my career when I could reasonably refer to myself as a “recent graduate” of my Alma matter. But I am only so far along that the bulk of my working experience is with companies that value employing emerging artists as a matter of mission and method. As young artists, we are all grateful for the existence of these companies to a point. Yes, we can say we held a major role in a classic piece of theatre, that we might not have otherwise been cast in for lack of experience, or because we simply weren’t right for it. Yes, we can say we’ve gotten paid work, but at what cost? Let’s be frank. Companies who choose to employ recent grads, however altruistic their intentions, do so in large part because they are willing to work for cheap, and are invigorated by youth to work hard.

Its recent production of Hamlet is saved by the simple fact that it’s Hamlet, and Hamlet is the perfect play.

There are a number of consequences to hiring the young, enthusiastic, impassioned and inexpensive. The most important one, to those hired, is that although they are just being paid token amounts, the hours they have to put into their performances vis-à-vis professionals remain the same. Since their honorariums are so small, they have to keep a day job, often full-time in order to keep fed. Invariably, something suffers. Be it the actor’s nutrition, Hydro balance, sleep cycle, or performance on stage and at work. Often all of the above.  And what do young artists learn from such experience? That burn-out is common in the arts. How badly burning out sucks. What a drain it is on your life, on and off the stage, and most importantly, that it’s difficult to pull off an award winning performance of a challenging classical work when you haven’t slept properly or eaten a vegetable in weeks, and you don’t yet have the chops, but do have the right physical type for a given role.

Persephone Productions is one of these companies. Its recent production of Hamlet is saved by the simple fact that it’s Hamlet, and Hamlet is the perfect play. There’s love, ghosts, madness, revenge and murder. The plot is engaging, the language is beautiful, the rhythm is familiar, and we are willing to forgive a lot of forgotten, poorly delivered lines, crooked carpentry, and costumes held together by safety pins, because as audiences, we’ve been told that Hamlet is “Challenging Work”, and we’re happy to sit and wait for our favourite lines to pass someone’s lips, clap politely at the end and marvelling at the hard work the actors put in. This was highlighted in Director Gabrielle Soskin’s plea for us to purchase raffle tickets, underscoring a need for funds, and the cast and crew’s hard work in the face of requisite day jobs, as if apologizing to her opening night audience for the tired, unpolished, and often dead-eyed performance we were about to see. As if to say, we’re all working very hard, and we’re all exhausted and hungry, so go easy on us please. When coming from an emerging company, headed and founded by recent grads, these pleas might be forgivable. For a company with over 10 years of productions under its belt, it’s unbecoming.

Yet, we buy the tickets and we attend, not because it’s good, but because exposure to culture of this kind is good for us, and we want to be supportive of young artists, which is also good for us. The audience gets its dose of vitamin art and mineral altruism at the expense of the literal nutrition of the young artist. By fulfilling their appetite for experience and taking advantage of their willingness to sacrifice for their work, we teach them to romanticize starvation as artists, rather than enabling to work for what they’re worth, and supportively exploring their full potential.


  1. If this is supposed to be a critique of the production of Hamlet by Persephone Productions it is - not to put too fine a point on it - pathetic! Gabrielle Soskin has spent 12 years preparing drama students to do some great work on the stages here in Montreal and has usually succeeded. This "review" sounds like Nanette Soucy was not there for the performance. Nowhere in the critique are there any cogent comments on the actual performance.

    We were treated to a very well disciplined and extremely well prepared team of actors that worked together with great clarity and conviction. Every word of this great work was clear and the audience seemed to hang on each one! The stage was - as is the case in all of these kinds of production - simple and spare but this only heightened the importance of the text. The costumes were actually of rather high quality and certainly not "held together with safety pins." Most of the people that were in the audience that I took part in agreed that we are lucky here in Montreal to get to see and hear Shakespeare's great work performed at such a high level.

    My advice is to ignore the Soucy review and to get out there and see one of the greatest plays in the English language - all for a mere $25.

    Dave Schurman

  2. I think you will see that both writer and editor clearly indicated that this is not a review. It is an opinion piece.

  3. I think Nanette has brought up extremely important points and has brought forth an opinion that is shared by many. This is a problem for emerging artists, and although some may argue this is a right of passage, the artists union does not allow these kind of working conditions for a reason. I commend you for bringing up something that is on a lot of people's minds. This is not an attack on Persephone at all, but should be seen as a catalyst for a conversation that many people should be having in the Independent Theatre Scene.

  4. No, it's certainly not a review of Persephone's "Hamlet." A review probably would have had to give some sense of balance and context to the criticisms, rather than tossing them off in the middle of an article about something else entirely.
    It's too bad Nanette couldn't make her points about the dedication of young artists without throwing the ones involved in "Hamlet" - or their director - under the bus in the process.

  5. There are two very important issues raised in this opinion piece: the appropriate trajectory for emerging artists and the lack of maturity in the way in which we critique the work of young theatre companies in Montreal. Both are vital to the future of the arts.

    Unfortunately Nanette's unnecessarily vitriolic and seemingly personal attack on Persephone undermined her underlying argument and she did herself a disservice here. Further, her comments on the production of Hamlet were unsupported and without a critical foundation; in this way she herself became a negative version of the type of superficial and thoughtless critic she decries in her piece.

    However, let's have a real debate on the issues raised. Why is it that there is insufficient funding for young theatre companies, so that working conditions are far from ideal if one wants to do good work? Why is there not a more developed apprenticeship program for young actors? What are the different ways in which we can provide opportunities for actors to continue their training and work on their craft so they feel less isolated? Why are we sometimes reluctant to sit together and have a real conversation about the work of these young companies instead of giving the typical Montreal standing ovations just because they manage to get a play produced?

    Let's have the debate. However, let's do it without needlessly trashing each other.


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