Texaco, The Montreal Stock Exchange, The Montreal Star, McKim Advertising – all large and thriving businesses in 1969 – and all of them gone. They were unable to contend with the changing business climate of their times. Add to the list those businesses that couldn’t adapt to the new political reality of Quebec; Sun Life, Royal Bank, Bank of Montreal, Canadian Pacific – all have left the city in the past 40 years.

In Old Montreal there was a theatre company that couldn’t afford seats. They borrowed chairs from a restaurant across the street that served only breakfast and lunch – nobody came to Old Montreal for dinner. The chairs had to be returned after the performance in time for breakfast the next morning. In a building previously occupied by the Montreal Stock Exchange on rue St. Francois-Xavier in Old Montreal, Centaur Theatre continued to develop, to expand, to entertain and to challenge theatre audiences. The theatre not only survived – it has flourished.

Only three people have served as Artistic Directors of Centaur Theatre Company during the past 40 years.
The company’s status in the Canadian theatre community grew to legendary proportions, and the top job was and is still a dream job for Artistic Directors across Canada. The company will celebrate its 40th Anniversary Season in the same building where it all started in 1969.

The beginnings of Centaur were humble, dependant on an unusual set of circumstances, and fraught with precarious finances. But there was a dream – perhaps a mission – to bring outstanding plays to life for Montreal audiences. While he may not have recognized it at the time, Maurice Podbrey would play a magnificent role in creating a home for English theatre in Montreal.

Maurice Podbrey was living in London and was struggling to make ends meet. Bill Davis (Cancer-man in the X-Files TV series) was in charge of the National Theatre School in Montreal. He offered a teaching job to Maurice Podbrey; who jumped at the chance to make a decent living in theatre. He arrived in 1966 and rented a loft in Old Montreal in order to be close to the National Theatre School. In wandering through the neighbourhood, Podbrey learned that there was a theatre in the boarded up building that once had been the Montreal Stock Exchange.

Maurice integrated himself into the Montreal artistic community, and was soon asked to take over Instant Theatre, a company that produced lunchtime theatre at Place Ville Marie. He did so with the proviso that he would be able to organize the company to produce plays for a legitimate evening theatre. And he had just the location in mind…

Maurice had come into contact with Herbert Auerbach, who was the developer of Place Ville Marie, Place Bonaventure and a patron of the performing arts. Auerbach became the first President and Founding Chairman of the Centaur Foundation for the performing Arts.

Another theatre company had previously attempted to transform the Stock Exchange building into a performing arts centre – but had failed. They had managed to build a 220 seat theatre in the space we now know as Centaur 1. The theatre was complete, except that the seating company had taken their seats back when unable to obtain payment. In 1969 the first season was unveiled, tickets were sold, and the nightly exchange of chairs began with the restaurant began. Maurice secured the Canadian premiere for The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie in their first season, and the fledging company gained recognition and reputation.

Maurice Podbrey would stay on as Artistic and Executive Director for an incredible 29 years, building the company’s reputation and its audiences. By 1974 the company was able to purchase the venerable old building with the trademark Greek columns and invest $1.3 million in renovations, including the construction of a second and larger theatre with seating for 440, now known as Centaur 2.

Chuck Childs, who has been with Centaur for over 30 years (as General Manager for the last 20) had this comment; “Maurice had a driving vision of what he believed we could do as a theatre company, and he was supportive about giving a voice to guys like David Fennario and Vittorio Rossi to tell Montreal stories.”

“I came to Centaur in season ten as Production Manager. It was the season that we premiered David Fennario’s Balconville, which was a huge critical and financial success. We took Balconville across Canada and to Europe.” Many of David Fennario’s plays had their World Premiere at Centaur, including: including On The Job (1975), Nothing To Lose (1976), Toronto (1978), Moving (1983), The Death of René Lévesque (1990) and Balconville (1979 and 1992).

Chuck has a clear understanding of Montreal society and the role theatre plays in reflecting that reality. “There’s no other city with Montreal’s two language and cultural groups, plus all the other cultural communities. Our ‘art’ being theatre is language based, and we play a role in representing our community. We see the world from a dual perspective – in part as a minority within Quebec – and also from a global perspective.”

The real and symbolic importance of the theatre was evidenced by Lucien Bouchard’s decision to address the English community following the divisive 1995 referendum at the Centaur.

Chuck continues; “One of the reasons that I’ve stayed on for 30 years is that we do a lot of important work. We have the opportunity to do something that makes a difference – from bringing people down to Old Montreal to enlightening audiences with engaging productions. The people here make it a pleasure to come to work every day. We never have enough resources – but we work together and get the job done and the show on the stage.”

Chuck believes that Centaur has made a practical contribution to Old Montreal; “When I first started 30 years ago – there was just one restaurant open for dinner. All the rest served the business community and were only open for breakfast and lunch. Most of St. Paul was derelict warehouses and the only hotel was The Nelson, basically used as a bar. Now there are boutique hotels, many restaurants and of course all the condos. I think Centaur played a role in that transformation – bringing 300 to 500 people a night into Old Montreal.”

Concluding our conversation, Chuck states; “I feel very privileged to have worked with the three Artistic Directors. Each has an artistic vision that is both rewarding and easy to support.”

Maurice Podbrey retired in 1997, and fortunately he gave a two year notice. “We had never hired an Artistic Director” noted GM Childs. “We didn’t even have a procedure, and it took us a year to define our criteria and develop a hiring procedure.”

“Centaur Theatre was arguably one of the most important theatres in Canada, headed by the legendary Maurice Podbrey”, stated Gordon McCall. “When the job came open, I and every other Artistic Director in the country took notice, and there were many, many applications – including mine. I was interviewed three times, covering a variety of subjects, including artistic direction and management style. It was the fairest opportunity I’ve had with any application. Consequently, I came with a great sense of security that they really wanted me.”

Gord continues; “There wasn’t a day that I didn’t feel good about coming to work. The opportunity at Centaur was like opening a treasure chest.”

“People were becoming aware that bilingualism was an asset – especially for the younger generation. We saw an opportunity to represent the true Quebec voice, one that is both French and English, and to present the works of people like Michel Tremblay in English.” This was a significant development for the theatre company; “The Board agreed that we had to reach out to the broader community. I’m very proud that Michel Tremblay considers Centaur as the home of his plays in English – that he doesn’t have to go to Toronto to premiere his plays in English.”

The outreach program had an international component as well. “I had a vision of international work collaboration that would energize both our company and our international partner company. We would take a production like Tremblay’s For the Pleasure of Seeing Her Again to the Abbey Theatre in Dublin, and they in turn would bring one of their productions to the Centaur, including their Director. The result was an infusion of fresh ideas for both companies.”

The outreach efforts were also extended within the Montreal theatrical community. “We’d attend virtually every performance at the Fringe Festival, looking for new plays to bring to our audience in our January Wild Side Festival. Our audiences could see new works without going to a warehouse somewhere and have to climb five flights of stairs.”

Artistically, Gordon put Centaur Theatre into overdrive. “We had 21 World premieres during the 10 years I was Artistic Director, and I was proud that as an English company we won the Theatre Category in the Grand Prix de Montreal for our Montreal Voices season in 2005-06.” Gord is enthusiastic about the writer-in-residence program that gave voice to new plays by Steve Orloff, Ann Lambert and David Sherman.

Special mention goes to Vittorio Rossi, whose plays have premiered at Centaur beginning with The Chain in 1988, and later with his Carpenter’s Tale trilogy a tremendous success. Gordon comments; “Rarely has a theatre company committed to a trilogy – especially when only the first play was written. It was inspired by the real life story of Vittorio’s father. It was an anchor for our Montreal Voices season, and all three plays were spectacular successes.”

“David Fennario’s Condoville, and Steve Galluci’s Mambo Italiano were huge hits, again reflecting uniquely Montreal stories. Mambo Italiano treated an important social issue with in a comic way.”

“I’ll always feel a part of the Centaur family. We cared a great deal about each other on a personal basis. We helped each other through some tough times personally for company members.”

Gord is proud of Centaur providing work to many Montreal artists, writers and actors; and the role that the theatre has played in the fabric of Montreal. “We were playing Twelfth Night during the Ice Storm, we had production running when Pierre Trudeau passed away and when Rocket Richard died. Centaur is part of Montreal.”

Now teaching theatre as Head of Directing in the Theatre Department at the prestigious Purdue University, Gord states; “I can be here at Purdue because of my experience at Centaur. My students tell me that they appreciate my real life examples from my Centaur experiences. I feel rewarded and humbled to have spent ten years of my life with Centaur Theatre in that wonderful city.”

Roy Surette is the third Artistic and Executive Director as the Centaur Theatre Company enters its 40th Season. Roy is a naturally enthusiastic and energetic person, and he is truly excited to be living in Montreal and with his role at Centaur. “It’s a great place – it has a wonderful nobility both as a building and as a company.”

“I love the celebratory nature of theatre. There’s almost a sense of delusional optimism to work in theatre. We try to celebrate life as much as we can.” Roy looks forward to maintaining the tradition of presenting “contemporary work with an edge”. At the same time, he recognizes that the plays have to be accessible, and that audiences like a balance. “I try to use common sense in our scheduling. For example – February is the dead of winter, and it’s a good time for something up-beat, which is why we’ve scheduled Shirley Valentine then.”

(Centaur Theatre celebrates 40th Anniversary Season-04)Roy Surette has an energetic passioncfor theatre

Roy is impressed with the wealth of talent in the immediate vicinity. “Montreal has a resilient and resourceful group of artists – no one is going to hand you a living in theatre. You have to go our and earn it.” As an English theatre company in Montreal, Roy has been impressed with the Centaur Company’s great dedication and high production values. “We have a great group of highly talented people in all aspects of theatre.”

“The Centaur audience is sophisticated – as a community, Montrealers have been supporting this company for 40 years.” At the same time, Roy believes that there is room for improvement in strengthening the subscriber base. “We’re introducing different ticket packages this year in order to encourage more people to come to the theatre.” The thinking is that after coming to a few plays – new subscribers will attend more often. Ticket packages for this season include 4, 5 or 6 plays.

The curtain rises on Centaur Theatre’s 40th Anniversary Season on October 7. It’s a remarkable achievement – one that could not have been accomplished without the grass roots audience support that confirms the value of sponsorship for corporations, individuals and foundations. Staying relevant and accessible to the customer base has proved to be a winning formula.

For information about subscriber packages, please call the Box Office at: 514-288-3161 or visit the company’s website: www.centaurtheatre.com Enjoy!

“I’ve been associated with the Centaur Theatre for twenty years, ever since my play “The Chain” opened its 20th Anniversary season. Maurice Podbrey (Centaur’s Founding Artistic Director) took a big gamble with that production and it paid off in more ways than one. It effectively began my career both as an actor and as a playwright. Centaur is like a second home to me, a professional home, where I am able to tell my stories to the public. Centaur has held, and will always hold a very special place in my heart. I believe the Centaur has survived for 40 years now, because it fulfills a demand by the public for good thought provoking and entertaining theatre.

Centaur is at its best when the plays they produce are story based, as opposed to experimental vanity projects, and the public can testify to that. Podbrey took risks, and found ways to connect to the hearts of the public. This was appreciated then, and still is now.” Vittorio Rossi

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