“Good afternoon, I’m here to welcome you to this wonderful play. To the students in the audience, a live performance works because of your involvement and your attention. Unlike film or television, live theatre needs you to respond. You are in fact an important part of the performance” Bryna Wasserman, Artistic Director of the Segal Theatre is personally welcoming a mixed audience of season subscribers and students; and she wants to make sure the students pay attention.

Rather than asking them to behave; she is welcoming them into the audience and giving them a role in the play – and it works. “To our loyal subscribers – thank you. We appreciate your support and attendance. Without you – none of this happens.” In a few sentences Bryna has reached out to each audience member with a genuine sincerity – because theatre, and in particular, this theatre is her life, her home and her family.

“There’s a ‘day job’ and a ‘night job’ to this life of mine. The day is administrative and the night is creative, when we have performances going on in the theatre, The Studio and CinemaSpace.”

Bryna Wasserman is both Artistic and Executive Director of the Segal Centre for the Performing Arts and has been the driving force in the development of the theatre since returning to Montreal from New York in 1998.

What started out as an interview quickly became “a day in the life” experience. Bryna discussed an emergency plan with the stage manager about how to proceed without one of the actors (who was late for the performance); she spoke to a mixed group of student and season subscribers before a Matinee performance of Over the River and Through the Woods; took an urgent call from an actress who had a sore throat, and attended a birthday cake presentation for staff members. And this was in just 90 minutes! All handled with grace and aplomb, despite a late night budget meeting that began the previous night at midnight and continued until 3am.

A lifetime in theatre has prepared her for the vagaries and unpredictability of ‘a day in the life of an Artistic Director’.

Bryna was born in Vienna, and her parents relocated to Montreal when she was just two. Her own acting career began when she was 5, performing at Her Majesty’s Theatre. “I didn’t get paid, but my mother would buy me new shoes. The Director wouldn’t let me take a curtain call, afraid that a child would upstage the adult actors…and to this day that still irks me!”

“My sister and I didn’t have a conventional upbringing, but we didn’t know it – because there was a lot of love in our home. In an era when most women stayed at home, my father gave my mother the space for her to pursue her dream – she was the star. He was a very loving and caring human being.”

“My mother’s home was always open – it was almost like a salon. We’d have writers and authors visiting all the time. We didn’t have much money, and so my sister and I learned at an early age to say that ‘we’d already eaten’, because there wasn’t enough for everyone; and my parents wanted to make sure our guests were fed.” Continuing, Bryna notes; “To this day it’s difficult for me to sit down until everyone’s been looked after.”

Bryna tells the story that illustrates how different her life was as a young girl. “Other kids went home after school, maybe for milk and cookies. I went to the theatre and watched my mother and the cast in rehearsal. Sometimes I’d fall asleep under a bench – but even then I loved the theatre. I quite literally learned this business at my mother’s side. From a very young age I knew I was going to work in theatre – it wasn’t an option – it was something I had to do.”

“Bryna is a genius! We invested because we know that she can take The Segal Centre to new heights” Alvin Segal

Bryna also learned self-confidence and courage from her mother; and at 20 Bryna moved to Vancouver and worked at the Vancouver Opera. “However, my mother insisted that I get a professional qualification so I’d have something to fall back on. I moved to New York, and got my teaching degree at NYU.”

Bryna continued her theatre studies, and later graduated with Bachelors and Masters Degrees in theatre directing from the Tisch School of Fine Arts and New York University. She directed at the American Place Theatre, The Vivian Beaumont Theatre at Lincoln Centre, the Mercer Street Theatre, The Vancouver Opera Company, and the Folksbiene Playhouse. While Bryna was directing plays in New York, her mother was guiding The Dora Wasserman Yiddish Theatre to critical acclaim.

Along the way, Bryna married, had three children; and when it became necessary to choose between her husband and theatre – she chose her first love – theatre… “You give up a lot – it’s rare to have an ideal home and an ideal career in this business.’

Bryna returned to Montreal in 1998 to direct one play per year. “My mother had suffered a stroke, and she needed me to help. We presented three plays a year; one produced and directed in-house for the Yiddish Theatre and two outside productions.” Bryna continues; “In September ’99 I was asked to organize a season. We started with 3 plays and 700 subscribers. We now present 6 productions and have 3,500 subscribers.”

The audience acceptance has been matched by critical acclaim and a prominent stature in the Canadian and international theatre circles. “I want our English theatre to be of such a stature that every actor in the country would be proud to work here. Actors and directors like Martha Henry, Dianna LeBlanc, and Steven Schipper are happy to work here because we have a good reputation.”

“We are who we are because meet challenges head on. I learned at my mother’s side that you never give up. The Segals have the confidence that we’ll stay the course. It takes time and perseverance – and the faith of our backers. ” (Editor’s Note: Leanor and Alvin Segal have invested to renovate and revitalize The Segal Centre for the Performing Arts.)

“Every day is a challenge to stay the course. Our different constituents all have their own agendas, which are legitimate. The artists, our supporters, our audience and our staff all have expectations, and the challenge is to keep everyone pulling in the same direction.”

The Dora Wasserman Yiddish Theatre productions are still an integral part of the Segal Theatre Season. Under Bryna’s direction, the theatre that still bears her mother’s name has won MECCA Awards for The Great Houdini and The Threepenny Opera. Other Yiddish musicals she’s directed include The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, On Second Avenue, The Golden Land, Fiddler on the Roof, Those Were The Days, and The Wise Men of Chelm. Bryna has organized touring productions to Florida, Toronto and Europe for several of the musicals.

This is the 50th Anniversary of the Dora Wasserman Yiddish Theatre, and Bryna has organized an International Festival to celebrate the Yiddish language and theatre. “If you can imagine – people from Romania, Poland, Israel, The United States and Montreal are going to celebrate Yiddish Theatre right here in June.”

“Theatre can help us to build bridges to other cultural communities – like we’re doing right now with our Salute to the Italian Community, running at the same time we’re producing a play written by Joe DiPietro, an American of Italian heritage.” Indeed, Opening Night for DiPietro’s play and the launch of the Salute to the Italian Community was a magical evening, with Bryna, Ben and Abe Gonshor welcoming Lino Saputo Jr. and representatives of the Italian Community. A lot of goodwill was banked that evening.

With the renovations complete at The Segal Centre for Performing Arts, Bryna has added to the creative endeavours. The Academy provides instruction in a variety of disciplines including, music, theatre, and film. The CinemaSpace is a world class intimate theatre showing a mixture of classic and leading edge films. The Studio is another performance space for new theatre companies, original works, and is also the home for the hugely successful Power Jazz Concerts. “Not only are we offering an opportunity for talented people to further develop, we’re also ‘training’ future audiences. People who are appreciative of the arts will continue to enjoy theatre and music.”

While she has a certain contentment for the accomplishment that is The Segal Centre and all the myriad of activities taking place, her artistic temperament is still seeking new horizons. “The Segal Centre is a culmination of my career; and at the same time is a re-launch. There is so much we can still do now that we have this lovely building, and wonderful people.” like Gisele Rucker in theatre and George Doxas and his sons; who make music come alive for our students.”

Bryna is in the building for every performance of every play, “…unless I’m out seeing someone else’s play. It’s important that you hear what the audience has to say, how they feel about a performance.”

On a personal note, I ask what she does for fun. Without hesitation she replies; “I go to plays! I go to New York, Toronto, and Vancouver to see what they’re doing there. Whether it’s a student production or a major company – I want to see it. I’m never bored!”

Someday someone else will run the Segal Centre. It may well take several people to replace Bryna when she retires. But for the foreseeable future, Bryna Wasserman will continue to bring her indomitable spirit and courage to the creative process of running a first-class theatre and arts centre. Like her mother before her, Bryna’s life work in theatre is part of her very being. In a voice choked with emotion she states; “I’m grateful for this opportunity. I don’t take it for granted…not for a minute!”