Theatre Icon and Impresario

By Gail Kirkpatrick

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Brian Richmond has taught at McGill, Concordia, Simon Fraser, York, Waterloo, and Toronto Universities as well as the National Theatre School of Canada. He served as artistic director of Montreal’s Playwrights Workshop, Thunder Bay’s Magnus Theatre, and Toronto’s Theatre Passe Muraille before becoming Chair of the University of Victoria’s Theatre Department, and he is a three-time winner of the Dora Mavor Moore Award. As dramaturge, he has assisted playwrights like Sharon Pollock and Tomson Highway to create producible works for the stage.

This past summer, with a like-minded board and some generous “blue” donors, Brian planted a new professional theatre company at the Royal McPherson theatre in Victoria, near the bridge after which the company is named - Blue Bridge Repertory Theatre.

In this Q & A interview, Brian speaks about family, finding balance, and why he has given his life to this “ephemeral art form” called theatre.

Gail Kirkpatrick: Thirty years ago, you started Persephone Theatre in Saskatoon with Janet and Susan Wright. Why Blue Bridge and why now? Does it have anything to do with this time of your life?

Brian Richmond: I have grown to love a Victoria a great deal; it is very rich culturally and theatrically. Personally and emotionally, it saddens me to see all these talented young people go off to other cities; I wanted to work with these young artists again and watch their talents grow, and I think the city wants to see this too.

Even more personal, I am in my early 60s, feeling grateful to be in my 60s and feeling healthy, more or less, but none of us should be flippant or misuse the concept of time. Time becomes more and more important as one moves through life, and this idea [of a new company] in some form has been sitting inside of me for such a long period; I thought I should just do this thing.

GK: The three plays (*As You Like It*, *Death of a Salesman* and *The Fantasticks*) were well received by audiences and critics. How do you measure success?

BR: I see theatre as more like sports; you are only as good as your last race or game. As soon as you get into a mindset of I’ve achieved this, or I’ve achieved that, then you are finished inside of yourself, and certainly the theatre is not finished inside of me.

Success in any theatrical venture is really measured by how effective the storytelling process is for this moment in time. It doesn’t matter whether you are creating the most experimental work or the most conservative work. What matters is “Does this story need to be told and are we telling it effectively for the audience?” “Is it important for our time?”

Personally, there is no experience in the world that fills me with more joy than when I am in rehearsal for a play, that is where I am in my element and where I exist best of all. There are very few art forms concerned with the temporary that which is now, and that which does not try to build a shine to itself in the future. It is an ephemeral art form, and I love that aspect of it. That’s why I have dedicated my life to doing it.

GK: The Blue Bridge company of players performed as if they had been together for many seasons - bonded to each other and the plays. Is there a difference between working with young actors and actors who are more experienced?

BR: There is more of a difference in how you direct highly skilled actors versus actors who are learning their skills. This living art is carried in the human body. Blue Bridge takes those who are carrying that art within them, those who have had experience in encountering that art within themselves and younger artists who are just beginning to discover this, and we give them a chance to work together. We hope that through this process the living art lives on.

GK: Who were your mentors?

BR: Lecoq [International Theatre School Jacques Lecoq-Paris] was a great mentor and teacher to me, as were Laurie Lynds at Burnaby South and Joy Coghill. Joy gave me some early professional experiences in Vancouver’s Holiday Theatre. Lecoq was about understanding theatre through silence, moving from silence to words. He was so full of intellectual and creative joie de vivre; it was a transformative experience.

GK: Were you directed at an early age?

BR: My cats always come to mind when I think about these things. I have twin cats; they could not be two more different creatures. Is that explained by environment? No, there is something innate in Tilli and Polli that makes them distinct creatures.

I believe there is something innate in us that leads us toward who we are going to be - something mysterious. It could be explained in a biological or metaphysical way, but I don’t think it is any accident that I have been drawn to what it is that I do.

GK: What are your views on arts funding?

BR: Well, I’ve always believed that politics should be in the work not in soapboxing. It’s bad enough for the arts council to be decimated, which now may not be as bad as it looks, but it is still very serious, then to go into alternate funding like the gaming commission, and to introduce the HST, which will rid the arts of an exemption. When ticket prices go up, audiences will think that Blue Bridge has raised ticket prices, which is not the case.

Some people think the arts depend on grants and donations and are not really a business, and by not being a business, they become a frill of society. But that is just not true. Arts are vital, not just in expressing who we are, but vital as an economic force. When people are going to the theatre, they are likely going out to a restaurant or paying for parking.

It’s no accident that the Greeks put the arts into the centre of their culture; it’s no accident that the Medicis put money into the arts, and it’s not an accident that our political forefathers dedicated [one-third of] the images in our parliamentary windows to some form of the arts.

GK: You have already set the works for Blue Bridge’s next season. What are the plans for next year?

BR: Blue Bridge sold 809 season tickets with a somewhat late start this year. We hope to have 600 re-subscribing by the end of October, so we are a long way ahead of this past season. We are also adding to our board of directors.

Blue Bridge also has more flexibility and less institutional memory and can try new things. This company will rely on its ability to build audiences.

GK: What are the personal challenges you face as you continue in this career?

BR: Balance and trying to find the centre - constantly trying to find the centre that will keep my life in balance is what I am doing.

Brian Richmond is the Blue Bridge President and Producing Artistic Director.

The Encore season begins June 2010. He will also direct *Romeo and Juliet* at the UVIC Phoenix Theatre in November.





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