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La Scena Musicale - Vol. 15, No. 1

The Segal’s Secret Weapon

by Jessica Hill / September 1, 2009

Do exceptional people know they are exceptional? That was the question racing through my head as Bryna Wasserman, the artistic and executive director of the Segal Centre, led me into her office. Whether aware of it or not, Wasserman has become a legend within the Montreal theatre community, a wonder woman who does the work of several people alone and who has dedicated her heart, body and soul to theatre all her life. Legend is often based on truth. Through her 10 years as director, the number of subscribers has never ceased to grow, and she has never stopped setting the bar higher for her company and herself.

I had the fortune of talking to both Wasserman and Greg Kramer, who will be directing this season’s opener, Inherit the Wind. The play is a retelling of the famous “Monkey Trial” that took place in 1925, pitting a Tennessee town against a young schoolteacher who illegally taught his students Darwin’s On the Origin of the Species. The play remains relevant, because it tackles the universal themes of religion, law and tolerance while reflecting on failure, the fear of the unknown and resistance to change. Furthermore, 2009 marks the 150th anniversary of the publication of On the Origin of the Species and the 200th of Darwin’s birth, making Inherit the Wind all the more suitable. This impressive production will feature a staggering cast of 26 actors. Kramer smiles to Wasserman and states: “Giving work to 26 actors in this day and age is unheard of. If I was wearing a hat, it’d be off!”

The 2009-2010 season at the Segal has a mentor-student theme, exploring the importance of mentors in our lives and how both mentor and student can learn from each other and change as a result. Beginning with the daring teacher in Inherit the Wind, who fights for his belief that his students have a right to knowledge, the season maintains the theme with Educating Rita, going up in November. It tells the heart-warming story of an unlikely match between an alcoholic university professor and a lively lower-class Liverpool hairdresser registered for continuing education. Geometry in Venice, playing in January, is about an aristocratic family struggling to keep up appearances. As they search for a rich suitor for their daughter, they hire a Canadian writer to school their sickly genius son. In February, a co-production with Théâtre du Rideau-Vert brings us Old Wicked Songs, the story of a young American piano prodigy and his Viennese music teacher. Separated by their experiences, their ideas and their generations, it is their mutual love for music that becomes the bond strong enough to bridge the gap.

The oddity of the season is Harvey, a delightful and unusual tale about a man whose best friend is a six-foot, three-and-one-half-inch invisible rabbit. When asked how Harvey fits into this season’s theme, Wasserman laughs. Kramer chimes in: “You’ve just always wanted to do it!” It seems Harvey has been quite elusive; for fifteen years, no theatre in Canada was granted the rights to perform it. It became a challenge: “And you never put a challenge up in front of me,” says Wasserman with a grin. After much perseverance, the Segal can now boast of being the first theatre in Canada to present Harvey in over a generation.

If you haven’t been to the Segal centre in a few years, you will be flabbergasted at the massive facelift it has been given. The Segal is no longer strictly a theatre but has expanded to become a centre for the performing arts, housing a CinemaSpace, a Studio Theatre, the Mainstage theatre and even an Academy to train young artists. The pristine lobby area is sleek and modern and the new lounge in the basement, featuring an art gallery and a bar, is trendy and welcoming, often hosting poetry readings and intimate concerts. The new second performance space, the Studio, seating 150 people, has quickly become an extremely coveted venue for Montreal’s smaller emerging theatre companies: Sidemart Theatre, Théâtre Porte-Parole, Créole Macbeth as well as Repercussion Theatre are all scheduled for this year. The final innovation is a cozy 77-seat CinemaSpace in the basement. Over 7000 people have already passed through this charming movie theatre. Showing movies of all genres, one can even reserve the CinemaSpace for a screening.

Moreover, Wasserman has high hopes for the future, as the company ventures into incorporating dance into its program. The theatre floors have already been spring-boarded to accommodate this new project. Once this happens, all the performing arts will have found a home under one roof. Wasserman’s face lights up: “There is nothing like the joy and experience of a live performance; the contact between artist and audience as they create a moment together that can never be replicated.”

In a society where television, computers and cell-phone texting reign, direct human interaction loses its significance, and this is what makes one-on-one contact with performing artists all the more vital. According to Wasserman, going to the theatre should not be a sheltered solitary occasion but a chance to engage with people, a collective experience that fuels discussion and opens the floor to disagreements: “People should feel differently walking out of the theatre than they did walking in, their minds stimulated and talking well into the night about what they’ve seen. Hopefully even the next morning!”

When this ambitious, admirable woman is asked if she ever takes a break she answers sweetly without a beat: “My break is to go see plays. I love seeing someone else’s work and being inspired by it. I don’t feel right about taking a break from theatre.”

And legend becomes truth.

(c) La Scena Musicale