The pandemic has strained many businesses in many industries, but what do you do when your business is all about building community through public gatherings and live performances? We recently spoke with Eda Holmes, Artistic and Executive Director at Centaur Theatre in Old Montreal, about planning, pivoting, and re-planning throughout the past twelve months.

Before joining the Centaur Theatre in Montreal, Eda was a ballerina, first with the San Francisco Ballet and later with the Dutch National Ballet and Frankfurt Ballet under William Forsythe. When a knee injury sidelined her, she knew it was time to transition. Eda wanted to stay in the performing arts industry. With a love of storytelling, directing programs was a natural transition, and she eventually landed at Centaur Theatre here in Montreal full-time.

Quality, relevance, and bridge-building

If you’re familiar with Centaur Theatre or the arts scene, you’ll already know the special place Centaur Theatre holds in the local landscape. Eda’s goal was to build on the rich reputation that Centaur has for producing high-quality, relevant contemporary English language theatre and make the organization even more inclusive of all Montreal community aspects.

“My three guiding principles are quality, relevance, and bridge-building so that every aspect of the organization gradually becomes a brilliant reflection of the diversity of languages and cultures that make Montreal such a unique and exciting city,” she told us.

“The pandemic is giving us a moment to really reflect on what place theatre occupies in our society and our lives. We have an opportunity to actively re-examine what we value about the arts and especially narrative art – like theatre. As the incredible African/American playwright August Wilson has said, ‘A community is only as strong as the stories it tells about itself.’ So I am looking to build up our capacity to tell the stories of our times and our city in the most compelling and engaging ways possible – and to become an incubator for artists that reflect our city’s rich diversity.”

Adapting to the new reality

Centaur Theatre has been taking a page from the movie and cinema fields as much as possible (though the budget to test large casts isn’t there). Actors have been rehearsing in preparation for any potential upcoming performances, and spring and summer bring relief and hopes of opening again soon.

But while the desire to reopen is powerful, the danger of doing so too early is real.

“We’re learning how to work and adapt. Compared to last year, we have much more information about the virus, which has helped us make decisions that provide a forward motion but keeps everyone safe,” explained Eda.

Internally, the Social Justice movement we saw in 2020 has changed the conversation around how to support the community. Last year, Centaur launched the Artistic Diversity Discussion (ADD) at Centaur initiative. Throughout the year, the five-member panel will meet with Centaur Theatre board members and Eda to develop more ways to de-stigmatize and celebrate diversity on stage and off. The ADD @ Centaur will roll out through ongoing and new initiatives as the year unfolds, the first of which was the initiative named Saturday Salons. Centaur Theatre has also created a year-long residency for an Indigenous theatre artist interested in stories that reflect the Indigenous heritage of the Island of Montreal and the Province of Quebec. An announcement will be made soon about this residency!

A new Old Montreal scene

Pre-COVID, Vieux Montreal, where Centaur is located, was coming into its own with shops, restaurants, bars, and genuinely unique hotels. It is also a neighbourhood that thrives on tourism, depending on summer travel and winter holiday parties, so the lockdowns have been particularly painful. Typically, a bustling business worker crowd eats lunch and has drinks and goes to the theatre.

When the first lockdown happened, Centaur planned to do more outdoor theatre.

“We hope that it will be part of a variety of projects that will entice Montrealers to come down and discover the incredible beauty that Old Montreal has to offer,” Eda said at the time.

Still, the ever-changing in-and-out of lockdown status has kept Eda and Centaur Theatre on their toes.

“We keep planning and re-planning, but we’re starting to run out of letters of the alphabet,” she joked.

“This virus is challenging to everyone who depends on – and is even defined by – people gathering in warm, friendly and intimate settings. There is much talk of “pivoting,” but that is not something a neighbourhood known for its narrow cobblestone streets and delightful little bars and restos, museums and theatres can do in the short term. We have to try to be as creative and as resilient as possible.”

New projects to be excited about

A new project born out of the pandemic is the Portico project. The Portico Project, a new initiative designed to present theatre safely outside in the Portico and on the steps in front of the theatre, is scheduled to take place again this year in September. Even though some of the performances last year had to be cancelled when the first big lockdown happened, everyone is hopeful that this unique celebration of live theatre outside can go ahead uninterrupted this year. Cross your fingers and come on down to St. Francois-Xavier.

“As a small community, it’s been hard to be constantly planning and re-planning,” said Eda. “But it has been nice to have small business connections in the community to go through this together.”

Learn more about Centaur Theatre’s Portico Project, ADD @ Centaur, or purchase tickets to their upcoming MOB performance. You can also support the Centaur Theatre by making an individual donation.