What the future holds for Canada's national touring theatre festival

Brendan Healy takes over Magnetic North this month, and he's ready to connect our country's far-flung theatre communities.

Magnetic North's new artistic director is ready to connect our country's communities

Brendan Healy (Alejandro Santiago)

When Brendan Healy was named Artist Director of Magnetic North, it wasn't a huge surprise. The Montreal-born theatre maker was widely lauded for his six-year tenure as Artistic Director of Toronto's Buddies in Bad Times. Along with transforming the venue into one of the country's preeminent performance spaces, his successful direction of edgy works like Sarah Kane's Blasted and Tim Luscombe's PIG established him as one of our theatrical ecosystem's most forward-thinking voices.

Putting Healy at the helm of our national theatre festival seems an obvious choice. But for him, even throwing his hat into the ring was unexpected. He'd only resigned at Buddies a year ago, with no specific plans other than returning to freelance life.

"When I decided to leave Buddies, I said to myself it would take a while to find another job that was right," Healy says. "I honestly wasn't anticipating being back in an organization this soon. It's a surprise, but it's a surprise I'm excited about."

Founded in 2003 by Marti Maraden, who was the head of the National Arts Centre at the time, Magnetic North was born of a desire to connect our country's far-flung performance communities. The event alternates annually between Ottawa and another Canadian city, and features locally-produced works along with shows from other parts of the country. This past festival, for example, headed to Whitehorse and teamed up Gwaandak Theatre, the territory's only Indigenous-centred theatre company, on their newest production Map of the Land, Map of the Stars. That production played alongside imports from Toronto, Halifax and Winnipeg.

A promotional image from Map of the Land, Map of the Stars, which played at the most recent festival in Whitehorse. (Gwaandak Theatre)

"I believe very strongly in the necessity of the festival as a forum for work to be seen and disseminated," he says. "I want to find ways for it to be integrated into the different host communities, so it responds to the needs of audiences there and doesn't feel like an outside element dropping in temporarily. At the same time, it's critical to provide artists with opportunities to tour their work more, so I'm committed to ensuring it still fills that need."

Unlike the European performance sector, with its networks of cities separated only by short train trips, touring can be a huge challenge in Canada. Along with the massive costs of transporting shows between different centres, the lack of an existing network means audiences are often unable to access shows from outside their own locale.

There will always be this sort of unknowable quality to Canada because we can't hold its immensity in our gaze. At the same time, I'm anxious to start travelling and connecting with communities I don't know as well.- Brendan Healy

The result is not only that the public has a limited view of the wider performance field — it means artists lack the critical platform for developing work that touring offers.

"I'm interested in finding out about works as they are beginning, rather than just programming things that are finished," Healy says. "The development-through-touring model can be very useful because it allows artists to gain a variety of perspectives on their work, which can result in a stronger, more sophisticated piece. The vastness of the country is a challenge, but it's not insurmountable. Part of my role is to think about how the festival can make touring better and how we can communicate the necessity for supporting that system to various levels of government."

While the festival aims to bring work by Canadians to Canadians, in recent years it's also become a focal point for international presenters looking to pick up shows they can take to other countries.

Jordan Tannahill's Concord Floral was one of the breakouts of the most recent Magnetic North Festival. (Erin Brubacher)

"The opportunity for Canadian artists to share their work with audiences overseas is beneficial to everybody," Healy says. "We've built some solid relationships with international presenters in the last few years especially, and I'm looking to increase our profile outside of Canada, which serves to increase the profile of Canada artists abroad as well."

As he takes over for outgoing head Brenda Leadlay this month, Healy has a lot on his mind. Among other things, he's preparing for the onslaught of travel awaiting him as he connects with artists across the country.

"I can find fear in most things," he laughs. "But I actually don't feel a tremendous amount around this job. If anything, it's the vastness of the country and the anxiety around how to get a grasp on it that I'm concerned with. There will always be this sort of unknowable quality to Canada because we can't hold its immensity in our gaze. At the same time, I'm anxious to start travelling and connecting with communities I don't know as well. I'm excited to see what's happening out there and ready to be surprised."

Read more about the Magnetic North Theatre Festival.

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