An Interview with Guy Rodgers

Guy Rodgers at the ELAN RAEN launch in 2011

Anna:   Were you born in Australia?

Guy Rodgers:    I was actually born on a little farm on the prairies, and my parents moved to warmer more prosperous climes– that meant Vancouver. When I was twelve they decided that it still wasn’t warm or prosperous enough so we moved even further west to Australia, and landed in Sydney. After a year or so, my dad got work out near the Blue Mountains at the edge of the desert. My two younger brothers instantly adapted. I was thirteen and couldn’t bond with Australia, and after twelve years I was still asked where I was from. One month in Canada and no one asked me that again.

I was always into music, and I got married to an Australian and her family thought I should do something more substantial to support her, so I got a degree in economics. Oddly, my degree and my divorce papers arrived at the same time in November 1979. So, in January of 1980 I left Australia. I had relatives all over Canada. In the Vancouver Sun there was an announcement that the National Theatre School had a brand new playwriting program. I had always written, but now I bought a second hand type writer and started working and by the time I got to Montreal I just walked into the theatre school and handed it, in person, to the receptionist.

A while later I had a chat with the artistic director of the school; and then I left on my travels in Europe Britain and Ireland. One day I went to the general post office in Dublin and called Montreal and I had been accepted.

Perhaps I was accepted because I grew up in Australia. It was really macho and suddenly, in Canada,  I was surrounded by the opposite in the program at the theatre school. There were only three of us in Playwriting, and there were not many acting students, and it felt like a hothouse of delicate emotions.

I needed to get some air. So I bought the book French For Beginners hoping to meet someone francophone, and hopefully female to aid me in my language acquisition. I found myself in Place Ville Marie at a pub and I heard someone say “pas froid sans souliers?”  So I held up my book and she repeated in English: “Aren’t you cold without shoes on?”  I had lived in Sydney on a beach and never wore shoes, so I was wandering barefoot in Montreal in September and I looked a little like a bum. We started chatting. Here it is thirty years later and we are still together. Her name is Louise Gauthier.

Anna:   So you learned French. What happened when you got out of The National Theatre School?

Guy :   Well at that time there was actually nothing happening in Montreal in the theatre scene. I had spent my whole life moving around and I had spent three years in Montreal and I liked it here and that was it, this was where I was going to make my stand. The limited resources at that time revolved around Playwrights Workshop, and the Quebec Drama Festival.

I started hanging out at Playwrights and the next thing I knew I was president of the board.  I saw that I had kind of a gift for organization, for bringing people together and helping them work together in a constructive way. Then a number of us at Playwrights started working at the Drama Festival and started to think about the fact that they had an annual grant and were not actually doing a lot. In fact we thought that if the festival were actually a federation of professionals it would be of more benefit to the community. We took over the board and then changed the name.

This is one of my regrets, not that we changed it, but the way it was done. The old guard remembered the old Dominion Drama festival and they wanted the Quebec festival to go on the way it was. So, not having the heart to contest them, I simply stopped inviting the old members to board meetings for six months. It was a kind of coup d’état, I would do things differently today. I would sit down with them and explain the need for change. Ultimately I think it was a necessary and inevitable change.

A QDF picture from 1989 with Rahul Varma, Catherine Cahill, Hugh Mitchell, Elsa Bolam, Guy Rodgers and Philip Fine

Anna:   What do you think of it now?

Guy:   Having held that job and I know the diverse communities it serves: professional, amateur, urban, rural, educational community, large companies, emerging theatre companies, and individual artists. It is very difficult to please everybody, and I think that QDF is at a stage in its development where we need to sit down and rethink its vocation and refocus. You can’t be everything to everybody it is just going to upset a lot of people.

Anna:   I can’t be on the board of QDF because I work occasionally as a journalist and they have a rule about that.

Guy:   I’ve never heard of such a thing. But I am not on that board either. It really needs to focus. Is it going to serve amateur theatre or professional theatre or emerging artists?

Anna:   So how did you get from the QDF to the Quebec writers Federation?

Guy:   Well between the two there was the Conseil des arts et des lettres duQuébec. It was formed in ‘92 and was more inclusive under Liza Frulla, and they wanted at least two Anglos on the board. I had trained as a playwright but I knew quite a few writers. It was Liza Frulla who came up with the idea that there should be some kind of organisation which serves the English-speaking community.

So we got together and started planning and bickering. Liza was ready to write us a check and when we were done we had a meeting and I found myself the president. Originally it was called FEWQ the Federation of English-Writers in Quebec. There was also QSPELL which was the awards organization. Ideally there should be one organisation which provides services to writers and also handles the awards. A number of us got active with them and soon I found myself the president of both organisations and I brokered this merger.

The difference between QDF and QWF is that QWF doesn’t have a huge difference in its constituency. It is there to serve writers and is well perceived as doing just that.

Anna:   I really like QWF and think that Lori is doing an amazing job there. I have been a beneficiary of that organization and really appreciate it. Then came ELAN.

Guy:   Between Playwrights Workshop and QDF, I was the general manager of the Saidye Bronfman Theatre. And they didn’t have kosher wine. So I shopped around and found out that Shenly’s had kosher wine. The manager said that he liked us so much that they would give us five cases of this and the other. We got a  lot of free alcohol and you know theatres run on a shoestring.

We have nothing behind the bar but this Shenly’s and who comes to the next opening but Charles Bronfman and he checks out the bar. The next day he takes all his money out of the theatre.

I became the executive director of the Quebec drama federation and took only 40% of the salary and then hired someone to just write grant applications.

Anna:   Ah it was that degree in economics. Once the QDF and QWF were on their feet, you went on to found the English Language Arts network.

Guy:   That was a total accident.

Anna:   Whose time has come.

Guy:   In 2000 Canadian Heritage approached the English Speaking Community and said: ”We are providing matching grants to Francophone artists outside of Quebec via the Canada Council. Would the English speaking artists in Quebec be interested in such a program?” So in May 2001 there was a meeting and about one hundred and fifty people showed up.  As an example of how far we have come: at that meeting there were people who were actually nervous about being identified as ANGLOS. Heritage persisted and said that they would put in about 600,00 dollars to help the community. When the meeting finally came to finalise the agreement, this poor woman was sent from Ottawa to tell us that there was no more money. So I wrote a scathing report on this and the woman who was running the Quebec community groups network was handling our communications and was supposed to send the letter only to the participating artists and she accidentally sent it out to all of the government people, and the next thing we knew the money was back on the table.

We were still finding our identity as a minority, and even people in Ottawa were having trouble thinking of this community as anything but the immensely powerful one that it was in the past.  IPOLC was the Interdepartmental program for official language communities. Between 2001and 2004 while we sat on this committee we realised this was a rapidly growing community, and heritage encouraged us to create some kind of gathering. This was just after my fiftieth birthday. I took this on a purely volunteer basis and it kind of took over and I ended up writing and re- writing, and I justified all this work as my contribution to the community. I thought after the meeting it would be done.So we organised The Quebec Arts Summit and we had to practically drag people kicking and screaming to participate. They thought it was dangerous, they thought it was ridiculous.

Anna:   I thought it was wonderful.

Guy: Well they found that these are not the people I expected to meet, these people are alright. Then we realised that the stereotype that the Francophones don’t like, is the same stereotype we don’t like. So instead of saying “I’m not one of them, whatever they are,” it was time to say “this is what we are.” So when we came out of the summit everybody said this is great “Let’s do it.” “You do it!” It just seemed like such a good idea, So, here we are.

Anna:   So, now what are you thinking, It’s 2011.

Guy:    These have been some of the most satisfying years of my life. My personal work has taken a hit. I find myself getting up at four o’clock in the morning to work on my own stuff. When you realise you are working on something for which there is a real need. It is also a rapidly growing community and we are at a critical juncture right now. The English speaking community has become too large to be ignored, and so the rest of Quebec has to decide, Yes, they are  a valuable asset and you don’t want to see another massive exodus. So we are at this point and if they want everything to be in French it could trigger a huge reaction.

I’d like to see greater dialogue between the English-speaking community and the rest. I see this transition from Quebec as it was  into a more diversified culture.

Guy Rodgers

Anna:  But after the last election do you think that the younger generation even thinks in those terms?

Guy:   The younger generation doesn’t think that way but there are still some very powerful people who control a lot of funding and programs, and who still think in very “us” and “them” ways and we still have to weather their transition out of the system. You can see it’s around the corner because young people don’t think that way. Moving up through the ranks there are more people who have changed and in a way the Arcade Fire victory was  a big moment. The National Assembly for the first time ever voted to applaud artists and specifically mentioned Francophone and Anglophone artists.I think about this most recent election, the one fascinating thing about it– across   linguistic lines ethnic lines racial lines religious lines, we pretty much all voted the same way. It seemed to say that we are part of the same culture, we read the same journals. The time is right to say we are all trying to work something new out together. I never meet individuals who are opposed to that aside from one or two bureaucrats. Individuals who work in the arts and even the general public like the idea of a Quebec that is more inclusive. They do want to protect the French language, and so do we, but that should not mean that no other language should exist here.

Anna:   So what do you see for ELAN? Are you going to remain the executive director for ever?

Guy:    I have a very limited horizon. I can see the things I want to do now. I am not looking at this like a life sentence.

Anna:   What about your own projects?

Guy:   Beneath this community development, my primary area of interest has always been religion. Why people who have always been drawn to religion for all kinds of positive reasons have turned them into something ugly and destructive. I spent most of my life studying Christianity asking “Why do I have to be saved and who is mad at me?” So beneath the positive side of religion there is this negative destructive aspect. So I have studied when that happened and why it happened. A couple of Roman Emperors decided they wanted to impose Christianity on the Empire. Everyone who was not Christians didn’t want to convert. So to avoid a really bloody war St. Augustine came up with the brilliant idea of terrifying people into wanting to become Christian. It is the brutality of this system that he devised which is at the heart of the wars which have been fought between the Catholics and the Protestants where they slaughtered one another like beasts. The imposition of Christianity around the world was imitated by the Moslems. Jihad can be an internal process of purification and growth or it can be interpreted as imposing Islam through the sword.

So I am in the process of putting up a web site concerning this.

Anna:   So what is your wish for the arts community for Quebec for Canada?

Guy:   I’d like to see greater dialogue between the English-speaking community and the rest. I see this transition from Quebec as it was  into a more diversified culture. I‘d like to see the process of sharing the community  wealth and  power. I’d like to help negotiate this transition. I see Quebec moving very quickly and positively in that direction. I think this is a very exciting time to be working here.

Anna Fuerstenberg is a playwright and performer who has written frequently for Montreal Serai.