the art of engagement
making theatre that moves people
Dynamic director Alisa Palmer doesn’t pin herself down with a particular style. Instead, she simply wants to communicate stories and make theatre that moves people.
Little-known fact about renowned theatre director Alisa Palmer: years ago she trained with Montreal’s Cirque de Soleil, doing a whole lot of acrobatics and tumbling about.
Turns out, those skills came in very handy in juggling family life with a hectic but rewarding career that’s made her a household name in Canadian theatre.
“You learn that balance is one of the most dynamic states,” she said of her acrobatics at Cirque. “It requires a great deal of constant, small shifts and muscular attunement.”
Those are similar skills to managing her many artistic endeavours while working as artistic director of the English section of the Montreal-based National Theatre School of Canada and raising two daughters with acclaimed playwright and best-selling novelist Ann-Marie MacDonald, whom Palmer married in 2003.
“It takes a lot of activity and awareness and sensitivity to keep the balance in a family when the parents are both active and busy,” she said in an interview from New Brunswick, where she was born and raised and where she tries to get back to as often as her schedule allows.
That schedule is insanely busy, but don’t expect to hear Palmer complaining.
“I love my job,” she said. “I love all my jobs. It’s certainly made my life very rich.”
In announcing her appointment as artistic director in 2012, National Theatre School chief executive officer Simon Brault called Palmer “a daring and astounding theatre artist who has a clear take on Canada’s theatrical needs and issues.”
But Palmer wanted to dig deeper into the Canadian theatre scene, so she embarked on a solo, cross-country tour right off the bat, inviting community members, artistic directors and artists to sit in on auditions for the school she was conducting in towns and cities.
“The school has a responsibility to support excellence and also to support what the communities need across Canada in terms of what they need for their arts to grow,” she said. “That (tour) was my way of introducing myself and trying to understand from the ground up what’s going on in Canada.”
Palmer actually obtained a degree in history at McGill University, but realized early on in her studies that there is philosophy involved in history — that value systems can influence how history is viewed.
“History isn’t really truth,” she said. “It’s a narrative that’s been constructed.”
That knowledge is something that would eventually impact her directing.
“It’s basically analysis of who’s telling the story and how you frame the story,” she said. “It ended up being the same thing I deal with in theatre all the time as a director.”
Palmer, who studied theatre in Montreal, Paris and Brazil, has worked as theatre producer, playwright and dramaturge in addition to directing. She was formerly artistic director of Nightwood Theatre in Toronto, resident director for the world premiere of the stage production of Lord of the Rings in the same city, and founded Vita Brevis, a company dedicated to new creations and training projects involving partnerships with other theatre companies.
She’s also directed productions at the Shaw Festival in Niagara-on-the-Lake for close to 10 years, and has ongoing productions at the Stratford Festival.
Her directorial style has been described as ‘eclectic and robust,’ but Palmer says rather than pinning herself down with a particular style, she simply wants to make sure people leave her shows feeling moved.
“I’m committed to communicating stories to people and making theatre that’s moving to people, and not just impressive,” she said.
“That doesn’t necessarily mean something sentimental: it means actually affecting people, allowing people’s emotions and intellect to be engaged.”
Palmer has also directed some of the work of the woman who would become her spouse. They met when Palmer was invited by Nightwood Theatre to bring a theatre group she’d started — Hysterical Women — to a festival in Toronto.
Palmer, who knew about MacDonald’s “fantastic reputation” as an actress and had admired her performance in the feature film I’ve Heard the Mermaids Singing, spoke to MacDonald after her group’s performance. “I was kind of star-struck by her and how straightforward she was,” said Palmer. She was so modest and was incredibly generous in her support of our work.”
Palmer’s production of Noel Coward’s Hay Fever is running at the Stratford Festival until mid-October, and she’s working on a stage adaptation of MacDonald’s novel Fall on Your Knees for the Shaw Festival.
While she’s been a “performer” in her career, Palmer never considered herself a true actor.
“That is a set of skills and talent that I am in awe of,” she said. “I am so privileged to spend my time watching actors.
“I have a healthy reverence for what they do.”
That’s in part why she loves her job at the theatre school, she said.
“That’s one of my motivators at the school: to find ways for me to provide training opportunities so that actors can be the best they can be.”
In a time when people have 500 channels on their televisions, Netflix on their iPhones and iPads, and social networks they are fixated with, Palmer thinks the future of theatre in Canada is full of promise.
That’s because for all of the impact Facebook and Twitter have had, humans still have a very real need to be with real humans — hence the growth of flash mobs, and the ongoing popularity of concerts when limitless music is downloadable, she said.
“People are yearning to connect with one another,” said Palmer. “They know that they need to actually be in-person to make it feel good.
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