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Vanessa Porteous: In the Limelight

Meet Alberta Theatre Projects’ new artistic director Vanessa Porteous—she’s determined, passionate and a visionary

By Laura Pellerine

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Vanessa Porteous, the new artistic director at Alberta Theatre Projects. Photographer: Shauron

Vanessa Porteous, the new artistic director of Alberta Theatre Projects (ATP), breezes into the company’s home stage, the Martha Cohen Theatre, ready for our interview and photo shoot. She’s got a curly bob, coffee in hand and a stylish black baby-doll coat. Once the coat’s off, I notice her outfit is more casual: a short-sleeved, loose-fitted blouse over pink cropped pants and brown Mary Janes.

Our photographer tells her that she’ll be posing on a stool he’s placed in the middle of the stage. As she walks over, she looks out into the empty theatre, shrugs her shoulders and happily sighs, “I love our theatre! It’s gorgeous.”

While posing, she joins in on a nearby conversation discussing the public’s faith of politicians: “In life, whatever decision you make, someone will think it’s wrong,” she adds unapologetically. There’s a knowingness in her tone that makes me think she’s speaking from personal experience.

Getting the job at Alberta Theatre Projects

As the only female artistic director amongst Calgary’s major theatre companies, it’s good to know Porteous has thick skin—her predecessor left big shoes to fill: Bob White served as the company’s artistic director since 1999.

Though it took ATP a year to make their decision, Porteous taking over the role seems to be a natural progression. She first joined ATP as their dramaturg from 1998 to 2006. As a dramaturg, Porteous’ job was to help research and develop the company’s plays, a role she says, made her quickly learn to ask a lot of questions and “be very, very collaborative.” She even won a Betty Mitchell Award for outstanding production when she directed Old Trout Puppet Workshop’s Pinocchio on ATP’s stage. She admits her established relationship with the company may have helped her land the job last May. Not that it was cut and dry.

To eventually beat out the other 45 applicants from around the world, Porteous credits her gumption, a sharp, focused vision for the company’s future, and an expensive jacket.

The process began when Porteous, along with hundreds of other potential applicants, received a letter in the mail from ATP inviting her to apply for the job. Though at first she was reluctant to throw her hat in the ring, she eventually decided she’d be crazy not to. After going on numerous interviews, including having to present and defend her vision for the company, Porteous was short-listed. Though even after this, she wasn’t convinced the job was hers. That bout of confidence came after a day of two big interviews with management.

“I had a four-hour break, so I went to Holt Renfrew and tried on a beautiful jacket. I loved it, but I didn’t buy it. After, I went to dinner at Earl’s and I kept thinking about it,” she says. Eventually she gave in to temptation. “I thought: ‘Well, I’m just gonna do it!’ That was my superstitious moment of thinking I was going to get the job.”

Porteous spent all the money she had buying the jacket on the chance that she was going to get the job, and changed into it at the bathroom at Earl’s before her next interview. She wore it again when ATP presented her to the public as their new artistic director. Porteous won’t divulge how much the coat cost, saying only: “It was more than I’d ever spent on an article of clothing, but it was worth it.”

Her Strengths

Porteous comes across as a curious mix of girlish youthfulness and a calm uberman. At 39, she’s overseen 30 world premiere plays, received 19 nominations for plays she’s worked on, and taken on the roles of director, assistant stage director and co-playwright.

Her greatest strength, she says, is her passion for theatre. And she has one clear goal for ATP: “I want us to be the greatest theatre company in the entire world.” I ask her if that’s possible. She looks me directly in the eye and says, “Of course. When you start a play, you begin with a piece of paper, then come opening night, it’s turned into a beautiful, alive thing. This lifestyle is about possibility. That’s the soul of ATP.”

When it comes to first conquering the city, Porteous says there is a healthy competition between all the theatre companies. It’s one that she welcomes. “I get energized and somewhat envious when someone else is doing well, but in a positive way. It’s motivating,” she says, adding. “I want the theatre community to be alive in Calgary—it’d be terrible for the city if it was dead.”

For her part, Porteous is working hard to make sure ATP puts on a season that will move an audience. “I love to hear someone in the audience say, ‘Wow, I’ve never seen anything like that before,’ or ‘I’ve never been so affected by a play before.’” One of the ways she hopes to achieve this, is by continuing to push the envelope and have ATP be the voice for new, Canadian theatre. “We don’t do old plays—Shakespeare, Chekhov, old Greek plays. We do meet Shakespeare’s dog, but you won’t see any works of the Bard. We do innovative original plays by new theatre artists about what it means to be alive right now,” she says.

This season, pre-selected by White, will bring a mix of comedy, enlightenment, suffering and laughter. “I love the upcoming season. You’re going to see extraordinary artists, a lot of doggie friends and a beautiful play about hope.” Though she’s excited to debut the new season, Porteous has already begun the search for next year’s lineup. “There are a few things I have my eye on,” she says mysteriously. “I can’t tell you what though, a big element of this company is surprise.”

Her plans for the future

The lineup for the 2010/11 season will be the first time she will truly get to show the public her vision.
Porteous’ passion for the arts started when she was a young girl in Ottawa. Her aunt was a grand ballerina, and her parents would take her to see her aunt perform. Afterward they would get to go backstage.

“At the end of the show we would get to walk through a little door and get taken down the hall, past all of these dancers half-costumed,” Porteous says. “Then we’d get to her dressing room and there’d be pointe shoes and flowers everywhere and she’d be taking off her make-up. I was star-struck. Part of the reason I’m doing this is because I still get to walk through that door.”

When asked what she hopes her biggest impact at ATP will be,  she pauses and turns her face upward, hand resting on chin, deep in thought. She’s quiet for almost a full minute. “I’m sorry it’s taking me so long to answer,” she finally says. “It’s because there’s so much I can imagine for our company. We’re an innovative, exciting theatre, and I want it to become a destination. We’re so well-known around the world, I want Calgary to know that.”

If Porteous does succeed in making Alberta Theatre Projects the best theatre company in the world, it will be more than just a personal achievement for Porteous. For a city that is not often thought of being a major arts centre, it will be an accomplishment for us all.

For a rundown of ATP’s 2009/10 season, click here.

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