When Peter Hinton dined with Peter Herndorff at the Four Seasons Hotel in Toronto last June, he hoped the president and chief executive officer of the National Arts Centre (NAC) might offer him the artistic director job. After all, Hinton had attended four interviews already.
Hinton got his wish.
“I felt great honour and dread,” says Hinton with a laugh. “There was no one more surprised than me. I thought ‘What have I agreed to?'”
In Hinton’s 20 years in Canadian theatre as director and playwright, working for the Canadian Stage Company (now known as CanStage), Vancouver’s Rumble Theatre and other alternative groups, he dealt with stage fright, living in the wilderness and moving around the country. Which is why, in 1998, he had found himself in Whitehorse looking at the Northern Lights, thinking ‘I would never come here unless I was working in the theatre.'”
He had not, however, lived in Ottawa. Taking the job would mean leaving his five-year post as artistic associate for the Stratford Festival and his affordable apartment in Montreal.
But Hinton didn’t hesitate, relishing the challenge of working in a new city with new artists. He accepted Herndorff’s offer.
And in fact, Hinton is not a stranger to Ottawa, having done projects for the Great Canadian Theatre Company (GCTC), including Clutching The Heat by Maristella Roca and Frida K, Gloria Montero’s monologue about Frida Kahlo.
Hinton’s roots in theatre go back a long way. Born in Kingston, he grew up in north Toronto with a love for theatre and trained as an actor at the Ryerson Theatre School. Unfortunately, Hinton discovered he had stage fright, which he struggled with for five years until switching to directing. He quickly established a career in Toronto. Right out of school, Hinton worked with theatre luminaries Allegra Fulton, Oliver Dennis and Julian Richings, putting on many shows for Crow’s Theatre. Hinton then went to Theatre Passe Muraille as an associate director and cut his teeth on the alternative theatre scene. But his theatrical favourites go back well into the past.
“My influences are poetical and classical,” says Hinton. “I love the 18th century, the Renaissance, verse plays and language plays. I bring a lush, theatrical complexity to the work. I like dense language and vivid imagery, almost a baroque sensibility.”
In recent years, Hinton directed the premiere of his trilogy Swanne over three seasons at the Stratford Festival, receiving critical and audience acclaim. His more recent production, a rendition of Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods, has also received positive reviews across the board.
He speaks easily about his own sexual orientation and gay issues.
“The whole same-sex marriage thing that’s going on is defining us internationally and saying something about our country to the world,” says Hinton. “It’s important that the NAC reflects that in the plays.”
Hinton himself came close to getting married in his mid-20s – just before he came out of the closet. His fiancee kept asking if Hinton was gay, despite his protests to the contrary.
“When I came out, all my friends and family were like ‘What took you so long? My God! Is the Pope a Catholic?'”
Acting school, he found, taught him how to act straight.
“A lot of the acting teachers were really concerned with butching me up,” says Hinton. “‘Oh, you’ve got to learn how not to act so effeminate. You’ve got to work on your voice so you don’t sound gay. You’ll never get cast as Romeo; they’ll think you’ll be looking out for Mercutio.’ Well, what’s wrong with that? It’s who I am!
“There was no Out Television, no Gay Pride day,” says Hinton. “It’s very different now; there is a body of world-recognized queer culture that is the envy of many heterosexual playwrights and directors.”
And Hinton promises that that culture will be part of his tenure at NAC.
“People ask, ‘Will queer culture be an important part of your program?'” says Hinton. “How can it not? One of the wonderful things about theatre is that it’s full of queer people! It’s difficult to look at the program without seeing something by a queer artist.”
But Hinton won’t make specific commitments to future queer productions. Keep tuned for his announcement next March detailing upcoming productions, he says, although he’s eager to shine the large stage lights on works by Canadian playwrights who are more traditionally associated with independent theatre.
In planning the season, Hinton sees the roles of the NAC and the GCTC as complementary.
“GCTC is the regional theatre of Ottawa, particularly with their new building, the variety of programming, the quality of work that’s there,” says Hinton. “GCTC is not struggling in a church basement. The NAC now can focus on being a national centre for theatre and theatre exploration. I think the country is ready for that now.”
When asked about the recent demise of Act Out Theatre, Ottawa’s queer amateur theatre company, Hinton puts its passing in perspective.
“It’s very hard to sustain a community project over time,” says Hinton. “It’s a lot of volunteerism. I have optimism about how [Act Out] will give birth to itself again in some way. I remember people grieving the loss of this event or that event in 1989, and then seeing it emerge in a different way, interpreted by another generation.”
Hinton hasn’t always been so optimistic. In 1998, feeling disillusioned with the regional theatre system, he left. Hinton thought that a complacent pattern was developing whereby major houses would do a Noel Coward comedy, a Canadian play, a musical then a classical play.
“I thought that large theatre didn’t need me to contribute to it, that it wasn’t looking for innovation in art and new investigations of these plays,” recalls Hinton.
He went west to the Okanagan Valley and spent six months writing at the Caravan Farm Theatre, a professional outdoor theatre company on an organic farm. He turned into a hippie recluse and planned to live by nature and write plays.
But then one day the phone rang. Playwrights’ Workshop Montreal was calling.
“They said, ‘Do you want to come to Montreal for a month and do a workshop?'” says Hinton. “I said, ‘Oh, okay, I’ll come for a month, then.’
“I stayed for six years.”
Hinton thinks that every artist must go through a similar soul-searching period, asking, “Why am I doing this? Is it worth the sacrifice?”
“I’m glad I had it because it reminded me what were the important things for me in theatre.” Hinton says. “I thought a way to test my love and values of the theatre was to work in it in the most meaningful way, and that’s where an idea begins for the stage.”
Hinton succeeds Marti Maraden, who had been the English Theatre artistic director at the NAC since 1997.