Arts & Entertainment
4 min

The metamorphosis of the National Arts Centre (and its artistic director)

The last five years have been taxing for Peter Hinton

Peter Hinton. Credit: Pat Croteau

It is a moment of pure disappointment. I go to the National Arts Centre (NAC) hoping for a glimpse backstage. Instead, I am led down narrow corridors with no backdrops, spotlights or props.

I am taken to an office that is glaringly neat. The desk — overlooking the construction of the city’s new conference centre — is void of clutter. I plop myself down on a black leather couch and stare at shelves stacked with files and books — all in order, tagged and, I am convinced, categorized by height.

Peter Hinton, having just finished the morning rehearsal of Romeo and Juliet, rushes into the office, holding a plate of food. He looks at me, then scowls. In true theatrical style, he tells me that he needs 10 minutes to unwind.

Welcome backstage.

Hinton came to the NAC as artistic director in 2005. He has since reestablished a repertory company, and in his first season he added a deluge of Canadian theatre — for the first time in 37 years, the NAC produced a season of all-Canadian plays.

“I thought that the time had come that we were ready for that, that the National Arts Centre of Canada should do plays about Canada by Canadians. That seemed like a great thing to do, and it was a great thing to do,” says Hinton.

That season was successful in many respects — creatively, artistically and critically. However, Hinton learned that Canadian theatre was not widely known, and the NAC had to work to cultivate an interested and well-versed audience. It was a learning experience for Hinton and one that set the stage for later productions.

“I am so happy we did it. It taught us a lot about how we communicate about our plays to that audience, how we build a playbill and a whole season that has variety and yet expresses a clear point of view,” says Hinton.

The upcoming season concentrates on youth and the future. It opens on Oct 19 with Romeo and Juliet. Directed by Hinton, the play has a large cast, with professional actors from the NAC’s newly formed repertory company working with graduating students from the National Theatre School. Hinton is happy with the cast and pleased at how the generational divide has played out.

“There is a kind of mutual exchange that is happening with the young people and the members of our English theatre company who are playing the old folks — the play is beautifully divided,” says Hinton.

Written in 1595, Romeo and Juliet reflects the eccentricities of Elizabethan thought but has an uncannily modern view of relationships.

“I think that the Elizabethan, and Shakespeare’s, imagination is really wild and challenging and queer — I really do. It’s critical of the heterosexual structure as it depicts it — Romeo and Juliet are killed by it,” says Hinton. “You look at the depiction of the heterosexual couples in the play… it’s pretty grim.”

Hinton says he has been reminded a number of times during rehearsals of what it was like, for him as a young gay man, to come out to his parents.

“Trying to declare a love that is forbidden, trying to get my parents to understand, keeping it in the closet because I don’t want them to find out, for fear that they will quash my love,” says Hinton.

Indeed, Hinton thinks the story of Romeo and Juliet is one that queer people identify with. “Shakespeare cuts through all the labels and associations to the actions of the heart and how are they socialized. I think that’s the queer life; that’s what our politic is about, what our culture is about,” says Hinton.

Romeo and Juliet echoes the richness of the upcoming season. The productions are diverse: Vimy; nativity; The Year of Magical Thinking; Agokwe; Tales of the Moon; Saint Carmen of the Main; Lauchie, Liza & Rory; and a hip-hop play, i think i can.

The formation of a repertory company means that audiences will see familiar faces on-stage throughout the season, with the same actors playing various roles. It was an important part of Hinton’s vision in joining the NAC, an asset he feels builds cohesion at the theatre.

He thinks it is important that a company of artists be identified with the NAC. “I think that team dynamic is a very important part of theatre: theatre is about an ensemble. People of all walks of life love the actor who plays the tiny little part that they recognize. We love that, because we are identifying a whole group of people who contribute to the telling of the story,” says Hinton. “You need the human face to return and to remember them. That’s what is unique about theatre, that live nature — it’s right there.”

Hinton says he wants to take the NAC show on the road. Whether he can actually fit it all in, however, is the question.

The last five years have been mentally and physically taxing for Hinton, and the gradual decline of his health forced him to rethink his routine and the mechanics of his daily life.

“It is one of the challenges of the job — how to stay present and not kill yourself in it. A huge part of my life in the last 16 months is a commitment to my health,” says Hinton. “I was just running myself into the ground with malnutrition and obesity.”

Hinton quit smoking and drinking and began a diet and exercise regime. The result? He’s lost 127 pounds.

His days are long, usually 14 to 16 hours. He has no personal life and because of that — amongst other things — Hinton has given himself a deadline: he’ll stay in the position for three more years before stepping down as artistic director.

He plans to return to writing, teaching and travelling, both as a tourist and as a mentor to theatre groups in other countries. He has simple dreams of settling down to a domestic life — preferably with a husband — and being able to read a book without thinking of how it could be adapted into a play.

Hinton is ready to move, but not just yet.

“I feel much older than when I took this job, and I feel very much younger, too, in that regard,” says Hinton.

Older in that, as an artistic director, he has reshaped his view of the relationship between artist and audience, and younger in that he is hopeful for the world of theatre and the impact it can make on people’s lives. For Hinton, the dream is that serious drama and lighthearted productions can coexist side by side.

“I want to live in a world where we have The Drowsy Chaperone and Mother Courage,” says Hinton.