The Nature of this Beast
A Conversation with Marian Brant, General Manager 2013-present
By Jonah Dunch
Marian Brant has been Workshop West’s general manager since the Fall of 2013, guiding the company through trials and triumphs.
But one of her sharpest memories of working with Workshop West comes from a dozen years before she took on the G.M. mantle:
“My prep week started on the morning of 9/11,” Brant says of her time as stage manager for Mesa. On opening night, an audience member experienced a cardiac episode, but the audience — perhaps changed from the news of the previous week — sat there calmly, waiting for the paramedics to come.
“When the paramedics came and took the [audience member] out on a stretcher, the audience applauded them,” Brant recalls. “I thought, ‘This is new.’ I don’t know if this would’ve happened before 9/11. We’ll never know.”
What we do know, however, is that Brant’s tenure at Workshop West has been characterized by moments like these: moments wherein the unexpected has arrived, but Brant and her colleagues have handled it calmly and carefully.
Indeed, Brant started as Workshop West’s general manager in the wake a break-in. The perpetrators — a man and a woman — had partied in, wrecked, and stolen from the Workshop West building, and had even defecated in the mop bucket. Upon their return the next day to pick up valuables they had left the night before, they proceeded to have a fight, and the woman ran to the next-door neighbor, who called the police. Unfortunately, only the woman was apprehended. But they left their mess as it was, leaving Brant to get the building — and the company — back in order.
“There was, fortunately, no money in the account [when the burglars cut themselves fraudulent cheques], so that was the good part!” Brant jokes, referencing the deficit situation she began to tackle in her first year on the job. “It’s been the nature of this beast.”
All other members of the staff had left by February, so Workshop West almost didn’t survive the season: the board at the time was considering closing down the company to deal with the accumulated deficit, but Brant resisted.
“I said, ‘No, these people that we committed to [for Conni Massing’s The Invention of Romance] — this is their livelihood. This isn’t a hobby,’” Brant says. “I put my foot down.”
The board agreed. Brant held down the fort, programmed the next season, and participated in the hiring committee that recommended, to the board, the hiring of current artistic director, Vern Thiessen, who came on the scene in September 2014. Brant had first met Thiessen decades earlier, when the latter was doing his MFA in playwriting at the University of Alberta. Brant was rehearsing in an old rehearsal hall above the Power Plant, while Thiessen worked nearby.
“He was in a sort of a hovel of a room, writing,” Brant recalls.
At the time, Brant and Thiessen brainstormed about a playwrights’ retreat together, so Brant thinks it was bound to happen that they’d be working together, developing new plays and playwrights in Edmonton. Jumping back to the present, Thiessen and Brant have incorporated the Canoe Festival into the larger Chinook Series, a collaborative effort with Fringe Theatre and Azimuth Theatre that puts several smaller festivals under one roof, now including Black Arts Matter (BAM!) and SOUND OFF: as Deaf Theatre Festival.
“It started to make sense to bring people together to hopefully cross-pollinate our audiences, to make it a larger festival with more diverse programming,” Brant says. “[The Chinook Series has] brought people into FTA [the Arts Barns] who have never felt welcome in the building.”
Brant is also proud of the quality of Workshop West’s programming under her and Thiessen’s tenure, particularly Kenneth T. Williams’s Café Daughter, which was part of the opening weekend of Canada Scene in July 2017.
And the adventures haven’t stopped: on the Serbia/Montenegro tour of Café Daughter, Brant and co. travelled with five heavy hockey bags, two projectors, and a long hard case for totem pole set pieces. One bag went missing, so Brant had to hop in a cab back to the airport to find it and drag it to the theatre. She made it back with an hour to go before curtain.
“That tour was just rock-and-roll!” Brant says. “We were blessed with how it smoothly it actually went.”
Brant looks forward to continuing fulfilling Workshop West’s four pillars of educating, developing, programming, and disseminating playwrights, as few theatre companies in Canada have this mandate. Brant emphasizes how theatre — and the other arts — connect audiences to their communities, whether those be within their schools or across the globe.
“In art, [we’re] documenting what it is like to be a human in this world,” Brant says. “And I think [live performance] allows people to feel not so disenfranchised or alone.”