Experiencing Other Realities
A Conversation with Susan Fraser, General Manager 1980-1982
By Jonah Dunch
When Susan Fraser became Workshop West’s first general manager, she was taking on an effectively entry-level position at a scrappy young theatre company living in a living room. Back then, nobody foresaw what an enduring arts institution it would become.
“You’re on the ground floor of something that’s really extraordinary, but you never think about it happening for 40 years!” Fraser says.
Fraser’s first experience with Workshop West was as an arts administration student at the then-Grant MacEwan College. Founding artistic director Gerry Potter partnered with MacEwan to have the theatre production students do set, costume, and prop construction, and the arts administration students do front of house, for the fall ’79 production of David French’s Of the Fields, Lately. On the basis of that work, Potter offered Fraser the job of general manager.
“He took a chance!” Fraser says. “I was completely green.”
Fraser jumped into the deep end, describing her tenure as effectively “a university degree in how to run a small theatre company.” The company’s office setup consisted of a mattress on the floor of Potter’s living room, a typewriter, and a landline phone. Fraser was mainly in charge of bookkeeping and grantsmanship, while Potter took care of the artistic work. In those early days, the company was supported by a committed Board of Directors, particularly Patrick McGuigan, who would drive up to the office daily to help Fraser. Workshop West soon found an office space by Theatre 3, a now-defunct theatre company which shared resources with Workshop West. While it may seem insignificant now, Fraser says having access to Theatre 3’s fax machine and photocopier meant the world to Workshop West’s administration.
“It was really important that we had a home base to work from and an actual theatre that people knew they could come to and find us [at],” Fraser explains. “So that era next-door to Theatre 3 was significant for us because it stabilized our opportunity to market ourselves.”
Of the Fields, Lately won several awards in its first run, but the show didn’t have much of an audience (it was produced in a small black box theatre in a high school, off the beaten track). Potter and Fraser took a risk: they remounted the production in the following season, so it could get the audience it deserved.
“I think [that production] really launched the company in some respects,” Fraser says. “People saw the quality of it, the beauty of it, and I’m really, really glad that we remounted it.”
But this remount was an expensive affair, and it came not without travails. The morning after receiving a rave review from Keith Ashwell in the Edmonton Journal, Fraser was waiting by the phone, expecting it to ring off the hook with ticket orders. But it turned out that the line was cut off, even though the phone bill was paid up to date. Fraser ran across the parking lot to Theatre 3 to call the phone company, Alberta Government Telephone (AGT), who refused to bring the line back on that day.
Fraser called Ashwell, the Journal’s theatre critic, saying, “I don’t know what to do, Keith. We’re going to go down in flames! If it says the line is disconnected, people will think the company doesn’t exist.”
Ashwell called AGT and requested to speak with a senior manager. He asked them one question: “How is AGT going to explain that they killed a theatre company?”
The phone was reconnected within the hour.
Despite these harrowing experiences, Workshop West became more and more stable over the course of Fraser’s tenure, although it took “a wing and a prayer, and a bit of magic” to happen.
“My memories are more attached to the background stuff, basically the invisible stuff that has to happen, but nobody really thinks about,” Fraser says — and it was these background changes, like the move to an office, or one donor’s gift of a truck for set transport, that made all the difference.
One of Fraser’s favourite productions was Balconville, which was a collaborative effort with the University of Alberta’s Department of Drama. Fraser says sharing resources with the Department helped make the production a success, and Potter had a knack for bringing disparate groups and artists together.
“I think he’s a bit of a magician,” she says.
Fraser was deeply impacted by the Workshop West/Catalyst Theatre co-production of David Freeman’s Creeps, which depicted the working lives of four men with disabilities. At a talkback, an audience member said that when sidewalk curbs were lowered to accommodate wheelchairs, sight-impaired people were disadvantaged: they used the curb to tell where the sidewalk ended. This anecdote showed Fraser how even when people do things with good intentions, there can be unintended consequences. Ever since, she’s tried to be mindful of that in everything she does.
“That one moment opened my mind up to something that I had no understanding of,” Fraser explains. “I think that’s why we do theatre: so that we can experience other realities and other ideas, but to make a difference in the world.”
That’s what Potter was trying to do by creating a theatre company focused on developing Canadian theatre for Canadian audiences, Fraser says, at a time when there were less concerted efforts to develop Canadian work.
“And it happened at just the right time,” she adds. “People needed it, they wanted it, and they loved it. And 40 years later, they still do.”
Fraser left Workshop West in 1982. As the company grew in capacity, she felt that it would benefit from the management of someone with more experience to continue its upwards trajectory.
“I was young,” she reflects. “I wasn’t hugely confident in my abilities as a general manager at that point… I don’t know [now] if I’m right about that assessment or not.”
While working as a tour manager for Chinook Theatre, Fraser also worked as the administrator for the first two years of the Edmonton Fringe. She then worked for The Works visual arts festival for a couple of years, and for The Bullet, which was then Edmonton’s arts newspaper.
Fraser moved to Vancouver in 1988, but initially struggled to find work in the arts community. So, she got a job at a temp agency — though despite her years of administrative experience, the agency only hired her once they found out she could file things in alphabetical order.
“Talk about starting from scratch again!” Fraser says with a laugh.
The temp agency sent Fraser on her first placement to Transport Canada — and this job turned out to be more stable than she expected.
“It was supposed to last two weeks, and it lasted 25 years,” she says. “It turns out I could do more than file!”
Fraser started in a clerical position but became a manager within a year and a half. She ended up working as an emergency planner, developing safety procedures for federal worksites, as well as for natural disasters such as earthquakes and tsunamis. Just like the arts, Fraser values emergency preparedness since it’s a collaborative process that makes a difference in the world.
“I loved my career in the arts, and I loved my career in emergency preparedness too,” Fraser says. “You never know what life is going to offer you, and sometimes you’ll have to reinvent yourself.”
(As an aside, Fraser was inspired by the Canada Council for the Arts granting form from her Workshop West days when she designed forms as an emergency planner. The Canada Council form was clear and comprehensive, essentially laying out how to run a theatre company.)
In our current, heated political climate, Fraser thinks it’s more important than ever for we Canadians to hold onto a cultural identity and values distinct from our neighbors to the South. As they promote the arts in Canada, companies like Workshop West are crucial to those efforts.
“When you can tell stories that come from the Canadian sensibility, and talk about those issues in terms of what’s right for us to do—and I think the arts play an important role in that, through commentary, and observation, and expression—then having a theatre company that does that is essential,” she says.
Looking back at her early career at Workshop West, Fraser sees the company as her “first love,” as it was there that she discovered the joy and rituals of theatre.
“It was an extraordinary time to be part of [Workshop West], and Gerry’s vision has proven the test of time, hasn’t it?” Fraser says. “There is so much talent and artistry and beauty in the creative community here in Canada.”