Artistic transitions: McCallum enters, stage left

Katherine McCallum is sitting on the couches of the Guild Hall, the place the audience gathers before a show begins, that place of anticipation. She’s talking to me about magic.

“Theatre magic. It’s why I wanted to produce in the first place. But producing happened to me. When you’re an actor in a big city, you have to produce your own work.”

She explains how big cities may have more opportunities for casting calls for new actors, but they also have a lot of people who are more well-known by directors of that city, and are more often cast. To get to act—you have to put on your play yourself.

“There’s 400 people auditioning. The casting committee tosses your photo over their shoulder after you do your monologue.” She sits back on the sofa. “I realized, I’m not going to be Joan of Arc for them. If I don’t raise money, I’ll never get to do what I want.”

She says, “You have to prove yourself—produce, act—and then you hope someone comes and reviews it.”

McCallum studied acting in New York with the Atlantic Theatre Company, with some of the coolest people. She’s reluctant to namedrop — so I have to beg her to do it.

“William Macy, Felicity Huffman (before Desperate Housewives) and David Mamet. But the teachers were all working actors so they would come to teach us a bit, and then other actors would come when they had time off. It was really unique.”

The company espoused practical advice: “Don’t wait for someone to come and discover you. Acting is not a great big mystery. It’s hard work, applying your will to something and allowing audiences to do their part. Part of the magic is that the audience gets to do some of the work.”

She moved from there back to Sydney, Australia and then to Vancouver, where she produced her own shows.

As the new artistic director of the Guild, Katherine McCallum is excited.

“When you spend your life as an actor, you read about these amazing plays. You wonder—when will I see that staged?”

Being the artistic director is about being able to tell those amazing stories to audiences. “You get to choose the stories being told.”

She walks into the job asking herself, “How can I best serve the community of Whitehorse, creatively? What are the designers wanting to do? What are actors going to want to sink their teeth into? What will people want to be involved in?”

For The Laramie Project, “people came out of the woodwork! The inspiration behind the play started it. But in the case for most plays, it is still a major responsibility to create excitement for the designers, the actors and the audiences for plays.”

She’s designed a great upcoming season of major plays: a musical (Into the Woods) and readings. She uses phrases like “black comedy” and “punch in the face” and “psychologically challenging” when describing some of the plays, and when she talks about the Irish play, Beauty Queen of Leenane, she says, “It’s probably one of the best plays I’ve ever seen.”

McCallum isn’t about radically changing things at the Guild. “I don’t think we need to reinvent the wheel here. I think the Guild is doing a stellar job of what it’s here for.”

She has nothing but praise for Eric Epstein’s work as artistic director calling his work for Whitehorse, “high-quality entertainment”.

Sure, she admits, that having a new person at the helm will probably have some differences—as with any new person. “But not that much.”

The Guild will still produce high-quality entertainment. “I love plays that are new, stuff tested by contemporary audiences.” And she’ll “temper” it with classics. But it’s clearly the new stuff that excites her.

She still wants people to walk into the Guild and have a great time and want to come back.

“The Guild is nothing without Whitehorse,” she says, talking about the volunteers, the audiences and the people behind the scenes.

“I’m not here to make any sweeping changes,” she says. At that moment, we both look over to the men’s bathroom, at the construction that’s been started. “But I’ll tell you where I want the men’s room!” She laughs.

She hopes for a seamless transition, and this last year has been great training for her, “watching and learning from Eric. Basically, I was an intern for a year producing his last season. Had I not produced this last season …” and she stops, bewildered at what that might have been like for her stepping cold into the Guild.

She watched how the community and the Guild work like a well-designed machine.

“I felt like I know more about how the Guild works now. There are things in place, forward movement in place, and the artistic director just keeps turning the handle.”

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