4 Questions: Gail Packwood
This article continues our series 50 Years of Disruption, in celebration of the Department of Theatre’s 50th Anniversary. In it, we’ll ask each participant four questions about themselves and their time at York.
1. Who are you?
My specialization was playwriting and yes, I still write, though my career focus has been in arts administration. I had some early successes as a writer including winning a national CBC radio playwriting competition, but I was always so aware of making a living and was never willing to take a joe job that might have allowed my brain the freedom to focus on my own writing at the end of the day. I wanted to work in theatre and it turns out I’m good at organizing and planning and budgeting. So this was a choice I made early on. This choice has afforded me the opportunity to work in company management and production for Mirvish Productions, to be an Associate Producer for the Canadian Stage Company and to go on to be an Arts Management Fellow at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C. These and other experiences I wouldn’t give up for anything.
Currently, I’m the Executive Director for the Associated Designers of Canada. I’ve always had a desire to have a deeper understanding of human resources and labour relations and this position has been a bit like jumping in to the deep end head first– I was on our side of the table for our negotiations with PACT at the end of my third week on the job. Theatre is important, but if my career to this point has taught me anything, it is that it is also a business and no one has the “right” to create work when the artists, crew and even admin staff aren’t compensated properly. I think designers are amazing and can create magic out of chewing gum and tinfoil if they have to. I love helping to support their work and artistic practise.
I have a very early memory of my family going to see A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the NAC in Ottawa when I was five or six years old. It was a production directed by John Wood who was the Artistic Director of English Theatre at the time. And to me it was magic. I know some other audience members thought I was far too young to be there (you should have heard what they were saying when we went to see Cat on a Hot Tin Roof when I was ten!). But truly that one formative experience has influenced every decision I’ve made since. I know that theatre can entertain and engage and make you think and make you feel. But for me, I love it the most when it feels like magic.
I have been very fortunate in my career. I have never held a job outside of the performing arts and overall it has been a pretty big adventure.
The biggest thing I’ve learned is to stay open to all the possibilities that come your way, because being able to say yes, will take you places you never expected. I have never had a five year plan, or any real plan, for my career. And so far, that’s worked out pretty well.
2. What was your favourite moment during your time in the Theatre Department, and why?
I have several favourite moments – not the least of which was when one professor (who I shall not name!) would angrily call me “that blonde girl” in the department meetings because I voiced a counter opinion to action the department was taking that did a disservice to the theatre history classes. I’ve always felt that standing up for what you believe in is important and sometimes essential. The theatre department allowed room for dissenting voices and animated discussion. It wasn’t taboo to disagree and I think that’s really important. When I went on to do my masters at a different university, it was a rude awakening that this was decidedly not their attitude.
I loved History of Visual Sources for Theatrical Design (to use its full name!). I never worked so hard in a class – before or after – or learned as much. I remember performing as Mercy in I Am Yours by Judith Thompson, directed by Soraya Peerbaye and featuring a cast of all non-performance majors. I mostly remember incredible stage-fright countered by this amazing gold dress I got to wear! I had see I Am Yours in high school at the Great Canadian Theatre Company and how amazing it was to be a part of it.
And I remember being one of the team with Soraya, Franco Boni and others… who started the PlayGround Festival. How rewarding it is to see that our fight for space and time and a voice led to something that still exists for students today.
3. What comment, quotation, statement, or action that a professor—or classmate—offered had the greatest impact on you?
I believe it was Anatol Schlosser (but I could be misremembering) who said after you graduate give yourself a few years to just be satisfied if you can pay your rent. You don’t have to achieve everything right away – everything should happen in its own time. Do the work, focus, but give yourself time. It’s advice I’ve shared and passed on when I’ve spoken to classes or had students or interns working with me. It’s so important to try and remember that everyone needs to follow their own path and to try and not mark yourself against what others around you are doing or achieving. Oh, that way madness lies…
Of course, Anatol was my staff advisor in first year and he was also the one who recommended that I perhaps switch majors because my Astronomy mark (A+ !) was so much higher than anything I was getting in theatre.
4. Is there a way you incorporate a particular aspect of your theatre training in your current work?
Time management was drilled into us at York. Don’t be late, don’t miss class. At the time I couldn’t conceive of missing a class or a crew call and that attitude has stayed with me.
I still operate on stage management time – if I’m not 15 minutes early, I feel like I’m late. There is a work ethic you need to succeed in theatre, no matter what area you are specializing in, because time is always scarce. Everyone is busy, so you need to respect everyone’s time, including your own.
I was fortunate to take playwriting with John Palmer. He drilled into us the idea of wasted words – and how our inclination is to add words to something and that doesn’t make it better. It was disheartening at times to have a perfect sentence ripped in half but it’s a lesson that has stuck with me and that I (try) to use when editing my own work. Use better words rather than more of them!