Theatre companies across the world are beginning to find ways to deliver performances to the public once again. Whether it is through reduced seating or alternative venues, we are seeing some return of the performing arts, and it is more than warmly welcomed. Centaur Theatre’s Portico Project is the Montreal theatre’s first endeavour since closing its doors in spring due to the ongoing pandemic, and while the performance space may have changed, the plays will still be close to home.
Walking along Saint François-Xavier in Montreal’s Old Port, the Centaur is always impossible to miss. With its ornate stone columns and steps (or rather, portico), it stands out amongst the neighbouring shops even if audiences aren’t flowing in and out. But the front of Montreal’s foremost anglophone theatre is even more noticeable lately as the steps have been lined with lighting rigs and cables in advance of Centaur Theatre’s Portico Project, a miniature theatre festival of short plays performed on the steps of the portico for sidewalk audiences and passersby to take in.
As an avenue for presentation, it’s nothing if not a brilliant use of space. The look of the portico is timeless and regal, while still being neutral enough that any piece should fit within the context of the physical design. The idea that a slew of short performances will be put up on those steps recalls both memories of found-space theatre projects in university as well as classical theatre traditions and venues. There are countless theatres across the world laying unused, and even during a normal year, there are a great number of theatrical spaces that go completely unused when a season is not being presented. So to see a major theatre choose to come out of their hibernation with an innovative use of the space they occupy is refreshing.
Running from September 24th to October 4th, Centaur Theatre’s Portico Project consists of eight pieces by Montreal playwrights and performers; Red Phone by the Boca Del Lupo theatre company from Vancouver uses the writing of multiple Montreal playwrights for their immersive performance that uses two phone booths, two prompters, and two audience members. The idea is that individuals interested in performances would be able to watch them in their entirety, perhaps sticking around for subsequent performances, although it does have the busker-like appeal of simply catching a moment of entertainment on one’s walk about the city. There is an RSVP system in place, although it is hard to tell how regulated the theatre could be with this measure as it is a frequently traversed public street.
As with any outdoor, urban theatre endeavour, there is the question of how easy it is to enjoy a performance when the majority of people passing by won’t have interest or respect for the art being delivered. Pedestrians, foul weather, and passing vehicles are all less than desirable additions to any staging. But in this form of performance, these are common risks to take in an uncommon time, and if the goal is for an uncommonly positive presentation for the common good, then I think anyone can find common ground that Centaur Theatre’s Portico Project is a welcome return of theatre to Montreal life.