Talking with former Théâtre de l’Île artistic director Gilles Provost

Gilles Provost’s father, a lawyer, never came to see him act because he never approved of him being an actor. “If you’re an actor you’ll eat shit all your life. If you’re a lawyer you’ll have money to travel around the world and see shows,” he told him.

After his father’s death, however, his mother found many press clippings about Provost’s performances hidden beneath a sheet of newsprint at the bottom of a drawer in his father’s desk.

Today, Provost looks like he would be the perfect candidate to play Gandalf from Lord of the Rings. At 72, long, smooth white hair falls to his shoulders and he has a thick, equally white beard. His voice is low and neutral, and his eyes are steady and calm. Though an actor, he is never theatrical.

But Gandalf is not the role that Provost is preparing for now. On November 10, he will star in Le Chemin de la Mecque (The Road to Mecca) at the Théâtre de l’Île, the Gatineau theatre he founded and used to run. It’s the story of an old woman who rediscovers her past.

Provost saw his first play when he was 10, While the Son Shines byTerence Rattigan. Growing up in the Byward market in a francophone family in the 1940s, he didn’t speak English at this point, but it didn’t matter that he couldn’t understand what the actors were saying. “It changed my whole life,” he says. “Seeing those people up there looking nice in beautiful costumes. Having people around me laughing and this woman beside me sort of crying and then people bowing. I came home and I said, ‘I know what I’m going to do.'”

He didn’t waste time. He went to the Ottawa Public Library, found a play, and got his grade five teacher’s permission to put it on in class. Then he wanted to bring it to the end of school year assembly. First, he needed a new rehearsal space, as no more class time was available. “This is when I started schmoozing, I think,” he says. He convinced the school’s janitor to let him and his cast rehearse in the school basement in exchange for help cleaning blackboards after class.

The end of year performance was a success. “From then on, I did two shows a year,” Provost says. “I directed them and of course I played the lead,” he says jokingly.

At that time, the Gatineau newspaper Le Droit would sometimes cover high school theatre. A good review of one of Provost’s productions in high school led to his first professional role, and from there his career took off. To satisfy his father’s wish for him to have a career, however, he worked as a primary school teacher as well in Ottawa from the age of 19 to 24.

Around this time, Provost fell for a fellow actress, Loise Aubin. They had a tumultuous relationship. One year in, he received a job offer to go and teach at a military base in Germany, upon which Aubin told him that she was dying and asked him to stay with her. “She was a good actress because I sort of believed her,” he says. They reconciled and married shortly afterwards. Three years into the marriage, however, they were back at each other’s throats. At a big party, they had a fierce argument in public.

After the fight, Provost went to sit by himself in a corner, having had a few drinks. “This guy came along with I don’t know what I was drinking, saying ‘have this,’ started talking, being very nice … He took me home and he seduced me, and that was all right,” says Provost. It was a one night stand, but from that point on the significant relationships in Provost’s life would be with men.

His marriage disintegrated and he escaped to Montréal. It was 1963. He worked as an actor, stage manager, and director and eventually landed gigs both in England and back in Ottawa at the NAC. Then he heard that the city of Hull was looking for an artistic director for a new theatre space.

The Théâtre de l’Île (Theatre of the Island) had just been built on a little island in a gentle stream that runs from the Gatineau River into the Ottawa. The island had been enlarged with dirt from the digging of underground parking garages for federal government office buildings.

There were about eight candidates vying for the job. Provost says that his ability to schmooze helped him again. But he also had a vision: a theatre that would run both amateur and professional productions, giving the amateurs exposure to professional talent. The amateur productions would be given professional directors and would also benefit from having a full run of at least 15 shows. In contrast, traditional community theatre consists usually of three or four shows.

His bosses were sceptical because the artistic budget for the nascent Théâtre de l’Île was only $48,000.

With extensive fundraising Provost pulled it off and 32 years later, the theatre is still following his model of sharing community and professional theatre productions. Its artistic budget has bloomed to over $500,000, and performances by community actors now run an average of 24 performances.

Part of the theatre’s allure is its picturesque location. In order to access it, you walk across a little stone bridge. In the summer, lush lawns and flower gardens share the island with the building. The interior is modern looking and air-conditioned, and a small space with just 120 seats makes creates intimacy. You never have to strain your ears to hear the actors.

Provost is full of great stories. My favourite had to do with his mother and grandmother. While Provost had a sometimes tense relationship with his father, he was always on excellent terms with his mother and grandmother. These two lived together after his father’s death.

One night, well after Provost had moved out of the home, he brought an anglophone boyfriend home called Barry to meet the two ladies. His mother, who didn’t speak a word of English, compensated by speaking to Barry in French with an English accent. The poor boy didn’t understand a thing that she was saying. As the night wore on, Provost’ s grandmother, who did speak English, noticed that the boy was getting tired.

“And then [my grandmother] comes down, and she’s got sheets, and two pillows, and everything and she says to Barry, ‘I’ve just changed all the sheets in my bedroom so you and Gilles can stay there. What do you want for breakfast?'”

Barry went all red in the face and protested, but Provost’s grandmother was firm. “It’s fine. I like you. You’re nice. Now what time must you go in the morning?” Provost and Barry accepted her offer.

Provost’s mother was equally open-minded, and had a close relationship with Claude Jutras, Provost’s current partner. I ask him why he thought she was unprejudiced. “Perhaps because in another life she’d been a happy prostitute,” he jokes. But continuing seriously, he says that she simply “liked people.”

In the late 70s, Provost went to a bar in Gatineau where a gathering of gay bikers was going on in order to do research for the play he was putting on at the time, Hosanna by Michel Tremblay which features a transsexual biker. He found that he and another man were the only two men in the bar who weren’t wearing leather. The two of them started talking. This man, Claude Jutras, 20 years Provost’s junior, has now been his partner for 32 years. Five years ago, they married.

Jutras is tall and thin with long curly hair and an ebullient personality. He and Provost have lived in a spacious old house filled with old furniture and wooden floors just a few blocks from the Théâtre de l’île for decades.

As Provost continues to live happily with Jutras in this house, and as he prepares for his role in Le Chemin de la Mecque, you get the feeling that he leaves a balanced life. Not completely retired, he isn’t plagued by the question of what to do with his time. He’s known what he wants to do ever since he was 10, after all.

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