Millstone Profile – Hugh Neilson

by Edith Cody-Rice

Hugh Neilson at Palms

Hugh Neilson has always liked Almonte, ever since he was a child growing up in Ottawa. After leaving Ottawa and developing an impressive career in theatre management, he returned in 2014 to become Managing Director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company (GCTC)  in Ottawa and to establish his family in Almonte. The Millstone caught up with him at Palms on Mill Street in Almonte.

Hugh graduated from Ottawa U with a degree in theatre direction and animation. He left Ottawa at the age of thirty to become a production manager in animation. He also wrote for Montreal’s Cinar, at the time Canada’s leading children’s television animation company.  Hugh then spent seven years with the Professional Association of Canadian Theatres (PACT) where he had a broad role ranging from advising on membership development to labour negotiations. While remaining a volunteer with PACT, he moved to his first Theatre General Manager position at Toronto’s famous Theatre Passe Muraille. He then moved to Toronto’s Young People’s Theatre and finally to Saskatoon to run Persephone Theatre, the largest theatre in Sasktachewan.

In 2014, what Hugh describes as a great opportunity enticed him to Ottawa as Managing Director of the GCTC. As with most theatre managers, his position encompasses diverse responsibilities including finance, strategic planning, contracting, fundraising,  partnership building and facility management. The GCTC, currently in its 42nd season, is in a sweet spot right now. It has retired its enormous debt from the building of the Irving Greenberg Theatre Centre at the corner of Holland and Wellington Streets in Ottawa. The new facility includes a 262-seat mainstage theatre, a flexible black box studio theatre, and two spacious lobbies, a venture enabled by a 2004 donation of $2.5 million dollars from the family of the late Irving Greenberg. Building costs far outstripped that donation, however,  and GCTC still needed financial support from government and the community. As a result it was, until recently, saddled with a huge debt. That has now been reduced to zero with the help of hundreds of community members.

Hugh notes that the GCTC’s focus is on the development and support of emerging artistry with a commitment to diversity and inclusivity. Next season’s schedule available here  and remainder of the  current season include plays about Canadian Politics (1979), a family comedy (You are Happy) a musical set in new York (Ordinary Days), a play with audience participation( Blind Date), one about the sexual lives of women in the early 20th century (What a Young Wife Ought to Know), a story of immigration (How Black Mothers Say I Love You) and polygamy (Gracie).

The GCTC works with playwrights to help them network, promote themselves and establish contacts for their work.

Hugh is actively involved in theatre outreach. A Community Foundation grant has permitted the theatre to offer lunch, transportation and a play for Wednesday matinees for seniors at a modest price. For youth, the GCTC has developed the Education and Learning Program for grades 7-12 and post secondary students, offering inexpensive matinees for each show accompanied by a play study guide. It also offers the Hive, a cheap subscription program for youth which allows them to experience professional theatre both at a performance and backstage.

Hugh noted that the popular Chefs and Shows, has brought in new theatre goers. Six chefs pick a show and on the second Tuesday of each play’s run a meal is developed based on that show. Chefs and Shows is curated by Sheila Whyte of Thyme and Again, a well known Ottawa caterer.

The GCTC enjoys 70% full houses during its season but does not run plays during the summer months. The Millstone asked whether it has considered touring the Ottawa Valley in the off season but Hugh replied that he would prefer the more efficient measure of helping valley residents to get to shows at the Ottawa theatre.

Hugh loves living in Almonte and although he has a full time job in town, he participates in the community by teaching ukelele at Music Works with George Turcotte on Saturday mornings.