Guelph Grad on the Go – Using Theatre to Influence Social Change

Simon Mallett’s theatre company strives to ‘create conversations’

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Simon Mallett, a Guelph theatre graduate and artisic director in Calgary.

Simon Mallett

Theatre has power. Yes, it can entertain and amuse, but it can also tell stories that convey important or controversial ideas and change the perspectives of people in the audience.

The power and possibilities are what keeps U of G grad Simon Mallett so committed to creating theatre with meaning.

“I am trying to bring together audiences with a plurality of voices who will — after seeing the performances — want to talk about the challenges and opportunities we face.”

He is the artistic director of Downstage, a successful small theatre company in Calgary that recently celebrated its 10th anniversary. He also does freelance directing, and last year his work won two awards — the Betty Mitchell Award and the Calgary Critics Award — for outstanding directing.

Born in the U.K., Mallett moved several times with his family. He lived in Richmond Hill for most of his school days.

“I was a shy kid when I was younger,” he says. “I started performing magic, and that boosted my confidence. I ended up working at Canada’s Wonderland and other places as a magician.”

Mallett took theatre in high school to improve his stage presence, but it did more than that — it gave him a new focus for his future studies and career. In his third year at U of G he took a directing course.

“It just clicked for me that directing was the area I was especially suited for,” he says. “I joke that I came to Guelph as an actor and magician but left as a director.”

After graduating with a BA, Mallett stayed in Guelph and did some local theatre. He achieved local fame for directing The Laramie Project with University of Guelph students, staff and faculty, including then-provost and president-designate Alastair Summerlee. This ambitious production focused on what happened in the small town of Laramie, Wyoming, after two locals killed a young gay man in a homophobic attack.

“Doing that production really showed me theatre’s power to influence social change,” he says.

He was accepted into the MFA program at the University of Calgary, and after graduation started Downstage with a few of his friends.

“Our slogan is ‘Theatre that creates conversations’ and we do exclusively Canadian works – mostly new plays  that are relevant or important in some way to Calgary, to Alberta or to Canada,” says Mallett. Downstage is the resident company in Calgary’s Performing Arts Centre, but in recent years its productions have toured to locations within Alberta and to other provinces.

Mallett feels plays work best when the form and the content are developed together.

“I’m just not as interested in plays that take place in one room for 90 minutes,” he says. “When you embrace theatricality and diverse forms in theatre, it gives people a new way to understand and tackle important issues.”

While Calgary hasn’t traditionally been known as a hotbed of culture, Mallett says that’s changing.

“The arts scene in Calgary is pretty magnificent right now,” he says. “Calgary was named the cultural capital of Canada in 2012, and they are currently building a new national music centre. The depth and breadth of artistic works are impressive. I love the theatre community here, and they value what I have to give as an artist.”