From the nation’s capital to one of the world’s leading creative spaces, the career of Department of Theatre alumnus Nathan Medd has gone far and fast since his graduation with a BFA in 2001. Now named the 2019 Distinguished Alumni Award recipient for the Faculty of Fine Arts, Medd has made a name for himself as one of Canada’s brightest young arts leaders.
Back on campus during Alumni Week to attend the Distinguished Alumni Awards night, visit Theatre classes to speak with current students and to hold a public talk about the importance of creative placemaking, Medd took time out of his busy schedule to reflect on his career to date and the state of the arts in Canada today.
Living his dream
A cultural non-profit leader whose work is devoted to developing the performing arts in Canada, Medd is currently Managing Director of Performing Arts for the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity, the nation’s largest arts training institution and incubator of new works, a position he took up in August 2018. Prior to that, he was the Managing Director of English Theatre at the National Arts Centre, where his team successfully championed Canadian creators and initiated a new national stage for Indigenous performance (launching September 2019).
But prior to those key positions, he was Managing Producer of Vancouver’s Electric Company Theatre, where he produced original works for Vancouver’s 2010 Cultural Olympiad and co-founded Progress Lab 1422, the performing arts creation studio in East Vancouver, in 2009. And before that, he was the Operations and Development Manager for Victoria’s Intrepid Theatre, where he co-founded Metro Studio — still a flagship venue for Vancouver Island — and also held positions with both the BC Arts Council (programs officer and policy analyst) and the Belfry Theatre (front of house manager), where he started right out of university.
“When I left the Phoenix I had an usually clear sense of direction,” says Medd. “Before I turned 30, I knew I wanted to be leading a mid-sized theatre organization, and before I was 35 I wanted to be leading an A-category theatre organization.”
Any way you look at it, moving from graduation to managing the nation’s leading arts centre in just 18 years is quite the career arc. And that doesn’t even mention the Master’s degree in management from Harvard University he recently completed, or the global pilot run of Harvard Business School’s first digital learning program in which he was invited to participate.
“[Theatre alumnus] Ian Case once told me he felt called to the theatre, the way a priest might say they were called to the church, and I’ve caught myself saying that now too,” he says. “Performing arts is definitely a calling. By the time I was about 13, I knew I only wanted to be in a theatre — it didn’t matter if I was in the booth, behind the curtain or centre-stage. It was quite a surprise to my parents.”
It was no surprise to the Qualicum Beach-raised Medd, however, at least once he got involved with the ECHO Players at the local Village Theatre as a young teen. “It was a place where adults treated children like adults and children treated adults like children — everyone was equal, everyone respected each other,” he recalls. “It was a bit bohemian and I’d never been in a club like that before. It didn’t matter how old you were, we were all just grooving on the idea of making a performance.”
Rising to the Phoenix
Given his up-island upbringing, and perhaps the fact that he was his high school valedictorian, applying to UVic’s Theatre program was a no-brainer for Medd; what was surprising, however, was his realization that, after four years in the acting program, acting wasn’t really what he wanted to be doing.
“I had a moment in my fourth year where I started to recognize that acting wasn’t my highest and best use in the theatre,” he says with a chuckle. “I was looking forward to a steady paycheque, making the rules and being in a position to work with and hire my friends — to say nothing of the talent I didn’t have to be acting. But I did have a love for organizing other people and produce work.”
For that, he credits the long-running Student Alternative Theatre Company, or SATCo, which was started by the afore-mentioned Ian Case and the late Tim Sutherland and continues to this day. “[SATCo] gave us a lot of space to try out theories and concepts from class with no one supervising us . . . we learned so much through that, and I learned so much about managing theatre through trial and error.”
While Medd may be well known behind the scenes, his Phoenix classmates included a number of people better known for their roles in the spotlight — including Erin Karpluk of CBC TV’s Being Erica fame, Thomas Middleditch (Silicon Valley, The Office), Meg Roe (Onegin, and a frequent face on stage and directing with Bard on the Beach), Annette Reilly (The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina), plus the likes of David Schumann, who is now one of the top trailer editors in Hollywood — many of whom he still sees, whether in person or on screen.
He also points out the value of having a purpose-built facility like the Phoenix building itself. “As I visit more and more schools now, I realize just what a dream the facility is — the three stages are the real asset of the program. A lot of theatre schools across North America have the opposite infrastructure: well-equipped studios but, if they have any performance venue at all, it’s just a ramshackle stage. There’s no facility quite like UVic.”
As part of the overall Alumni Week activities, Medd will be participating in a free public talk about creative placemaking from 12:45-1:45pm Wednesday, Feb 6, in the Phoenix’s Bishop Theatre. Joining him will be fellow Phoenix alumni and Metro Studio co-founders Ian Case (former Intrepid Theatre general manager, now Director of UVic’s Ceremonies & Events) and Janet Munsil (former Intrepid Theatre artistic director, current MFA candidate in Writing), plus Kevin Kerr, co-founder of Vancouver’s Electric Company and a professor in the Department of Writing.
“My work these past 10 years has been about building infrastructure and altering practices that were built in the 1960s but no longer serve everyone who wants to work in or attend the arts,” Medd explains. “It’s not just a question of physical space, but programmatic space too . . . we’re making space for communities I wasn’t thinking of 10 years ago. With NAC, it was the idea of becoming the living room of the capital: you start with the idea that we’re all artists and we all need a space to be creative.”
He points to next-generational shifts that reflect a new state of mind, as much a sense of place. “Young people get the idea that colonial institutions like the NAC or Banff need to be reversed engineered or disrupted to be relevant and inviting to a wider range of communities than they were originally set up for,” he continues. “And it’s the people who are coming out of school now who’ve never had any other sensibility who will make that change. We’re in a moment where we’re correcting for history — at times, that correction may exclude people who have been in the spotlight for a long time, so maybe someone like Shakespeare needs to be set aside for a generation.”
To best understand the idea of creative placemaking — and the changes in the Canadian arts scene in general — Medd thinks of gardening. “I had a lot of time at NAC to till the soil, and that’s the best analogy for arts management: you spend your days quietly working the soil, then once a year something blooms and it’s glorious.”
The power of place
His new role as Managing Director of Performing Arts at the Banff Centre finds Medd overseeing a wide range of educational programs and residencies, ranging from theatre, dance and opera to classical music, jazz and contemporary music.
“It’s really the perfect job for me,” he says. “I’m having a wonderful time learning the ins and outs of other performing arts disciplines and industries and trends. The world of dance is very different from the world of theatre or classical music or jazz — and how they’re different is how they’re each responding to the great questions of our time: intersectionality, climate change, cultural appropriation and sexism.”
Known and recognized worldwide as a leader in creative development, the Banff Centre is an ideal place to have those conversations, says Medd. “Because we care so much about the artistic health of these industries, these are some of the most urgent and compelling work that’s being done today. It’s a great privilege to represent 85 years of tradition in the fine arts, and to represent Canadian culture at events around the world. The big mantra of the Banff Centre is ‘the power of place’—the value of Banff Centre is being here, feeling the power of the territory.”
Howard Jang, the Banff Centre’s vice president of arts and leadership, says he’s “thrilled” by their latest hire. “Nathan is one of the country’s brightest stars in cultural management and his leadership in working with our Performing Arts directors and Arts programs will strengthen Banff Centre’s place as Canada’s leading resource for the advancement of arts and culture.”
Between Banff and his time at the NAC, Medd is intimately aware of the emerging — and authentic — Canadian theatre aesthetics: multicultural, Indigenous, interdisciplinary and site-specific. “We’ve got great spaces all across Canada, but they don’t work for everyone I work with or want to work with. A lot of the work to come is about the underlying assumptions and structures that manage those spaces.”
Advice for the next generation
As the 2019 Distinguished Alumni Award recipient, Nathan Medd now joins the ranks of previous Fine Arts DAA winners, including country music stars Twin Kennedy (BMus ’08), visual artist Althea Thauberger (MFA ’02) director Glynis Leyshon (BFA ’73), author Esi Edugyan (BA ’99), lighting designer Michael J. Whitfield (BA ’67), filmmaker Mercedes Bátiz-Benét (BFA ’02), poet Carla Funk (BFA ’97), musician Paul Beauchesne (BMus ’88), author Deborah Willis (BA ’06), environmental designer Valerie Murray (BA ’78), author Eden Robinson (BFA ’92) and visual anthropologist Andrea Walsh (BA ’91).
As such, does he have any advice for either recent alumni or soon-to-be graduates?
“I’m in no position to give anyone advice, but one thing that worked for me was reckoning with the need to prioritize my career, and the work within, above everything: romance, nutrition . . . everything,” he admits. “I did that out of a fear of not getting a foothold in my chosen industry if I didn’t give it everything I had. But I think if we’re going to spend four years doing something, we owe it to ourselves to give it everything you have. Nothing’s guaranteed.”
That said, he does credit his UVic education with giving him the skills to achieve his chosen goals. “The great value of a fine arts education is gaining the tools of self-expression, self-examination and group process,” he says. “Those skills serve every possible direction you could take in your career, whether you end up in the performing arts or not.”
Looking ahead, Medd accepts that there be more change to come in his life, but feels ready to accomplish whatever task he sets his mind to.
“I’ve been forced way out of my comfort zone every time I’ve made a change, but it’s driven by a conviction that our important artistic institutions need custodians from my generation,” he concludes. “I want to help these institutions work in an evolving, contemporary world.”