Skip to main content

Artist Features

I Am YEG Arts: Heather Inglis

February 29, 2024

Photo by Ryan Parker

Heather Inglis is a director, dramaturge, producer, educator and mainstay of Edmonton’s theatre community. Over the course of her career, she has founded Edmonton’s Theatre Yes, directed productions of innovative site-specific new works, collaborated with theatre companies across the country, championed the voices of female playwrights, and most recently has taken over the helm as Artistic Producer of Workshop West Playwrights’ Theatre. In this week’s I Am YEG Arts feature, we speak with Heather about the collaborative spirit of Edmonton’s theatre community, shining a spotlight on new voices, and Workshop West’s upcoming new play festival, Springboards.

What aspect(s) of Edmonton’s theatre and arts community keep you living and working in Edmonton?

Edmonton is a very special place in terms of the arts. When I went to the National Theatre School of Canada, I was one of two people that got into the directing program in my year. One of the goals of the National Theatre School was to train artistic professionals and send them back to their regions to contribute. Many graduates go to Toronto, and I never had a will to do that. I wanted to make art in the community that I’d grown up in and where I’d seen art. I wanted to be part of the vibrancy that I’d experienced growing up. I’m more interested in community and in connection and in finding a way to create the sorts of magic and the sorts of discussions that I remember being so important to me growing up. One of the things that the Edmonton Arts Council has done is create more of that. I’m really thrilled that I have the honour to be part of this community and part of the support system that makes Edmonton such a special place. 

How did you get your start in theatre? 

I’ve been going to plays at places like the Citadel Theatre, Northern Light Theatre, and Studio Theatre since I can remember. I remember directing my first play – it was a one act play in my parents’ basement – and having this moment where I thought oh my gosh, this is what I’m supposed to be doing. And from that moment (I was 17 years old) I’ve pursued being a theatre director. As I went through university, I had a moment where I thought I was going to be a filmmaker, but I always came back to the theatre, and I’ve pursued it doggedly my entire life. 

I remember showing up at the University of Alberta and having to take acting classes and telling them that I wanted to be a director, and they all kind of looked at me like I was nuts. I mean, when I decided this was what I wanted to do, there were no female artistic directors in Edmonton and still I’m the only one at a mid-sized theatre. Usually, women get put into TYA [Theatre for Young Audiences] or some sort of educational expression of the craft. When I was offered this job I was a little scared, but I also thought, if you’re called, you need to do it because the only way that you set the example for the next generation of young women who want to do this work and lead artistically, is to do it if you have the opportunity. 

Tell us a bit about the work you’ve undertaken throughout your career to advance the work of female and diverse playwrights, and why this work is important to you. 

When I founded and started running my own company, which at that time was a company called Theatre Yes, I made decisions about the work that I wanted to do and the people that I wanted to work with and what interested me. At some point it became obvious that I was gravitating towards work by women, and so I’ve always made space for that. I’ve always gravitated towards the work of women because I’m a woman and I mean no disrespect to my male colleagues, but I think they gravitate towards work that is written and created by people that are just like them, that they understand. I love the story of the dark horse. I love it when people that we don’t expect can shine. One of the things that I love most about the work that I’m privileged to do is to lift people up that the larger public might not know. And in doing that you can start careers. It only takes a couple interesting credits for somebody’s career to take off. One of the things that I’ve really tried to do is identify works by women and artists that are less known, that might be equity seeking, and put them into the spotlight. For me, it’s about identifying the beautiful work that’s happening in our city that may not be part of the mainstream and collecting it and finding a way to give it a platform so it can reach audiences and so those artists can have some of the opportunities that I’ve been privileged to have. 

What’s one piece of advice you wish you had when you were starting out? 

[Emerging artists] need to play the long game. A career in the arts is not about the best 30 under 30, or the best 40 under 40, or the best 50 under 50. It’s not a sprint, it’s a marathon, and it’s got to be about the work. There are some people that look only for commercial success. They’re looking to build a career, possibly more than building pieces of art that are beautiful and speak to people. I think it’s important to remember that doing the work and going through the process authentically and sometimes slowly is what will pay off in the end. If you go for what seems like a quick career path, sometimes that can have a quick ending too. I think it’s important to remember that a career is a long journey and the real payoff is going to happen when you put in the time. 

What’s something you knew instinctively that is still serving you today? 

I always knew I should come to Edmonton. I have had a number of opportunities in my life where I could have gone other places. I went to school in Britain for a while and I was invited to stay and finish my degree there, and I had this instinct that I should go back to Edmonton when I first graduated from theatre school. I also got an opportunity to work at Nightwood Theatre in Toronto. I’ve had opportunities to go to New Zealand. I’ve been thinking I might write a story about this; these doorways where my life could have been completely and utterly different. In the end, this is a special community and I think sometimes, from the outside, people don’t realize that. They think that we’re quaint, a little working class, it’s not the prettiest city, people are not hustling as much as they do in Calgary or Vancouver, but this is a place where if you need something, somebody will help you. 

We moved into the Gateway Theatre in March, two years ago, and it was the first time in Workshop West’s history that we’d had our own performance space. We moved into essentially an empty warehouse with some black curtains. There were no lights, no sound, no seating, no fire extinguishers, no Wi-Fi, no furniture. But what happened was sort of remarkable. We kept getting calls and emails from various theatres and technicians and people that said, oh, do you need this? I’ve got some extra lights. We can help you out. We can give you some startup equipment that you can borrow for a year if we can use the space for the Fringe Festival”. The community stepped up and got behind us in a way that I’m pretty sure doesn’t happen in a city that prioritizes hustle, where everyone is trying to make a career and make a buck and talk about this as being an industry”.

In theatre, there are lots of people that talk about theatre being an industry and I resist it. I think it’s important to remember that theatres are by-and-large small not-for-profit charities. The goal of industry is to make money. The goal of a not-for-profit charity is to provide a service to a community. I think when we call theatre an industry” we create an assumption that what theatres are doing is trying to make money and create a glitzy product and sell as many tickets as possible, and in fact our goals and mandates are quite separate from that. We are trying to create professional art, and in Workshop West’s case, work that is created by Canadians, at a price that people can afford. We are part of an ecosystem which includes the audience, which is about creating cultural conversations about ourselves, what it means to live here, our experiences, and our hopes and dreams and fears. All of those things are essential, which is why we’re charities. 

Workshop West’s signature new play festival, Springboards, is set to return from March 25 – 31. Tell us more about the festival and what makes it special to you and the city.

I think Springboards is the perfect expression of Workshop West’s mandate. We develop, produce, present and promote new Canadian plays, and 45 years after the inception of the company, that is still as important as ever. We are still doing our best to try and create audiences for new Canadian work and we’re still fighting an uphill battle in many ways. 

The festival is all about celebrating the creative process, works in process, the role of the audience in the process of creation, and creating connections between audiences and the artists. What we do over the week of the festival is workshop plays, we create ensembles of actors and directors to read and explore and investigate new texts by Canadian writers. Most of the writers that we present are Edmontonian. And then we create staged readings that are a bit like radio plays, if you will; they have sound, lights, some costumes, and are then read in front of a live audience. That gives the playwrights an opportunity to figure out what happens when the text hits the ears, hearts and minds of the people sitting in the room. Theatre is a three-dimensional exercise – four-dimensional really because it takes place in time – so we can’t really figure out how the works function and how they need to function until we test them. Springboards is our opportunity to do that. Throughout the week, we are going to present a series of events, cabarets and public staged readings, talkbacks and discussions that spotlight new writing and create some experiences that people will not forget, rubbing shoulders with plays that they are bound to see on stages in Edmonton and beyond in the months and years to come. 

One of the things that I love about Springboards is that we will be promoting over 20 playwrights over the course of the week, and we’ll be hiring approximately 20 – 24 actors, and there’ll be five directors, so it’s a great community of artists that we get to create in that little pocket of time. 

Tell us about what you’re currently working on and what you’re hoping to explore next. 

I’m always working on the next Workshop West season, but in the last few years I’ve been investigating visual art and I have an emerging practice as a painter and as a photographer. It’s really been the light of my life. The paintings that I create are in the genre of abstract expressionism, and I find the process of painting and the process of learning about painting to be incredibly freeing. There’s something about being a beginner at something and about being engaged in creative process – because painting is not my profession – that gives you a freedom and an expansiveness that I am taking into the rest of my work. I’m really excited about the new studios that will be opening up very soon at the Ortona and other places, that there might be space that I could rent with colleagues to continue that practice. I really think that the notion of creative practice is essential for all of the arts, but what I’m finding is that the notion of cross training artistically is incredibly rewarding and revealing. 

About Heather Inglis

Heather Inglis took the helm of Workshop West Playwrights’ Theatre as Artistic Producer in November 2019. A graduate of the National Theatre School of Canada, Heather is an award-winning theatre director, producer, and dramaturg whose career has taken her across the country. Heather has directed and assistant directed over 40 productions, many of which have been new Canadian works. Credits include: The Shaw Festival, Citadel Theatre, Workshop West Theatre, Northern Light Theatre, Azimuth Theatre, Theatre Junction, Gordon Tootoosis Nikaniwin Theatre (SK), Live Five (SK), The Doppler Effect Productions (NS), Alberta Playwrights Network, Saskatchewan Playwrights’ Centre, Playwrights Atlantic Resource Centre, The Notable Acts Festival (NB) and Universities in Edmonton, Calgary and Saskatoon. 13 of Inglis’ productions have been nominated for 21 Elizabeth Sterling Haynes Awards, including 7 nominations for Outstanding Independent Production and nominations for Outstanding Director and Outstanding Fringe Director. In 2019, and 2020 Heather was nominated for the Playwrights’ Guild of Canada’s Bra D’Or Award, recognizing her support and promotion of Canadian women playwrights. Heather has received a Lieutenant Governor of Alberta Arts Award (2014), the Edmonton Artists’ Trust Fund (twice), the Celebration of Women in the Arts Award (twice), the Telus Courage to Innovate Award, an Elizabeth Sterling Haynes Award for Outstanding Innovation in Theatre (2014). In 2022 she received the Queens Platinum Jubilee medal for her contributions to Alberta’s literary community.