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Mani Soleymanlou joins a distinguished list of past artistic directors at the National Arts Centre French Theatre, including Robert Lepage, Jean Herbiet, André Brassard, Denis Marleau and Brigitte Haentjens.Handout

The director, playwright and actor Mani Soleymanlou will succeed Brigitte Haentjens as the artistic director of the National Arts Centre French Theatre. He will take over from Haentjens on Aug. 31, 2021, at the conclusion of her nine-year term.

His appointment comes at an unprecedented time, with theatres across the country dark because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Much of what was programmed in the NAC French Theatre’s fall season has either been cancelled, rescheduled or reoriented into digital offerings.

“Theatre was one of the first things cancelled, and it’s likely going to be one of the last to come back,” Soleymanlou, 38, told The Globe and Mail. “It was a shocker for me, but all of a sudden we have this luxury of time to rethink theatre, in terms of what the audience needs and who the audience is.”

A 2008 graduate of the National Theatre School of Canada and currently based in Montreal, Soleymanlou has also lived in Tehran, Paris and Toronto. He is best known as the artistic director of the Montreal company Orange Noyée, which he founded in 2011.

Soleymanlou’s connection to the NAC French Theatre stretches back to 2017, when he directed Le Wild West Show de Gabriel Dumont, a romp about a multilingual buffalo-hunting commander of the Métis forces in the North-West Resistance of 1885. After opening in Ottawa, the NAC production, written by 10 playwrights with various languages and backgrounds, toured to Montreal, Winnipeg, Quebec City and Saskatoon.

Soleymanlou is best known as the artistic director of Orange Noyée, the Montreal company he founded in 2011.Handout

Soleymanlou joins a distinguished list of past NAC French Theatre artistic directors, including Robert Lepage, Jean Herbiet, André Brassard, Denis Marleau and, since 2012, Haentjens.

A native of Versailles, France, Haentjens was the NAC French Theatre’s first female artistic director and the recipient of the 2017 Governor General’s Performing Arts Award for lifetime artistic achievement. She played a pivotal role in the development of franco-Ontarian theatre, particularly as artistic director of Sudbury’s Théâtre du Nouvel-Ontario in the 1980s.

Haentjens will program the French Theatre’s 2021-22 season, to be presented after her departure.

Before assuming his new position next summer, Soleymanlou intends to give thought to the role of theatre in society. “The theatre is one of the only places where we can sit together, think together and stay quiet together,” he says. “I understand the health aspect of closing theatres now, but it’s important to get it back. Not only that, we need to rethink how to make it essential.”

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