Multi-threat Patricia "Pat" Dillon-Moore has led one of the most interesting professional lives this side of the Atlantic. Diversely experienced, with a repertoire of skills that includes writing and performance, Pat Dillon-Moore is a shining example of passion, prowess and personality. She has carried a film (1986's Sitting in Limbo, directed by John N. Smith); racked up notable theatre credits through the Black Theatre Workshop; founded a company (Black Arts Production); co-founded another (Amanda Jackson Communications); written and acted out a humorous monologue series (Clemmie Is Mi Frien'); and, in 1990, was appointed as station manager of CKUT 90.3. In her long-held position as a publicist for the National Film Board of Canada, she has inspired a great deal of admiration, and has even been hailed as one of the geniuses in the field by esteemed writer Christopher Moore.
Pat Dillon-Moore agreed to an interview with me on the 18th anniversary of her tenure as publicist. Quick to charm and disarm in person, Dillon-Moore is possessed of a ready wit and a zesty disposition--speaking her mind without reserve or apology. To break the ice, we kindled conversation, and sure enough, she greeted my questions with hard-earned responses, lavish of thought.
Q1 - Professionally speaking, you've worn several hats: actor, radio host, publicist, manager, producer. Which of these plum positions have you most enjoyed and why?
A: I don't know if I could separate all of them. I guess I'd have to say publicist because that's the 9 to 5. Actually, as a publicist, it really isn't 9 to 5 because you never turn off. But all of those other things inform my work because of the digital landscape that is media today. So I understand the stage. If I'm looking at a piece of film or media or content, I have enough understanding of the creative process because of the personal work that I have done. And all the other stuff: the broadcasting, the producing... just everything. The stage. All that. It informs the work of me being a publicist. So I understand the filmmaker. I understand the artist. I understand the soundman. I understand it. Or, at least I respect it. I may not always understand the piece, but having touched upon those things in my life, it makes being a publicist that much more satisfying.
Q2 - You've had quite a journey, from your beginnings as an actor to your current day job as a publicist (and one of some renown). Did you see yourself doing this all those years ago or were you led into it by more uncertain and unexpected circumstances?
A: Led into it by uncertain circumstances: one thing begat the other. And, funny enough, since I'm still quite young, this might not be my last job. It's funny that my professional life had been bookended by the NFB, so my first large acting experience was the Sitting in Limbo film by the National Film Board, directed by John N. Smith. That started when I was about 18, and from there that led into the early days of publicity for the Black Theatre Workshop, Canada's oldest professional theatre company. Because I was an oddity, and it's bad to say this, and I've told you this story before: in '85, when Sitting in Limbo came out, it was considered Canada's first black feature film kind of thing, which we know is not true. You know that, 'cause you've done the research, but the press at TIFF treated it as such. So I did press up the yin yang. Everybody, you know... the L.A. Times, just everybody. The phone kept ringing. I mean, yes...it was a good film, it was a great project, John is an excellent director, but I did a lot of press. And then, after that, well...what are you gonna do? At that time, there were crappy roles for black actresses. I was known, so I had visibility. I was in the public eye. I was on minute-twelve in my fifteen minutes of fame. And so phones would ring, "Oh, there's this film! There's this film! Blah, blah, blah..." But they were all prostitutes and maid roles. And coming from such a femme-centric, strong and, you know, Jamaican family, it was like, anything we did you had to stand up in front of your mother, right? [laughs] I know you get that. In your case, it's your mother and your grandmother. After you did Sitting in Limbo, to go play those prostitute-chewing-gum-in-high-heel roles? No, no, no, no.
And so, that's how I ended up at the Black Theatre Workshop, and that's where--because I talked to so many journalists, I had journalists' cards. So now, "Hi, I'm calling you for a story." And so they'd take my call. "It's about the Black Theatre Workshop." Black Theatre Workshop had quite a success at the time, and it was unknown. "So let me tell you about it." And, I'm a talker. Someone once told me, at the age of about fourteen or fifteen, that I could sell freezers to Eskimos living in igloos. I could position it, pitch it, in a way that would make it palatable to you. And, at the time, I didn't quite understand, well, "What about this newspaper? What are its interests? Who are its readers?" No, I just turn you on to it, and then get you to experience it, and then you did all of that. That was how I got my start in publicity...to a degree. That's post-Sitting in Limbo, which is where I got trained professionally as a production manager and as a publicist. But out there on your own, where you've gotta do it, was Black Theatre Workshop. And then from there, I just continued.
The radio gig [CKUT] came up, and I managed the radio station, and they said, "Okay, you're gonna have some money now. You have to build this radio station. Can you do it?" Well, I'm from the School of If-You-Don't-Know-Something-Ask-Somebody, so I was good at pulling people together, and let's all do this together. And then, that was that. So it all begat each other. It was circumstances. And you learn and you read. I've always been the type of person that, if I watch you bang your head against the wall, and then you go, "Ouch!" ... Well, I know then not to bang my head against the wall. It hurts. I don't need to do it to know that it hurts. That's how I learned. And of course, in between, you do the school and some of the theory. And I did some of that. But it was opportunity, and just taking life and going with it. And just making sure--I never wanted to be a statistic. All right, so that was it. You work hard. And I enjoy it. I enjoy the arts. I see that I was privileged to learn from other people in the arts that if you're to look at your life and your diet in the same way that the Canada Food Guide gives you the health guide where you're supposed to have so much vegetable, so much milk, so much dairy, and so much wheat and breads and what-have-you. Well, I say that you need some reading. You need some painting, or to look at things and learn about them. You need some theatre. And, you need some film. And you need oodles of music. I think that's what every person should consume in their life. So, that was it: circumstances.
Q3 - Judging by your biography and professional history, you're a creative, artistically inclined individual. The PR work you do, as I understand it, is both artistic and scientific. How (if at all) do the more scientific aspects of the job challenge you on a weekly basis?
A: Oh, God...'cause the media landscape is always changing. Newspapers are getting thinner. They're trying to figure out their reality of how to exist with so much free stuff on the web. TV is changing. We [as a society] also have more ability. We're competing for the attention spans of people who are highly connected to an object, a thing. And so you're competing, particularly here in Canada, with the U.S. being right next-door. And so in film you're competing with a behemoth, Hollywood, right next door, for people's attention. Yeah, you have to be able to pitch; you have to understand the media landscape; you have to speak to people differently. And [the landscape] changes all the time. We are no longer in a time where what's news here, in Montreal, will make it two days later in the Caribbean. I would go to the Caribbean and read the papers. I'd have a big thing of beer, my favorite plate, and I'd have bought all the newspapers. I'm reading everything and the news. Apart from what's new and current in the particular island, whether its Jamaica or Trinidad, the stuff from North America was two or three days later because it took that long to peter through. Now, the moment something happens, it's news. Immediately, right around the world, and that's what you're competing with: the 24-hour entertainment and news cycle.
The other thing too is that we've allowed ourselves as a people to pollute our diet with a lot of celebrity fare, and that's hard too because now everybody just wants celebrity, celebrity, celebrity. Whether it's here, the Quebec star system, or the Toronto star system...that is it. Some very great artists who may not have name or cachet are being buried until they become a hit, and they have their fifteen minutes of fame. Why is it that we can't look at film, or whatever the product you're pitching, and see the beauty of it, or explore it now? And we consume it: the Internet has democratized the artistic landscape. So my job scientifically is to cut through all those various noises and say to editors and writers and bloggers and people, "Check this out." And why. So you have to sort of know the trends of what's going on. That challenges me. That is what's probably been the challenge in the eighteen years that I've been at the NFB: how to take the films and position them to people without all the clatter. What are the human universalities of the story?
Then also, I don't know if you realize, but I'm very different. I'm black. I speak, feel and consume art very differently from the mainstream. I understand the mainstream because, as black people, that's all we're fed. I have to put a spin on it that can come from me. Maybe that's what some of my success has been about. From my point of view--and it is a black woman's point of view, of a certain age, and I speak at times with an authoritative voice, on some things--I don't mind being vulnerable and not knowing it all. That is what has helped to a degree with my work. That's the scientific versus the luck, if you will.
Q4 - Do the more distinctly creative/artistic aspects keep you consistently stimulated and invested?
A: Yes, otherwise I would have left a long time ago. The products at the NFB have changed so much. I mean, between the animation--we've had to stay, to a degree, beyond the curve. We've always, in our history, pushed boundaries. So there's always something different. Compared to what I was promoting and publicizing eighteen years ago... now, I'm working with interactive content. And we have helped to define the landscape. And so the tools are different. The language is different. And, of course, you have to break it down for a lot of people who are not quite there yet. That was the NFB sixty-seventy years ago, with Challenge for Change. And when we were developing and discovering all sorts of stuff. It's exciting to be part of that. My biggest excitement, however, is when I travel personal--my personal travels. And people ask, "What do you do?" And you go, "National Film Board." And they say "Wow!" and this and that...that's how well we're known internationally. And people lose their minds. For me, the challenge here--or the excitement--is connecting Canadians, new and old. And sometimes it's reconnecting with their work. That is what is challenging and intriguing and keeps me getting up to go the next day, the next project. Like, sometimes I get something, and I go, "How am I gonna do this?! Are they gonna understand it? Is there an emotive quality?" Yeah, those things still challenge me. That's why I'm still there, in this position.
Q5 - Would you ever consider returning to your roots with the NFB--by that, I mean, would you ever consider stepping back in front of the camera?
A: Well, we don't do drama much. Maybe. Whether I'd do it with the NFB, I don't know because I've been so far behind the camera and at the other end of the creative process. To shift those gears...would I be able to do that there? I'm not sure if I can--because people really know me: the majority of my colleagues and how I work and interact. 'Cause I don't work alone. I work in a large marketing-communication sphere that works and collaborates with production and distribution and what-have-you. It would be hard for me. I keep all sorts of me's separate. A lot of people don't know, at the board, that I'm still a broadcaster. A fair amount of people don't know that I still do two or three performances on stage a year. A lot of people don't know. It's just so much easier. So I don't know if I'd do it in front of--it would depend on the project, the director, and what it is. That would be really hard: to be that vulnerable again.
Q6 - I have it on good authority that you're a gifted comedienne. Here's a question I've always wanted to ask someone who is good at being funny: how do you go about honing your skill at making people laugh?
A: You have to be able to laugh. You have to be able to laugh yourself, and see the jokes in everything. Sometimes I'm laughing inwardly at a lot of stuff because, you know, political correctness doesn't allow you to laugh. And then sometimes I laugh out loud. But I just find things... you have to, or else you cry. And it's just much more fun to laugh. You know what, I've always loved satire. One of the first books at eight years old that I read was Louise Bennett-Coverley, the Grande Dame of theatre in Jamaica. This book Jamaica Labrish. And she found the hilarious and the funny in everyday, common situations. And that's what I did. My family is funny as well. They're hilarious. And I'm, you know, part of a Caribbean island that has always had the wit to look at a situation from a witty point of view. And they have trials and tribulations! So I think that's it: being able to laugh and find the hilarity in the mundane. Even the Ghomeshi stuff, and the Cosby stuff and...painful as Ferguson is, there's some humor there. So yeah, it's just being able. It's delivery, really.
Q7 - Your ascension to the position of station manager at CKUT was a professional milestone for black women in Quebec. How would you describe the feeling, or lack thereof, of achieving something that extends beyond individual triumph?
A: That would have been, what, twenty-something year ago? That's twenty-two years ago. That was 1992. You know, I didn't realize that it was such a big deal when I got the position. It was a job. I was freelancing, and I had my own publicity company, Black Arts Production. I was doing all right. I mean, I wasn't starving, but freelance life of check-to-check-to-check was difficult. So it was, "Thank you, Jesus. I got a steady gig." And it wasn't until a couple of months later that everybody made a big fuss about it. And I don't know if it was because of me and the movie. There was, you know, a small buzz around me because I was known. Let's put it that way. And so they saw it as an upward move or something--I don't know what it was. But I was really befuddled by that. Like, "Okay...". And February, the first Black History Month calendar they ever decided to do--that must have been '93--they said, "Yes, you're the first black woman to..." I was surprised. I mean, I'm vain to a small degree, but I didn't think about it all the time. To me, it was about the art practitioner work that I was doing at the time, you know: the voice to the voiceless. That station meant a lot to a lot of groups in Montreal and had such a power, so I saw it as very important work. It came out of some of the race activism that I did, and all of that kind of stuff. But I didn't know about it. Maybe looking back now, I get it, but at the time it was... that's what it was. Truth, I swear! Honest injun.
Q8 - What advice would you give someone hoping to eke out a career in the arts or in an art-related field?
A: Young people have two holes at their disposal that we never had. Oh my God... I wish I had the Internet and Facebook when I was starting out. And the power to connect with large audiences. Back then, when were hoping to be discovered, that was it because, if you're black and talented and English within a Quebec context, someone from the States had to discover you. There was always this, like, Dorothy Dandridge syndrome. That's what I call it: where you have to leave home to make it into something before you could come back here and be something. Because, in terms of identity as black artists, to a degree--and Anglophone, on top of it--we weren't that valorized. So you had to valorize yourself. And the Facebook, and all those things that we have now, would have been a hell of tool back then. I think that, yes, schooling... Definitely accounting, meaning that now you can do your own accounting. I don't even know what they call it now. QuickBooks, or whatever software they have now. And consuming all sorts of art and culture. And really understanding people and the relationship with people, would be my advice. And, also, finding some way to make sure you have some sort of income coming in. Although, they say, "the hungry artist makes the best art." But some form of income. I don't know whether it's writing, dancing, waitressing...I don't know what they do these days, but perseverance...
This interview was held on November 26th, 2014.
Follow Pat Dillon-Moore on Twitter @PatDoftheNFB
Tune in to her radio show, Bhum Bhum Tyme, on CKUT 90.3 FM (Sundays from 4pm to 6pm)