By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca
“It’s been a learning curve.”
Once more, with feeling. Since March I’ve heard the line from theatre artists too many times to count. And it’s been delivered in every intonation and cadence: exasperation (sardonic or direct), rueful sigh, make-the-best of-it-shrug, plucky chin-up show-must-go-on vocal smile, bright exclamatory brio.
Ever since the devastating moment four-and-a-half months ago live theatre suddenly ceased to be a matter of real live people sharing a room with real live performers, theatre artists, who are after all trained in the art of social non-distancing, have been learning new skills, complicated screen technologies, new ways of rehearsing and performing and thinking about their industry (not to mention new ways of paying rent with no money). And, coupled with the critical momentum of Black Lives Matter, they’ve had time to think about theatre itself, what they value, what should change.
What do you know now that you didn’t know March 12? That’s the question I asked a selection of theatre artists. Their thoughts about what they’d learned were very different. Some were hopeful about ‘digital theatre’; some were not. Here’s some of what they had to say.
Sheldon Elter (actor, playwright, musician):
“I didn’t realize how important our jobs were until everything was shut down. We are more vital than we think we are as ‘live performers’. There’s only so much Netflix a person can watch before you’re craving a live experience you can share with other people: friends AND strangers. I love the idea of people trying to do something: Zoom performances, backyard shows…. But I really do miss being close to a stranger in a seat next to me. Sharing laughs. Hilariously, the ‘infection’ of laughs and joy and tears is important. It’s what truly brings us together as audiences. And we are affected by each other when in CLOSE proximity.”
Kristi Hansen (actor, director, co-artistic director of Azimuth Theatre, leaving to make room for young BIPOC talent; co-artistic director of The Maggie Tree):
“March 12 is the day we did the dress rehearsal of Candide for Edmonton Opera in the morning. I went home and had a nap and when I woke up it was cancelled. I don’t think I’d even clocked that a shutdown was possible. And now, four months later, I’m very aware that CERB is coming to an end and artists need to start getting paid to work. Safely. And that our rights as theatre workers ARE workers’ rights: health and safety, pay equity, anti-racist policies in action…. Now is a great time to examine HOW we work instead of always defaulting to ‘the show must go on’.”
Josh Languedoc, actor, playwright, improviser, Indigenous storyteller (Rocko & Nakota), newly appointed Youth and Education Coordinator at Workshop West Playwrights Theatre:
“A few random thoughts that jump out at me: One thing I didn’t know was how human the theatrical experience is. Not only do we create art for the public, we desperately miss being around them! Almost as if the tribal gathering of people in a theatrical space means more to the artists than the act of creating art itself. In short, digital theatre just isn’t the same!
I didn’t know how to stream shows over the internet. Frankly this is still something I don’t know a ton about. But through my work with FringeLiveStream I’ve been able to understand streaming platform basics something like OSB software. Still feels confusing but it’s interesting at the same time!
I was also surprised to see the federal government support the arts as much as they have during this pandemic. So many grants and programs made available to artists that allowed them to create. Conversely it’s NOT surprising our provincial government has done the exact opposite — slashed funds and cut off significant revenue sources to artists. This switch has genuinely surprised me!
In general, I’ve also realized how desperately we need each other. We truly are social beings who crave social spaces.
I’ve also come to seek wisdom in these times. I’ve learned really strong art is made in times of transition. And when people create from a place of ‘unknowing’ some really powerful material can be made. I cannot wait to see what strong narratives of culture, resilience and community come out of these strange times!”
Helen Belay, actor (The Blue Hour, Vidalia), storyteller, member of Citadel Theatre Associate Artist summer team:
“The digitization of our form is possible. Technology is so advanced now, and what I’ve noticed is that when we lean into the form of whatever we’re using — a recent and brilliant example is Gender? I Hardly Know Them’s httpeepee — you can make something really special. And beyond performance too — workshopping new works and auditions? Also possible. That being said, I miss sharing experiences and stories with other bodies and hearts in space. There is something incredibly magical about that….
The times we’re in right now have also made me realize that while I have lived experience and a decent base of knowledge around race and race politics, there are people smarter than me who have years of experience, study and vernacular…. So I’ve been reading up and thinking deeply on that. The book I’m currently chipping away at is Reni-Eddo Lodge’s Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race … and am planning to follow that up with Bob Joseph’s 21 Things You May Not Know About The Indian Act…. I think striving for specificity of thought and action in the context of history and politics is needed to effectively tell the stories we want and need to tell in this era of social change.
I’ve also been relearning how to simply be. I think a lot of us forget how to — because, hello!, children can whittle away the hours with ease AND enjoy it AND feel accomplished after the fact.
FINALLY … for years, I have thought I might never learn how to play barre chords on the guitar. But with a slow and steady effort, built out of a few minutes a day, I’ve found hope.
Mac Brock, playwright (Boy Trouble, Tracks), actor, producer (Amoris Projects):
There’s been a slow yet constant thudding feeing tugging at me for the last few months. Our industry prides itself on adaptability and open arms, but it feels even now like we’re sitting on our hands, waiting for the few at the helms to make space for new creators, new stories etc. What I’ve been learning is that there’s a brilliant next act bubbling through his intermission: one of young, or long-underseen, creators flipping the tables and making the space they wish to see in the city.
I miss liveness. I miss audiences. I miss the joy of a really good idea done really well. But I don’t look forward to it returning to normal. I look forward to seeing how a new generation transforms how we make theatre magic. And oh, will there be magic!