I have a photo of me taken by my mother after my first-ever performance in a play. I am 7. My mom and I had just moved into a new neighbourhood. To get her painfully shy son to meet kids in the area, she enrolled me in a youth theatre program at the John A. Simms Community Centre in Montreal West. We were late to enroll but, because there were so few boys in the program, they let me in. On my first day, the director, struggling to figure out how to incorporate me into the play that the group had already been rehearsing, asks me, “What do you dream of being?” I was stunned by this question. No one had ever asked me that before. I blurted out, “A king.” Two weeks later, I was on stage as a king.
In the photo, I am covered in a purple cape and carry a bedazzled cardboard scepter. On my head, I’m wearing an oversized crown also made from cardboard. The expression on my face is hard to read: it’s equal parts pride and embarrassment. I am peering out to the left of me. When I look at this photo now, I like to imagine that I am catching a glimpse of my future self: a man who traded all his kingly ambitions for the pursuit of a life in the theatre.
As I write this on the eve of World Theatre Day, my community is in a state of chaos – a landscape of cancellations, unemployment, and venue closures. A recent survey conducted by the Toronto Alliance for the Performing Arts revealed that local arts organizations are projecting a loss in ticket revenue of $500 million in the next three months. The impact of this pandemic is devastating.
Much has been written on how this coronavirus seems to be a great revealer. Headlines abound such as: “The coronavirus is revealing how badly the UK has failed its most vulnerable,” “The coronavirus reveals China’s weakness in handling public health crises,” and, “The coronavirus reveals that the insurance industry is in shambles.” It has revealed our values and priorities as a society. It has revealed the fragility of our bodies. It has revealed the interconnectivity of our world. The list goes on and on. However, it has not yet fully revealed anything about the theatre other than our need to be in the same room for us to operate as a sector.
It is my belief that COVID-19 will ultimately reveal how resilient and irrepressible the theatre and its people are. As the dust begins to settle after an explosive couple of weeks, I believe that we are left with opportunities amongst the rubble. Today, I see 7. Tomorrow I will see more. Others will see even more. But this is what I have to offer today.
1. The theatre is needed now more than ever.
During one of my mind-numbing internet holes over the past few days, I came across this poem written by Constantine P. Cavafy in 1896. "Walls / Without consideration, without pity, without shame they have built great and high walls around me. / And now I sit here and despair. I think of nothing else: this fate gnaws at my mind; / for I had many things to do outside. Ah why did I not pay attention when they were building the walls. / But I never heard any noise or sound of builders. Imperceptibly they shut me from the outside world." This poem could not have felt more apt as I sat in the lonely room of my social isolation. And yet, the poem also shows that these walls that surround us today have existed before COVID-19 – perhaps in less literal ways, but they have been there. They will persist during COVID-19. And they will continue to exist after COVID-19.
My belief is that that theatre is a powerful tool to knock down the walls between people. Sure, it does so by bringing people together into a shared space. But, more fundamentally, it accomplishes this by exposing the common truths of our human condition and reminding us of the fundamentals that connect us all. Our buildings may be closed, but the social balm of the theatrical act could not be more necessary. Theatre artists are a potent antidote to the effects of social isolation.
Which brings me to the second opportunity:
2. We will need to innovate.
For us to share the gifts of theatre artists in this current moment, we will need to innovate. Thankfully, we have a myriad of technological tools at our disposal, and many artists have already been expanding the potential of the live experience through digital means. The key will be creating live, connected, and powerful experiences that are satisfying to both artists and audiences. No artist or audience member wants experiences that feel like lesser versions of what the theatre or dance ‘should’ feel like. It is incumbent on companies such as Canadian Stage to support and invest in new ideas / practices / approaches to creation, storytelling, and sharing.
This thrust for innovation will require us to break out of our sectoral silos. In order to access the know-how and ideas needed to innovate, we will have to embrace cross-sectoral collaborations such as working with tech firms, digital distribution channels, game developers, biotech firms, etc. These partnerships will be key to maximizing the impact of our artistic interventions and have the potential to transform our culture in exciting ways.
3. We are required to develop art-making practices that are more ecologically friendly.
It is often pointed out that our hubris as a culture is the belief that we are somehow above and impervious to nature. COVID-19 is certainly proving us wrong. Already, there are numerous reports of the ecological benefits that are appearing during this unprecedented time of immobility. Among the artistic innovations that will emerge out of this time will inevitably involve practices and methods for creating and public gathering that have smaller ecological footprints. The true test will be whether we choose to carry these practices forward when we get to the other side of the pandemic.
4. We must develop a more humane approach to how we work.
The challenge of simply attempting to do any work during this moment is forcing us to reconsider our expectations around productivity. We have had to adapt to working remotely, to travel restrictions, and to slower or unavailable distribution channels. We have had to become more patient with the time things take, to make additional space in our working days for our families, and to prioritize the safety and well-being of our colleagues over everything else. Many have had to make important financial decisions but with the careful consideration of their ethical implications and human impact. The potential here is for us to develop a more integrated understanding of our lives, to embrace a more compassionate approach to how we work together, and to return to more balanced understanding of our ‘home’ life and our ‘work’ life.
5. We must embrace the local.
The benefits of ‘going local’ have been well documented in many sectors: the improvement of local economies, the reduction of carbon footprint, the fostering of authentic identities within communities, the strengthening of immediate social bonds, and the increased ability to adapt and respond to the shifting needs of stakeholders. As Canadians, it is in our DNA to have a global outlook. However, the ways in which we can deploy our resources beyond our immediate geographic area has been significantly changed by COVID-19. This is the time for us to invest our energy, resources, and time into our immediate communities; into the people who are closest to us. We are the ones who can best understand their needs and serve them.
For us to be necessary partners in our local communities, we will have to work closely with other service providers who are rooted in our neighbourhoods. Our creative practices can be valuable to other areas of civic life - hospitals, libraries, community centres, parks, etc. - particularly in this moment of unprecedented challenges. Our relevance will be dependent on our ability to be problem-solving partners to our neighbours and by committing ourselves to improving the daily lives of those closest to us.
6. We will become more conscious.
One of the most fundamental truths to the human condition is the uncertainty of being alive. The machine of our society is good at providing us with distractions and pathways to avoid facing our core vulnerabilities. It had given us the illusion of control over our destinies. COVID-19 has lifted the veil. Of course, societies should create security and predictability for its members. But there is perhaps a difference between safety and blind denial.
Artist have been the ones who fearlessly embrace the unknown and venture into the shadow parts of our collective unconscious. They have been reminding us of the things we’d rather forget. In this moment when we are all experiencing a collective form of fear, it will be our artists who will give us the tools and wisdom needed to build up our own spiritual and emotional resiliency.
When we get to the other side of this crisis, the question will become: will our artists help us remember these newly found tools? Will we be able to retain the collective awareness, wisdom, and strength in the face of life’s greatest mysteries that will be gifted to us in the coming months?
We need each other more than ever. Our health and survival will be based on collective action taken at a scale that is unprecedented. This will inevitably force us to shift the way we think of our connectivity. It will alter the way information is disclosed and shared between nations and institutions. The scope and terms of our social contract as beings on this planet has fundamentally changed.
The potential for artists, theatre companies, and arts institutions is to rethink how we co-exist by building new modalities for collaboration and partnerships that better serve the overall arts ecology, by increasing the efficiency and reach of our resources, by innovating business models to better serve the needs of many and by continuing to prioritize the health of the collective.
Over the nearly four decades that have passed since that photo of 7-year-old me was taken, the only constant that I have known has been the theatre. The journey of any theatre-person is arduous – it is filled with joys and camaraderie, but it is also demanding, precarious, and littered with obstacles. But, like all other theatre-people, I made a vow to myself long ago that I would let nothing stop me from following what has truly felt like a calling. So, when I look at this photo of my 7-year-old head engulfed by a humongous pink paper crown, I cannot help but see the irony in the fact that it is a virus with the word “crown” embedded into its name that has seemingly brought this journey to a halt. And, even though my heart aches for my community, I know that this isn’t permanent. I know that artists will prevail. I know that audiences will one day gather again. I know that I will one day again sit in a room and applaud the talent of the people in front of me. My wish is that, in the meantime, we have the support, faith, and courage needed to step into the opportunities that are in front of us.
Happy World Theatre Day.
Brendan Healy is the Artistic Director at Canadian Stage.