Theatre Conversation in a Covid World
To know that professional theatre artists are reading this profile series has been a boost of inspiration for me, so I thank you all with plenteous gratitude. That’s how I came to meet Alexandra Lainfiesta. I had seen her at the Stratford Festival in Napoli Milionaria! and was delighted when she got in touch with me through Messenger. Her story and voice are quite unique.
Born and raised in Guatemala, Alexandra moved to Canada at the age of 19 completely on her own to follow her love and passion for the live performing arts. She attended the Canadian College of Performing Arts in Victoria, BC for two years and after graduation, travelled to Vancouver to pursue classical training for acting at Studio 58. In 2017, she joined the Birmingham Conservatory for classical training, and in 2018 did her first season at the Stratford Festival where she got to play some of her favorite roles which include Assunta in Napoli Milionaria!, Adriana in Comedy of Errors and Anne Boleyn in Henry VIII.
Alexandra is a Jessie Richardson Award winner and currently has been focusing on her work as playwright. With support from The Stratford Festival, Alexandra has been developing a new operetta with Beau Dixon titled “Calderona” based on the life of Spanish actress Maria Ines Calderon during the Spanish Golden Age.
She divides her time between Toronto, Stratford, Vancouver, Victoria, and Guatemala.
We conducted our conversation via email and Zoom:
In a couple of months, we will be coming up on one year where the doors of live theatre have been shuttered. How have you been faring during this time? Your immediate family?
I was in absolute denial for the first two weeks after rehearsals suddenly stopped at the The Stratford Festival for our 2020 season. I started to exercise at home, meditate and kept working on my script for the shows we had been rehearsing for. I had convinced myself that this was going to be over soon. Then, I waited, and waited…. and waited… and by end of April it dawned on me that this was going to take much, much longer, and so I went through a roller coaster of ups and downs, of gratitude for the time I now had in my hands to then frustrations and grief for the art we had created together in rehearsals that now was lost and slowly seeing the industry I had dedicated my life and heart to, slowly and painfully cancel seasons.
My whole family is in Guatemala, and it was such a surreal thing to experience. Usually when something goes on there, it’s not happening here, but for the first time it was there as much as it was here.
Nature, long phone calls from good friends and family, Whatsapp/Facetime/Houseparty were a huge support to my mental health in 2020. I’m grateful for it.
How have you been spending your time since the theatre industry has been locked up tight as a drum?
Going through old photos, cards, letters. Writing. Lots of writing. I also spent a lot of time in nature and close to water. Water is an absolute healing and calming element for me. I stayed in Stratford for the majority of 2020 and now I am back in Vancouver. During the lockdowns I had time now to connect with dear friends across the globe whom I hadn’t talked to in years.
I also created a small draft and demo of an operetta I had in mind with Beau Dixon, thanks to initial support from The Stratford Festival. I felt very fortunate to have had the opportunity to create music through these times.
I think the biggest take from all this time away from the industry I love, is how much I’ve grown as an individual and how much more compassion, love and understanding I have for others as well as setting my boundaries and living a much more grounded life. As many can relate, I am not the same person I was before the pandemic hit globally.
The late Hal Prince described the theatre as an escape for him. Would you say that Covid has been an escape for you or would you describe this near year long absence from the theatre as something else?
Covid has definitely not been an escape for me. It became the “C word”. At one point it was everywhere. All conversations I was having with people over the phone, the news, social media, signs on the grocery stores, just absolutely everywhere. I am an extrovert who loves people and community gatherings. I’m Latina! So the lockdowns were absolutely hard. It was also quite shocking the first day I went grocery shopping and now everyone around me was wearing masks.
I do have to say though, that the absence of theatre and work gave me the time to go in and heal many things I had procrastinated to deal with to heal. It also brought so much awareness of the many layers of social, gender and racial inequalities not only in our industry but in the world. I do have to say, I’ve been transformed by this global experience that is the pandemic.
I’ve interviewed a few artists several months ago who said that the theatre industry will probably be shut down and not go full head on until at least 2022. There may be pockets of outdoor theatre where safety protocols are in place. What are your comments about this? Do you think you and your colleagues/fellow artists will not return until 2022?
I think we are creative beings. As Steinbeck said:
“The theater is the only institution in the world which has been dying for four thousand years and has never succumbed. It requires tough and devoted people to keep it alive.”
We will come up with something, yes it won’t be full head on, but we will do theatre. In 2020 I was very fortunate to have been able to work. I did several shows that were filmed, edited and then shared online, as well as outside festivals with limited audiences. Will there be theatre? Yes, not how we’ve known it, but it will be there until we can fully gather safely again, and we will. I’ve gone through enough hardships in my life to know that there is always light at the end of the tunnel and that ‘this too shall pass.’
I had a discussion recently with an Equity actor who said that yes theatre should not only entertain but, more importantly, it should transform both the actor and the audience. How has Covid transformed you in your understanding of the theatre and where it is headed in a post Covid world?
I think we have less time for BS now. I believe that whatever we do, whether it’d be classical, contemporary or a new work, it must be grounded, now more than ever, in truth. And what is truth? To me, truth is when we belong to ourselves and only speak from the integrity of our heart. I don’t believe that there is an “absolute truth” or a “best”. There is just honesty and speaking from the heart.
‘There are as many Hamlets as there are actors’ and actors come with a diversity of identities and thoughts which must be celebrated. We are in the service of story-telling and representation. Truth transforms and it is time we show multiple truths on stage.
The late Zoe Caldwell spoke about how actors should feel danger in the work. It’s a solid and swell thing to have if the actor/artist and the audience both feel it. Would you agree with Ms. Caldwell? Have you ever felt danger during this time of Covid and do you believe it will somehow influence your work when you return to the theatre?
Define “danger”. If it means exposure to harm or injury, I say no. That thinking is what has created this toxic idea that “those who make art must suffer”. The Theatre is a workplace and must be treated like one. If the word danger is more of the idea of the “possibility” that “something might happen and we don’t know what will”, then yes. I do think actors and audiences alike must feel that tension of possibility which can only be brought by being in the absolute present moment and the only way we can be present is by being self-less, because it is about the ‘other’, what we want from the other. Being alive is active. Possibilities are active. I prefer those words.
And in regard to feeling danger during this time of Covid, I have to be honest, this isolation and this life of being in alert mode at all times and having privileges of liberty being taken is not new to me. I came to this country as an immigrant, completely on my own, and many of the feelings experienced during the lockdowns were somewhat familiar already. And yes, this will absolutely inform my work when theatre comes back because it has reminded me of the importance of human connection and how that is what keeps me alive and thriving. Live theatre is a living dance of thoughts and possibilities and it is always about the other and getting something from the other. Self-absorbed and self-centered theatre is beyond boring and exactly what makes teenagers never want to step into a theatre again.
The late scenic designer Ming Cho Lee spoke about great art opening doors and making us feel more sensitive. Has this time of Covid made you sensitive to our world and has it made some impact on your life in such a way that you will bring this back with you to the theatre?
Yes, it made me sensitive to think and see beyond the obvious. It made me face fear and transform it. It made me want to come back to theatre to take the space that for years has been only been given and allowed to a certain sector of the population. It made me want to work towards taking on more leadership roles in our community. It made me sensitive to the work that needs to be done in order to achieve equity.
I also because quite aware and sensitive to the fact that the Canadian government thinks of theatre as an “event” and not a workplace.
Theatre is an INDUSTRY, and it is about time we start educating our government that we are a business that creates revenue and employs thousands of people across Canada.
Again, the late Hal Prince spoke of the fact that theatre should trigger curiosity in the actor/artist and the audience. Has Covid sparked any curiosity in you about something during this time? Has this time away from the theatre sparked further curiosity for you when you return to this art form?
I love curiosity! Curiosity is active, alive, honest, inviting, and exciting. I became curious about systemic changes and my responsibility as a storyteller in this world and how perhaps I can influence that. I became curious about the human connection that was lost and how that has affected our mental health.
I became curious about the creation of live theatre without being able to have a live audience. I saw an outstanding play reading of “Mojada” by Luis Alfaro, where the director, Juliette Carrillo, used the cameras and created this new hybrid of film and theatre to create something spectacular. The audience was being included in the reading through the camera lens. Same went for the performance of a play in Mexico City called “Bichito” (The Spanish language premiere of “Little One” by Hannah Moscovitch) in which director Paula Zelaya Cervantes did an outstanding job, again, merging a live performance with different cameras and having the actors either hold one camera and speak directly at it or take it with them to show certain scenes from their perspective and what they were viewing.
I became curious about the conversations I was having with people. How profound, honest and grounded most of them are. I became curious about how it is okay to honestly answer the question “How are you?”.
I became curious about all the kids whose introduction to school was during this time. To all the teens who had to graduate in 2020 from High School. I’m curious as to what this will do to the little humans who will one day be adults who experienced this pandemic as kids.
And now, regarding what I will take back with me when theatre comes back in full force, I have to say that the spark that I know I will take with me is that of human connection. I do think that the greatest healing in our world will take place when live theatre and live music come back.
Connect with Alexandra on Instagram: @alelainfiesta / IMDB: imdb.me/AlexandraLainfiesta
You can also visit her website: www.alexandralainfiesta.com