Self Isolated Artist
After Ali Momen emailed me his answers to the questions for this series, I began to realize how the connection I’ve made with some of the performers from ‘Come from Away’ has made me miss seeing this story and how much I would like to see it again. After interviewing composers Irene Carl Sankoff and David Hein, Astrid Van Wieren (Broadway), Jeff Madden, Saccha Dennis, and soon Kyle Brown (Toronto), I was really pleased Ali took the time to check in with the series to let us know how he’s faring during this world wide pandemic.
From his website, Ali is a classically trained singer whose conservatory training was at Sheridan Institute's Music Theatre Performance program where he graduated with the highest overall achievement in performance, and after many years as a pro returned to Sheridan as an acting instructor.
His theatre credits include three seasons at The Shaw Festival, and productions with Mirvish, Canadian Stage, Tarragon Theatre, Citadel Theatre, Theatre Calgary, and Why Not Theatre. He originated the role of VIKRAM in Mira Nair's stage adaptation of her hit film, MONSOON WEDDING. Ali currently plays Kevin J and others in Come from Away at Toronto’s Royal Alexandra Theatre:
It appears that after five exceptionally long months, we are slowly, very slowly, emerging to a pre-pandemic lifestyle. Has your daily life and routine along with your immediate family’s life and routine been changed in any manner?
In many respects, we are reverting back to a pre-pandemic lifestyle. Being able to engage in “life”, even in a limited fashion, has been a blessing indeed. I have been finding the extra time I’m having with my family and partner to be something I’m grateful for. I told my girlfriend the other day that being here with you on this Saturday evening is something that I couldn’t have done before with my schedule with COME FROM AWAY. These are good things.
I’m grateful for the fact that we seem to have gotten this virus under control and that our health system has not been overwhelmed. We should forever be thankful to our frontline workers. They are forever heroes.
However, it is important to keep repeating that while we can go to a mall, get a haircut, and even dine inside a restaurant, art that is able to create a middle class life has either ceased or has become near extinct and rare. Indoor gathering limits of 50, and outdoor gathering limits of 100 do not make for a financially feasible endeavour.
For instance, COME FROM AWAY can not happen with 50 people in the audience, nor really can an independent and bare-bones production. If you’re a musician, a ton of streams of Spotify gets you very little pay, but at least you would make up for it in live concerts. Those are now gone. If you’re in film and television, while some productions are able to get back up and running again, a huge swath are unable to get insurance. It’s like being in Miami and asking for Hurricane insurance. It’s just not going to happen.
We are in an emergency and to think it anything but that I think is wrong.
Were you involved or being considered for any projects before the pandemic was declared and everything was shut down?
Well of course! Come from Away!
Describe the most challenging element or moment of the isolation period for you. Did this element or moment significantly impact how you and your immediate family are living your lives today?
Losing any job is a difficult experience. It doesn’t matter what it is. A job brings purpose. It brings dignity. When that goes away – whether it’s due to downsizing, a factory moving overseas, or in our case a pandemic – it crushes the “ikigai” of a human being. Ikigai is Japanese for your “reason for being.” We all lost our Ikigai. So of course, I’ve hit some sad places.
Only recently do I feel like I’m coming out of it by reaching acceptance for what actually transpired. I went through the stages of grief, and thankfully I’ve come towards acceptance. For those reading, you simply lost a job or a job in the future. You didn’t lose your worth. You didn’t lose your talent. You are defined not by what you do, but by who you are – and who you are never changed.
What were you doing to keep yourself busy during this time of lockdown and isolation from the world of theatre? Since theatres will most likely be shuttered until the spring of 2021, where do you see your interests moving at this time?
I have been making some of my own work. I’m writing a film based on the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art. I’m Iranian by heritage. The TMCA holds inside a vault over 3 billion dollars of the greatest modern art in the world. It was kept together by a 32-year-old janitor who was tapped to protect it after the Iranian Revolution. It’s an incredible story and I’m looking forward to fleshing it out to screen.
I also started a podcast with my dear friend Torquiil Campbell of STARS. It’s called Soft Revolution. It’s an arts advocacy podcast where we discuss art and how it intersects with politics. You can subscribe at www.softrevcast.com
I am tapping into my entrepreneurial spirit now. As the institutions have either shuttered, or paused, it is now up to all of us to put out our lemonade stand and sell our art and make our own way through.
Finally, I’m working hard to push government to create an Arts New Deal. We need a modern-day Works Progress Administration like what was set up during the Roosevelt administration after the Great Depression. We need work-relief where our cultural contributions can be seen as infrastructure building. Find out more at www.makeartswork.ca
Any words of wisdom or sage advice you would give to other performing artists who are concerned about the impact of COVID-19? What about to the new theatre graduates who are just out of school and may have been hit hard? Why is it important for them not to lose sight of their dreams?
Culture is 3% of our GDP and employs over 650,000 Canadians. It is vital for the soul and structure of a society. There will always be a need.
It is going to take a long time to get “back to normal” if that ever even happens.
My advice would be to unleash your creative spirit. I think if the plan is to simply wait for an audition and to book a gig, then I really think you’re in trouble. It is going to take years before we are back to where we were. You must be entrepreneurial.
Do you see anything positive stemming from this pandemic?
If the plan is to just sit and wait for it to all come back after Justin Trudeau walks out of his house and declares “pandemic over”, then no. Instead, we will have institutions shuttered, and a mass exodus of talent.
If, however, we decide to build back a better cultural landscape? Then, yes. What that looks like? I don’t know. I think about it every day!
In your informed opinion, will Broadway and the Californian performing arts scene somehow be changed or impacted on account of the coronavirus?
Of course! When Broadway is back it will be back with far less productions. Theatres will be empty. Now, that could mean they become condos, although in NY the real estate market is souring, or they can be filled with shows that aren’t simply tourist traps. That could be exciting. We could see the entry to new voices!
In Canada, the shows and work will all have to be local. Theatre companies have to go out looking for audiences in their areas. That could mean that shows take on a far more culturally specific bent. That would be cool. It’s important that our work not be mere imitations of what we see down south. We can actually make stuff that deeply resonates to us and within us.
What are your thoughts about streaming live productions? As we continue to emerge and find our way back to a new perspective of daily life, will live streaming become part of the performing arts scene in your estimation? Have you been participating, or will you participate in any online streaming productions soon?
We are slowly learning how to do the live performance thing. We have to, unfortunately, create the proscenium. What I mean by that is that we sadly do not have all the necessary technology to do it well. We need a proper platform. Our broadband is only recently able to upload wide swaths of data, but even so, we may never have tech that allows two people to make music remotely as a millisecond of latency throws people off. In fact, reading a play on zoom will never be what it’s like in person.
So, I think people are learning that if you are going to do “stream”, don’t stream live. Record each part and then have a strong edit. New skills for us all to learn! I also think we’ve all gotten new gear!
What is it about performing you still love given all the change, the confusion and the drama surrounding our world now?
It’s my job. It’s what I’m good at. It’s what I’ve worked hard to be able to do. I honestly have learned that I am not as special as I thought. I don’t miss the poetry. I miss the prose.
With a respectful nod to ‘Inside the Actors’ Studio’ and the late James Lipton, here are the 10 questions he asked his guests at the conclusion of his interviews:
a. What is your favourite word?
b. What is your least favourite word?
I love all words!
c. What turns you on?
d. What turns you off?
e. What sound or noise do you love?
My dog falling asleep.
f. What sound or noise bothers you?
g. What is your favourite curse word?
h. What profession, other than your own, would you have liked to attempt?
i. What profession would you not like to do?
j. If Heaven exists, what do you hope God will say to you as you approach the Pearly Gates?