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Andrea Rankin

Theatre Conversation in a Covid World

Mat Simpson

Joe Szekeres

Artist Andrea Rankin has quite the impressive list of resume credentials on her website. I had the opportunity to see her work at The Stratford Festival in ‘Mother’s Daughter’ and ‘The Crucible’, and her other credits in theatre, film and television are varied in range. Her training and educational background are solid.

She is billed on her personal website as a multidisciplinary Canadian artist with a passion for live performance and equitable spaces. Andrea is an actor, singer, musician, and songwriter born in Amiskwaciwâskahikan on Treaty 6 Territory (Edmonton, Alberta). Thankfully there is a section on the website where I can listen to some of her songs.

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 am healthy, I have enough food and a safe and comfortable place to live - so I am doing alright, despite everything. Thankfully my family is safe and healthy too. Some days I feel hopeful and able to appreciate my surroundings and the present moment, some days are difficult and full of grief and I find myself needing to sit or lie down. I’m getting more used to the ebbs and flows and to trying to accept instead of resisting the emotions that come up; I think this will be a life-long practice.

How have you been spending your time since the theatre industry has been locked up tight as a drum?

At first, after the 2020 Stratford season was cancelled, I poured my energy into what you might call the ‘domestic arts’. Before the lockdown, I had just closed a nearly-year-long run of “Mother’s Daughter” by Kate Hennig at Stratford/Soulpepper and had started rehearsals to play Ophelia in “Hamlet” and Hero in “Much Ado About Nothing” at the Stratford Festival. I was spending my days in rehearsal halls with passionate artists and spending my evenings continuing to work. My last rehearsal was a Saturday afternoon and then I received a note on Monday morning not to come into work. Stopping suddenly felt like whiplash at first. There was a period of waiting to know how long this would go on that has never really ended.

For comfort, I became very invested in my sourdough starters (Peg and Diane, respectively) and in trying to bake a perfect loaf of bread. I started cooking new things and testing out long, detailed recipes. I started writing every morning, as a place to put my thoughts. I felt no other creative impulses for a long time and frankly, tried not to think about anything artistic. To deal with the anxiety I took up running. To stay hopeful, I tried to hold onto what I did have available to me: the outdoors. I spent time walking, running, having bonfires, at the beach, camping, hiking; I did whatever I could to be outside at all times. Near the end of the summer, my partner and I drove across the country and camped our way to Alberta to have distance visits with family and friends. That was a highlight.

In the fall my creative energy came back and I decided to embrace another artistic passion of mine: music. I’m a trained classical singer and pianist, and the journey to discover my own style has been a satisfying one. In November 2020, I decided to release my first EP of alt-pop music, called Tides. It’s given me a lot of purpose and meaning and I’ve learned a lot about the music industry in Canada. I’ve also started writing in other ways – meeting weekly with friends to work on script ideas. I don’t know what will become of them, but the act of meeting and writing together has been deeply satisfying. I also started teaching voice and acting lessons online over Zoom and now I teach students from across the country every week. I’ve still been auditioning here and there for film and television, but I’ve certainly channeled my creative energies into music. Luckily, it’s an art that I can still do from the confines of my living room.

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?

At times it’s felt like an escape from the relentless momentum of productivity and chasing notions of success, but in almost every other way, this has felt like the opposite of an escape. I think it’s a gift to have more time to pay attention to the world we’re living in. It has involved a new kind of listening and feeling anger and grief; and the grief I feel for all those suffering is immense. In my experience, it’s been a time to look at myself, my life, my community, my work and my participation in systems and structures and ask why. What stops me from listening? Why am I not fighting for change every day? It’s been a chance to listen deeply and a chance to educate myself. It has been a chance to let go of things and reimagine.

In other ways, I’ve tried to look at this as an opportunity to discover parts of myself that are changing: interests I’ve neglected, relationships I’ve taken for granted. I’ve tried to think of my creativity as a daily experience, present everywhere in all things. I can find it when I cook, in choosing my outfit for the day, in the trees when I go for walks, in calling friends on the phone and listening without distraction. It has felt like a year-long exercise in mindfulness. I’ve really felt that when you can’t go backwards, and the future is unknown, the safest place to be is in the present. The more I’m able to be in the day I’m having and live slowly, the more I find I’m able to be okay, learn and listen. When I worry about what’s happened or what’s to come, I start to feel fear and anxiety. There has also been a great deal of time sitting with these feelings and trying to accept what I do have, what I can learn, who I am and who I could be.

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’m not sure how things will go. I often think about artists at home, grieving and breathing and I wonder what will come out of this for everyone. Who will have left the industry? Who will have studied something new? What art will be made and shared? We’ve experienced a collective trauma, and this takes time to heal. At times, I try to remind myself of how this is creating space for everyone to explore other parts of themselves, their other interests, skills and curiosities. I imagine watching strangers hug someday in the future and how joyful that will be. I imagine standing next to a stranger at a concert and sharing a sweaty moment of shared humanity and I think - I can wait. To keep people safe so that we can all share moments like this again: this is worth waiting for. Whenever it happens, it’s going to be spectacular.

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?

As it’s ongoing - and in Ontario in a lockdown state similar to what we had in the spring of 2020 - I’m not sure how this has transformed me just yet. I know I will be a different artist. I know that my voice can be used for things I believe in and to protect the safety, creativity, and spirits of all artists in the room. I think I’ll be less desirous to please and more desirous to connect. I look forward to discovering how I’ve changed and how this time has changed me.

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?

I think the idea of ‘danger’ in the work is a difficult notion and worth expanding upon. The notion of artistic danger can sometimes be a privilege and used as a way to wield power over those without it. Speaking generally about 'danger' can mean that we’re not all having the same conversation. For some, danger in the rehearsal hall and in performance is very real: not being seen or heard, having a fellow artist look at you through a lens of racism, ableism, sexism, ageism, homophobia, body-shaming; people that believe you only deserve to be there if you play by their rules. As a community we’re waking up to these discoveries, but they have been the lived reality of many artists for a long time.

If danger creates fear, then I disagree with Ms. Caldwell. Declan Donnellan speaks of this in his book “The Actor and Its Target.” He writes “No theatre work absorbs more energy than dealing with the effects of fear; and fear is, without a single exception, destructive. Fear makes it difficult to disagree. Fear creates as much false consensus as strife. A healthy working atmosphere, where we can risk and fail, is indispensable. Fear corrodes this trust, undermines our confidence and clots our work. And the rehearsal must feel safe so that the performance may seem dangerous.”

In other words, a safe room creates dangerous work. I believe in this very much.

On a personal level, in the characters I have played, I’ve been strangled, hanged, beaten, suicidal, died tragically, institutionalized, silenced and murdered in just about every play I’ve been in over the past decade; the canon for young women, especially in classical theatre, is rife with danger. If the process threatens the safety and autonomy of the artist, if they are not given a space to use their voice and there is inequality in who is allowed to express their experience and who isn’t – these things are not only detrimental to our art, but damaging to the brave and vulnerable individuals who choose to make theatre their craft.

As far as danger in the time of Covid – absolutely. It is a wild and terrifying thing to experience a constant, invisible threat. I think the experience of this kind of danger will influence my work in reminding me not to take anything for granted. Our time on this planet is not guaranteed and that’s what makes it beautiful and worth paying attention to. It is a precious thing to have time in a room with people and I won’t ever take that for granted 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?

It has. I’m still experiencing this, so it might be too early to describe how, but it has forced me to live more slowly and to pay more attention to the world around me. Thich Naht Hahn – a buddhist monk and writer whose work I admire and read often – talks about how the meaning of life can be found in the experience of wonder. When we experience wonder – with others, in the natural world, alone - we feel connected to something and this gives us meaning. I think this time has made me sensitive to wonder and to the world around me. This wonder isn’t always easeful; it can be wonder at the problems in the world, at people’s willingness to allow others to suffer. This time has made me ask why I am living the way I do, who I’m living for, what my values are. It’s asked me to sit with myself and offered a chance for me to make choices consciously. I will bring this all with me. There’s no going back.

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?

It certainly has. I have been curious about what’s possible in my life and in my ability to help and support others. I have been curious about having hobbies! I have been curious about myself as a songwriter and musician, and I’ve had the chance to release music and explore this great love of mine. It has made me curious about political structures and inequality; cooking and baking; nature and the outdoors; what it means to be a good friend; how suffering is universal; where socks go when they get lost in the dryer; that we need to look out for one another; the power of a phone call, of a Christmas card; of the ebbs and flows. In some ways, while you’re busy making art you don’t always take the time to make your own life a work of art. This is a cheesy way of saying this but I think it’s sometimes true. The mundane, the boring, the ugly, the exhausting, the beautiful; these make up a life and are the very things I am so desirous to see on stage. I hope these reflections, observations and discoveries come with me whenever and however I return to this art form.

Thank-you for the chance to reflect on this time in my life and to consider the answers to these questions. I’m grateful for the opportunity.

To connect with Andrea, visit her personal webpage:

Twitter: @heyandrearankin Instagram: @andrealindsayrankin

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