Andrew Kushnir

Looking Ahead

Nolan Bryant

Joe Szekeres

I’ve seen Andrew Kushnir’s name on many live theatre sites over the years. I did get to review one play he had written ‘Toward Youth’ at Crow’s Theatre, but that has been the only work of his I’d seen.

When I saw that he had responded to one of the artists whom I had profiled, I thought well, get in touch with him to see if he is interested in being interviewed. And he was most appreciative of the opportunity.

Andrew is quite proud of his latest project This Is Something Else — an investigative podcast ‘love letter’ to theatre in this country, produced by the Arts Club. They’re nearing 4000 downloads..

‘Project: Humanity’ is also nearing the 1-year anniversary of their CAPP (Covid-19 Artist Partnership Program) -- soon to be renamed PH 1:1. They’ve provided meaningful employment to 48 professional artists this past year as mentors to youth in the shelter system (in an arts discipline of the young person's choosing).

Andrew is an actor, playwright, and director who lives in Toronto. He is artistic director of the socially engaged theatre company Project: Humanity.

His produced plays include The Middle Place (Toronto Theatre Critic’s Award), Small Axe, Wormwood, The Gay Heritage Project (co-created with Paul Dunn and Damien Atkins, 3 Dora Award nominations) and Freedom Singer (co-created with Khari Wendell McClelland, toured nationally to 14 cities). His most recent work Towards Youth: a play on radical hope premiered in February 2019 in a co-production between Project: Humanity and Crow's Theatre.

This past year has had him collaborating on a verbatim musical about competitive eating, leading a 7-week masterclass “Verbatim Theatre: Working with the Realness” with Ghostlight, creating an original limited podcast series for the Arts Club Theatre entitled This Is Something Else, directing the graduating class at the National Theatre School in the New Words Festival, and working on Dr. Kathleen Gallagher’s Audacious Citizens project – which researches the drama classroom vis-à-vis climate justice.

His co-directed documentary film Finding Radical Hope was released in February 2021. He is a graduate of the University of Alberta, a Loran Scholar and alumnist of the Michael Langham Workshop for Classical Direction at the Stratford Festival. In April 2019, he became the first-ever recipient of the Shevchenko Foundation’s REACH prize.

We conducted our conversation via email as he is one busy guy. Thanks for adding to the conversation, Andrew:

It’s a harsh reality that the worldwide pandemic of Covid 19 has changed all of us. Describe how your understanding of the world you know and how your perception and experience have changed on a personal level.

My brain zigzags wildly with this…what a year (and more) of flux. I think of the things that were once easy and are much more difficult, if not impossible, now. And then the inverse – how things that seemed implausible (big systemic reforms, for instance) feel not only more possible, but imperative. I have more appetite for change now than ever before, I’d say. More appetite for variations. For new stories. For moving away from the things that weren’t working.

One thing does occur to me, as I turn over your question, is my perception of boundaries or borders. That has shifted for me. The notion of a safe space, one I can move freely through. In November 2019, I undertook a big research trip through Europe. I retraced my late grandfather’s journey from a small village in Western Ukraine, through Poland, Italy and England. He was a celebrated watchmaker, he designed the last railway-grade pocket watch in North America, and I covered something like 19,000 km by foot, train, plane and car rental with his pocket watch on me. I interviewed dozens of people about their sense of Time – some in their 90s – and photographed them handling his timepiece while I did it. That sort of trek through the world then felt so relatively effortless. Those meetings with perfect strangers felt so uncomplicated, relatively speaking. I think about how lucky I was to move through the world as I did then. It’s a different physical world now. Feels tighter, more bordered, for the time being.

With live indoor theatre shut for one year plus, with it appearing it may not re-open any time soon, how has your understanding and perception as a professional artist of the live theatre industry been altered and changed?

I found myself realizing how much I get from ‘showing up’ in a shared space with the work; how much theatre is co-created between artists and audiences, and how we’re consequential to one another in that ‘room’. I’ve said this before: why is it heaven when you walk into a sparsely attended movie? Why is it hell when you walk into a sparsely attended play? It’s just heavy-lifting when you’re without a crowd in the theatre – and often, digital iterations of theatre have felt like that kind of heavy-lifting for me. There have been notable exceptions, of course –moments of pure medicine! But that’s all to say, this pandemic has reinvigorated my affection for audiences, to remember that we do it all with them.

This past year has also highlighted for me how much more, as a sector, we have to centre care in our work. Care for our fellow artists, care in our ways of working, our ways of producing, our ways of engaging with the public. Theatre is not lucrative, it’s not high-profile, it’s in many ways a fragile ecology, all we have is relationships. How do we take best care of our relationships so that everyone can show up maximally in the spaces we gather and make work in?

As a professional artist, what are you missing the most about the live theatre industry?

I got to direct at the National Theatre School this spring. We were safely distanced at all times, masked at all times, following very strict protocols around space and sanitization. It was kind of miraculous. And it gave me a dose of the thing I missed so much (and miss now!): the daily joy of a rehearsal hall working on a new play. The collective effort of making sense of new and original writing, testing revisions, dreaming up possibilities through performance and design. The requisite banter that comes with coping with uncertainty. The getting good at loving uncertainty. I think a life in the theatre primes you for various forms of not knowing. It makes theatre people good in a crisis.

But I miss the very spaces and projects that help us get good at dancing with the unexpected. The helpful edges that keep the sand in the sandbox.

As a professional artist, what is the one thing you will never take for granted again in the live theatre industry when you return to it?

Seeing the lower hemisphere of a person’s face! Ok, maybe that will wear off, eventually. I suppose I’ll never take for granted how interconnected we are as a theatre ecology across this country. We aren’t that big of a sector. I think we punch well above our weight, but we’re a relatively small entity, a kind of village. My feelings around this was heightened recently through a history-related podcast I created for the Arts Club -- just seeing how interrelated we are by certain events and cultural forces.

I’ve come to newly appreciate the space that large cultural institutions hold in the social imagination, and how their survival has tangible impacts on companies off all sizes. My esteem for smaller companies has also deepened, those who’ve been so skilled at responding to the immediate needs of their artistic communities. Keeping artists from creative atrophy (and from losing their livelihoods) is critical to our recovery, and to ensuring stages of all sizes get populated by exciting and diverse work. I do think we’re all enmeshed, from a theatre survival standpoint.

Describe one element you hope has changed concerning the live theatre industry.

I hope we’ve come to better recognize the barriers that have been in place in our industry for a long time: barriers to diverse perspectives, lived experiences, ways of working. Barriers to a more equitable distribution of power and resources. Barriers to access. I was speaking to my mother about the Free Theatre Report – this stunning document that I came across created by Savage God (John Juliani and Donna Wong) in the 1970s.

My mother said “I bet if theatre had been free when I was growing up, I would have gone.” There was a kind of sadness when she said it. I think we in the theatre know that it can be a magical thing in your life, it can be hope-and joy-inducing. Can we come back to it now with an eye to broadening its reach and its presence in our social fabric? Can we democratize theatre more?

Explain what specifically you believe you must still accomplish within the industry.

Super tough question. I do love teaching and mentoring. My own teachers, mentors and collaborators over the years have loaded me up with so many insights and concepts and ways of going about theatre. I treasure the spaces where I get to share the collage of my ‘receipts’, what constitutes and constellates and influences my approach to theatre. There’s something so satisfying when I see someone excited by something I’ve inherited, that I’ve passed something useful along.

Some artists are saying that audiences must be prepared for a tsunami of Covid themed stories in the return to live theatre. Would you elaborate on this statement both as an artist in the theatre, and as an audience member observing the theatre.

I’m not so sure about that. We’re seeing a surge in pieces of art about the 1980s AIDS crisis in recent years. I know there’s a confluence of factors around that – not least of which the broader social acceptance of queer stories. But I think there’s a kind of profound shock that needs to wear off (I mean we’re still in the middle of this global pandemic), and it’s going to take some time and distance yet before we’ll be able to appreciate and welcome narratives about what we’ve undergone.

Robert Caro says “Time equals truth”.

I’d like to think we’ll give ourselves some time. In another, weird way, maybe any play produced upon the “return to live theatre” will be COVID-themed, insomuch as we’ll be a bit self-conscious in the dark, talking down our mortal fear of that cough we hear across the room, clocking the actors coming more than 2 meters from each other, making contact. The most unrelated content will relate to our historic moment, because the event of theatre is always so Local and Now.

As an artist, what specifically is it about your work that you want future audiences to remember about you?

Ah, the awkward memorial question. I don’t really know how to respond. I have been to memorials for theatre artists who’ve achieved so much more than I will, and I wonder how much they occur to general audiences now (their ‘future audiences’). Maybe not much. And maybe that’s not a sad thing. There’s something inherently ephemeral about our art form, it comes and goes, you’ve got to be there. If any audience were to remember my work…I don’t know… “he was playful with hard questions” sits ok with me.

To learn more about Andrew, visit his personal website: www.kushnirandrew.com

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