Theatre Conversation in a Covid World
I’ve seen Antoine’s work in some extraordinary productions in Toronto and Montreal over the last couple of years. He has appeared in Soulpepper’s production of a wonderful adaptation of ‘A Christmas Carol’ as the young Ebenezer.
Other terrific productions where I’ve seen Antoine’s work was Groundling’s ‘King Lear’, Montreal Centaur’s ‘The Last Wife’, and The Stratford Festival’s ‘The Merchant of Venice’.
Antoine first studied theatre at Montreal’s Dawson College Professional Theatre Program and then obtained his Bachelor of Fine Arts in Theatre Performance at Montreal’s Concordia University. He then attended the Stratford Birmingham Conservatory for Classical Theatre. Some very fine credentials here.
We conducted our interview via email as Antoine was one busy guy with a number of auditions this past week.
Thank you so much for the conversation, Antoine, and for allowing us to hear your voice:
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?
To be honest, 2020 was a rollercoaster of a year. A ride from which you couldn’t get off, a defective one, where the whole thing grinds to a screeching halt while you’re in the middle of one of those loops, and you’re left hanging upside down, with all your pocket change (jobs and savings) falling away from you, never to be seen again… a dramatic way to say I had some ups and downs.
There was a period of three weeks, early through the first wave where I suddenly developed anxiety attacks, thought I might die of a heart attack at any moment…I didn’t, I got over that, somehow i.e. I stopped smoking and drinking four litres of coffee every day. I started running, daily, and then the second wave hit, and I stopped running, I gained another ten pounds and I started smoking again. So here we are twenty pounds later and still smoking like a fiend.
I cried, I laughed, I yelled at the tv a lot. I thought about going back to school. I considered going into real estate (for 45 seconds), but I also got my first tv gig (yay!) and I watched one of my best friends win an Emmy. It’s been a lot. Of everything. Even a bit of theatre, for six blessed weeks.
My immediate family thankfully is doing great, everyone is safe and still relatively sane, which really is all that matters at the end of the day.
How have you been spending your time since the theatre industry has been locked up tight as a drum?
I went through many phases. I spent a lot of time early on, during the first wave, feeling guilty for not using this forced “time-off” in a creative way that would channel this experience into meaningful art. I felt uninspired and numb. And useless. The lockdown brought out old fears I had, about the meaning of my life, and the purpose of my calling if my calling was not called for anymore.
I had a project planned for the months of August and September in Montreal. A bilingual co-pro between the Centaur Theatre and Theatre D’Aujourd’hui. It obviously got postponed but, in a surprising turn of events, the two theatres decided to still have us rehearse the play, get it as show ready as possible, so when the time came to mount it in 2021, we wouldn’t need to start from scratch. They figured there wouldn’t be much turn around time if and when the government gave the green light for theatres to reopen so they wanted us to use that time while it was still allowed (mid late summer of 2020 when daily cases were relatively low).
We didn’t get off book, but we blocked the entire play, went through many rewrites, and got much of the audiovisual elements (of which there are a lot) incorporated during those six weeks. We basically got through tech week. It was a strange experience, being back in a rehearsal space in Montreal, masks and all, working on a piece, hoping but not knowing if it would ever see the light of day.
I certainly was grateful for it, regardless of the outcome. I needed that creative release after months of feeling idle and unproductive. Also, having theatre in the ICU meant that I was able to finally give film and tv a chance. I managed to book a few things. That was nice finally to break the ice.
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?
I would describe it as nightmare from which there is no escape because there’s no waking up from this. We’re in this metaphorical mess of a maze and try, as you might, the exits have yet to be located. And I’m not sure we’re ready or deserving of an exit, yet. I’m not sure.
The escape, if there was any to be found, was introspective and inward. The rest was distractions. But really, with the magnitude and multitude of historic events that took place this year, not only south of the border, but everywhere really, there was an abundance of opportunities for reflection. A sort of “mise au point”, a chance to re-examine and then reposition yourself in relation not only to yourself, but to the past, the present, the future and to the things you took for granted, on the macro and the micro.
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 have no idea. I certainly hope we won’t have to wait till 2022. As I said earlier, I’m supposed to be doing a show August 2021, but right now your guess is as good, or moot, as mine.
It seems to me it’ll all depend on the vaccine rollout, the number of cases going down, and whether or not the government and people feel safe indoors. I remain cautiously optimistic.
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 it might be a little too soon for me to tell you how Covid has transformed me, as I have a feeling I’m still in the process of said transformation. As for what it’s done to my understanding of theatre and where it’s headed, it has reinforced my belief that we need it now more than ever.
We are starving for the communal, for a space where healing can happen, where reconciliation is something that can be observed, considered, and felt before experienced, a space that can nourish, replenish and reinvigorate our imagination and our humanity. A gym for empathy.
We’ve been glued to our phones, tablets, tvs, screens, books, and honestly, I’m not entirely ungrateful for that, if only because I have a feeling, once things are deemed safe enough, that people will truly want and appreciate the access to shared experiences again in live performance. Whether this takes the form of escapist entertainment or cathartic art is up for grabs. The latter does not necessarily exclude the former, and I think there will be a need for both.
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 agree with Zoe Caldwell. I certainly have felt a lot of danger and a lot of anger during this time. I have no doubt it will influence my work when I return. I’m hungry for work, itching to be back in a theatre, creating, collaborating, unpacking this experience we’ve all been through, and using it as fuel for art.
I think a lot of the anxiety I’ve been struggling with these past few months is a symptom of all this bottled-up creative energy I haven’t been able to release. I want to be of service, and I want to do it on stage.
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 sure has. I think it’s made a lot of us more sensitive, a lot more recognisant, of the privileges we used to take for granted. The theatre community in North America at large has had a real wake up call in terms of the disparities facing visible minority arts practitioners and, while I do fall into that category, I am also able to recognise that I have had my share of privileges too.
My parents left Lebanon in 1990, when I was five, at the tail end of a civil war, to give my siblings and me a chance at a better life, and there is no doubt in my mind that the life I have lived so far, while not without hardships, struggles, and unfairness (whose isn’t) has still been one full of possibilities.
Everything is relative. There is still much work to be done in terms of giving space to people who don’t take up a lot of it. We were all due for a prise de conscience, individually and collectively.
If there’s one good thing to come out of this pandemic, I hope it’s a willingness and an active effort to make room for others, to sit at the same table, at the same time.
Connect with Antoine on Instagram: Ant1.Ya