Arkady Spivak

Theatre Conversation in a Covid World

Scott Cooper

Joe Szekeres

I’ve read a great deal recently about good stuff happening and occurring with ‘Talk Is Free’ Theatre in Barrie, Ontario, and wanted to find out more about the company. When Artistic Producer Arkady Spivak got in touch with me, I was happy that he and I were keen to have a conversation.

Let’s begin by saying he is one passionate artist.

Arkady Spivak was recently acclaimed as a 2020 Canadian Arts Hero by the Globe and Mail. Spivak founded Talk Is Free Theatre in 2003, which tackles the cross-section of repertoire, in traditional and immersive mediums. Since TIFT's founding, Spivak produced 101 works in Barrie, Canada, and toured nationally and internationally. TIFT won a prestigious Dora Award for its co-production of Assassins. In the fall of 2018, Spivak produced the largest theatre experience in the world, entitled The Curious Voyage. It was the 3-day long journey, in which each patron became the protagonist of their own story, and was transported, quite literally, from Barrie and London, UK.

Commissioned by the National Arts Centre, TIFT's COVID artistic response was an imaginary wedding, ‘Something Bubbled Something Blue’, in which the party wore human size rideable balls over their formal attires. The work has been viewed on Facebook 1,400,000 times and is now being developed into a long-form narrative engagement. Spivak has served, a number of times, as a Juror for the Ontario Arts Council, Canada Council for the Arts and for Theatre Ontario’s Professional Theatre Training Program. He’s a recipient of the inaugural Barrie Arts Award and Contributions to Tourism Award.

We conducted our conversation via Zoom. Thanks, Arkady, and I look forward to chatting with you in person very soon:

Many professional theatre artists I’ve profiled have shared so much of themselves and how the pandemic has affected them from social implications of the Black Lives Matter and BIPOC Movements. Would you share and describe one element, either positive or negative, from this time that you believe will remain with you forever.

That’s a loaded question. You know, I’m in a different position than perhaps some of the independent artists to whom you’ve spoken. Albeit of high achievement and notoriety is that I’m employed by a theatre company and I get a salary. Regardless of how many shows we would do or how little or whatever the projects are, it will be the same sort of thing.

We’ve also built the organization (Talk is Free Theatre) in Barrie, Ontario, that is extremely nimble in terms of its structure. No two years were ever the same; we kept admin. stuff very low because I wanted to put all the money into the artistic projects and to the artists, and an ability to take a risk and to get into all sorts of crazy adventures.

When the pandemic occurred and we had a bunch of works that were slated and some were ready to open, in fact, and were in technical rehearsals, there was this stabilizing in projects and I realized we haven’t lost anything, but we just have to pause. I just got more excited about how we were going to wrestle this to the ground.

Provided everyone is safe and healthy and no one faces undue hardship, I’m grateful for my position from where I’m coming from for an opportunity to re-think and to try new things. This time has exposed us in these two movements to show us how unsustainable certain things were all along. These two issues were ticking bombs anyway.

Unfortunately, they needed a pandemic for people to realize it. I’m talking about our how theatre producing is structured and governed and produced, not the art form itself because there’s nothing wrong with the art form. How we administer the art form has changed, and also how we support the artists as to who is accountable for them. Those kinds of conversations have been uppermost in the pandemic. I think it gave us more opportunities than it took away in a long-term sense.

Do I want to go to the theatre? Absolutely. Did I occupy my time in the evenings? For certain I had.

It’s semi-renewal, semi-rehearsal for early retirement as well which was very useful because we were that line driven. You can’t take off a half hour later in the theatre as you can on Air Canada where 8 pm means 8:30 pm. In the theatre, 8 pm means 8 pm.

I’m grateful for this time. I think it might be fashionable to complain about what has happened. I absolutely agree it’s hit everyone to a greater and lesser degree to an extent. But you know, starting an organization in Barrie twenty years ago might have been harder.

Have you learned anything about human nature from this time?

People get so excited about sensationalizing things. They get so excited by their own voice relative to the situation.

We ran to hoard toilet paper or this or that. Rather than do all this sensationalizing of things, we need to sit back and build a perspective before anyone does anything. What I learned about is how we are influenced by absolute minutiae. And I think we owe it to ourselves to sit back and really look at what’s important and what the advantages are.

I fear that some people have wasted this problem. It’s your responsibility to take advantage of the problem for it to become an opportunity. Rather than sitting there moaning about whatever, all the artists created something for themselves immediately, Immediately.

Last sector to return. The most impoverished sector of human practice, perhaps. The artists all figured it out, were very tough in the first six months, extremely and continue to be. They all figured it out.

The rest of the world have lost their trip to Cuba in March. I’m thinking, “That’s all you’re concerned about? What happened in the time of war when people lost their limbs and didn’t complain about a loss.?”

We haven’t lost anything. Yes, there were difficult moments when people couldn’t attend funerals for next of kin or had to cancel weddings. Totally devastating, not the worst thing at all. You might want to take another year to figure out if you really do want to marry this person you’ve been planning to marry. Live with them in a bubble for a year without being able to go outside and see if you still want to marry them after a year. Maybe you’ve lost a wedding, but you’ve gained a life. You’ve won! People don’t realize they’ve won. (Arkady says with a gleeful smirk and I have a good laugh).

I have very little patience for people getting excited, almost defining themselves through Covid for their achievements. I’m thinking, “No, no, every generation has something that will be trying.” Yes, this is new as it hasn’t happened to our generation obviously, but we can’t define ourselves by it.

How has your immediate family been doing during this time?

Very, very fine. I’m not with a partner and I don’t have any kids so I’m speaking from an extreme place of privilege because I’m not responsible for anyone but myself.

I also live in Barrie which is also opportune because it has the infrastructure of a city but doesn’t have the stifling feeling of being stuck on the 27th floor of a downtown Toronto high-rise. I don’t have to see anyone; I don’t have to talk to anyone.

It’s a perfect ‘make your own adventure’ type of living arrangement to whatever life you want. And that’s proven quite useful.

I haven’t given anything up that’s important to me. It’s actually gotten cheaper. I’ve saved all sorts of things. You don’t have to have coffee meetings to invite artists but have Zoom. I’m a millionaire at the end of all this. No, I’m not actually) (Arkady playfully mentions this)

I know none of us can even begin to guess when the doors to professional live theatre will re-open even though there may be pockets around the province. I’ve spoken with some artists who say it might not be until 2022. Would you agree on this account?

Well, what does coming back and re-opening actually mean? Does it mean you have to have 1.000 people in the theatre and that qualifies for success?

What is your way of thinking regarding this?

I think what people mean by they’re not coming back is people are thinking they have to gather as a massive group of people, not about the 25 people in a backyard or 35 people on a bus.

Many colleagues complain they only can sell 50 tickets but I have only seen 40 in their audience.

Anything can be a hit right now because you can do obscure, difficult subject matter plays because you don’t have a responsibility. We’ve (Talk is Free) have completed a festival of solo works last September in people’s backyards. Beau Dixon ran for two weeks in a residential property his play ‘Beneath Springhill’.

We did this massive project for NAC and the recording of which went viral and watched on Facebook. I toured a show. We’re doing some digital work right now.

I’m ready to come back. All I need is one storyteller and one audience member. That’s all I need. I don’t need the set, I don’t even need the script, although that would be okay. I’ve invented social distancing in the theatre. Suddenly, it’s got popular. (Another gleeful smirk from Arkady)

Seriously, doing cutting edge work in Barrie, we’ve never trashed audience numbers. We came up with a formula that makes the box office quite important to funnel future supporters and ambassadors of your work. We’re not stuck thinking we need 5000 people because some of the work does not merit 5000 people. It’s new, untried and needs time for people to get excited to come.

I’m ready to go. We have projects on the back burner. We have major musicals, and immersive experiences all the way down to one person plays. All I want is very specific restrictions saying something like: “From May to July you can only do this. Great! I’ll have something.”

What has been difficult is the forever changing regulations.

We’ve also changed how we do things. We’ re no longer announcing full seasons. We’ve made our tickets, because our box office figure had been negligible (it’s the smallest of our budget, not reaching even 8% sometimes), we made our tickets free of charge for the next three years.

We don’t have to come up with seasons and promote subscriptions ahead of time. I’m working on shows. We open when it’s actually good art, not based on supply and demand.

And so, then, what is normal? I don’t understand. People thinking they need 1000 people per night? That’s what they’re waiting for? I don’t know. The Broadway model which is not subsidized and driven by box office or community theatres? They don’t get access to public funding like professional theatres. So, I guess, that’s why they really need a large number to show up in order to sustain their operations. I understand that.

What determines success? Sold out? Actually, that would be a bad thing going forward (given what we’re experiencing now with the pandemic.) That means there are more people in the theatre than you feel comfortable with.

People love the idea they have to crawl over 600 people to get to their seat because there are 1000. But if you look at it as an adventure that every project and artist deserve a different support system, it’s been a problem every specific work of art has to fit into a specific producing structure. That’s a problem.

You’re not going to have every one of your children wear the same clothes and send them to the same music lessons. You have to figure what makes them tick that is different to somebody else.

It’s very difficult to do.

And Joseph, let’s say, restrictions have been lifted and 100 people can come to the theatre, where is the guarantee that every one of their shows will get that audience of 100 people? Was it Joe Papp who said, “There is no end to the number of people who do not want to see your show?” Where is the guarantee that the program will guarantee excitement to people?

There is no guarantee anyway.

In your role as Artistic Producer of Talk is Free, how do you think the path of the company will look once we return safely to the theatre?

Many things have changed, and they have changed because of the pandemic to a degree. They’ve changed because I’ve always wanted to do them and they’ve changed on our terms, very importantly.

As specifics in the way we treat an audience that it’s now barrier free entirely. In the way, we treat the artist we’ve also piloting the TIFT Artist Big (Basic Income Guarantee) Project which is designed to offer a number of Artists a minimum annual income guarantees each year, for a three-year period. We engaged 39 artists from the organization. The income is earned through the Artist being engaged on various and separate projects with TIFT throughout the year, as determined by TIFT’s Artistic Producer and the individual Artist together. The BIG Project is NOT full-time and is NOT employment. Rather, TIFT guarantees that the Artist is able to earn enough in fees from the separate independent contracts with TIFT each year to at least equal the minimum annual income guarantee.

It changed a bunch of things.

For example, artists have been conditioned to prove their value to get a contract. Nobody ever asks if this is of interest to them or why they are doing it. You have to induce your affinity after securing the work and not the other way around. I’m more interested in the artist and their point of view rather than their value, as the artist already has a value to me.

Beyond that, no two seasons have ever been the same. We’re quite happy to get into all sorts of crazy adventures. Some of them work and some of them don’t, and that’s totally fine.

When you used to put a season together and put a brochure out before, you might know of some people who might be doing the show or already said yes, but you are selling something to the audience that doesn’t quite exist yet.

If we start working on work, on certain projects than have them done and only then sell them, it’s a much more organic and honest way of doing it.

Canadian author Margaret Atwood has written that Canadians are survivors no matter what is thrown in their path. This time of the pandemic has shaken all of us to our very core and being. Would you share what has helped you survive this time of uncertainty?

Well, I don’t think it was a matter of survival. What made it bearable is being surrounded by gifted people that give you no choice by their presence. It’s very easy to do things when you don’t have a choice.

Rather you’re free to do them or not to do them. It’s not like you have no choice because your mother told you that you couldn’t. You have no choice but your own system of abilities, that’s quite an important distinction.

Having surrounded myself with the people that I have, it’s like, okay, so they can’t have their familiar toy right now doing this thing, what can they have instead? Or what better playground can I lead them to that they haven’t had in the first place and wouldn’t have had in the first place.

What has made it also more bearable is recognizing what an opportunity that is.

Imagine in a perfect world the pandemic has lifted, there are no more masks, and everything has returned to some sense of normalcy. The first production has just come down and the actors are taking their first curtain call. You’re standing at the back of the theatre as Artistic Producer.

a) How do you think you’ll react?

You know, in my long life, I’ve observed this thing. You’re aiming for a moment for a discussion. You think, one day, twenty years from now, I’m going to meet this person who did this and have a conversation and you set up those psychological and emotional benchmarks for you.

Not so much to prove people wrong but to also prove that you were right. I don’t care if they’re wrong or right, I just need to know that I’m right and that’s all I need to know.

You imagine something, I wonder what it would mean to finally have that chance.

And when I did it felt amazing. And I don’t know what to talk about even though I rehearsed entirely what I wanted to say. And I wondered why I needed to rehearse because I felt good.

One of the shows we froze was ‘Into the Woods in concert’ (slightly staged). The first thing we will hear is ‘Once upon a time’ and how are people going to react to that line after a year of being away from the theatre? Right away, everyone will be a mess at the top of the show.

I did have a rehearsal with myself planning what it will be like and what it would fee like. But I feel it will be fine. It will be odd.

What I’m worried about, if I’m being totally honest with you, what if i) we don’t want to do it anymore because we’ve survived without. I don’t think that’s going to happen but that is a legitimate conversation. You put artists back together after a year to rehearse and they might realize it’s not important to them as they once thought it was. How do you reconcile that? That’s going to be sadder.

ii) And also, what if we’ve adapted so much to this time that we’ve articulated and discovered conveniences of this time that coming back will feel like a loss?

These are legitimate possibilities.

And finally, the first show is over. There’s a crowd of people at the stage door or in the front lobby. What’s the first thing you’ll probably say to the first person at the end of the night?
I would say, “Is your credit card number still the same?” And I would think, “Oh, shit, I haven’t charged this person a donation in over a year because I didn’t want to take advantage.”

“I would also think this person is due for a donation after three years of no admittance, for fuck’s sake. That’s what I’m going to say.” (And I start to laugh because I realize Arkady’s having fun here in answering the question)

Well it also depends on who it is. First of all, I don’t get to govern who comes to the shows. I get to govern who I’m inviting to a tea after.

So I don’t know what I’m going to say. It’ll be in the moment and it will depend on who it will be.

On the other hand, I’m entitled to everybody’s credit card. I’m entitled to everyone’s credit card after three years.

To learn more about Talk Is Free Theatre: www.tift.ca. Facebook:/talkisfreetheatre/ Instagram: talkisfreetheatre OR Twitter: @TalkIsFree

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