Astrid van Wieren

Self Isolated Artist

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I finished my Zoom conference call interview with Toronto artist Astrid Van Wieren with a big smile on my face and felt a huge sense of accomplishment. She is a lady who is truly thankful for the gift and grace of her performing arts career. Just hearing the titles of some of the productions in which she has performed are quite impressive. Plus, I also found out today that she and I attended the same alma mater (King’s College at University of Western Ontario – yay!!) and we also earned the same degree while at King’s. Upon her graduation from UWO, she then attended the theatre program at Ryerson University. (in the process of a name change at this time)

The first time I saw Astrid on stage was at the Royal Alexandra Theatre over three years ago when the extraordinary ‘Come from Away’ was on its North American tour eventually heading to Broadway. When I was in New York City last year, I went to see the production and the original cast was still playing. Ms. Van Wieren will continue in her Broadway run of the show at the Gerald Schonfeld Theatre in New York City once the all clear has been given.

And will I go see the show again when in NYC? You bet your sweet bippy I will. How many people remember that line?:

1. How have you been doing during this period of isolation and quarantine for the last two months? What was life in New York City like right up until the decision was made to close the theatres? I’m taking it that you are still in New York at this time since ‘Come from Away’ was playing right up until the lock down? Is your immediate family doing well?

No, I’m here in Toronto, in my house in Leslieville. I was on my first vacation in forever, down in Buenos Aires where I was invited by the Artistic director of The Stage Company Theatre, Carla Calabrese to see their rehearsals of ‘Come from Away’ which was to be the first non-English licenced production. I was treated so beautifully while I was in Buenos Aires. Then everything got a little strange towards the end because that’s when the pandemic was starting to really hit. When I got back to New York, Broadway had already shut down so I went to my apartment in Harlem, packed a bag thinking I’d be gone two, three weeks because that’s what the producers were telling us at the time.

I came up to Canada as it was a chance to be home. And It just felt safer. And if I got sick, I didn’t want to be a burden on the New York health care system which already had numbers that were starting to climb quickly. It’s strange, but I do feel I abandoned her, New York. It’s a city that just feels like a sentient being.
Like everybody else, it’s been a real roller coaster. Yes, roller coasters can be exciting and fun but it’s the opposite of whatever that is. It’s the emotional up and down that is hard to navigate. There are days when I feel great. Today the sun’s shining and that immediately brings an uptick in mood. I feel better, more alert. There are days when every joint in my body hurts, I feel tired and think ‘What am I gonna do? What am I gonna do?”. Then it all rains down.

I’m learning to navigate and to give in to what my body tells me. Some days I might get only one or two things done and there are other days where I’m fired up, getting creative things done, on Zoom calls, doing my workouts. Exercising helps clear the mind. I’m also doing morning pages (‘The Artist’s Way’). It really helps a lot.

What I’ve been thinking about recently are the numbers of those who have been hit hard by the pandemic. It occurs to me the word ‘numb’ in ‘NUMBers’. But there is a story behind every number/person who has lost their life, or families who are helping and coping either in loss or keeping a watchful eye on family and friends. All those stories, gone. And actors we live by stories, really we all do.

My immediate family is doing fine. My sisters on the west coast are fine; and my brother is fine in St. Thomas. . My dad is 86 and in London, Ontario, and is doing alright. I’ve been Face timing once a week with our dad as a check in. It’s been one of the positive shifts during this isolation. My sisters made masks for me and my dad. He is still ambulatory and loves his walks, but he wears his mask when he is in the elevator or his apartment building’s hallways. I’ve had some friends who have been touched by the virus but so far, I’m fine.

2. Were you involved in the planning stages of any upcoming/future projects before the pandemic was declared and everything was shut down? What has become of these projects?

We had our third-year anniversary for the Broadway production of ‘Come from Away’ recently. I thought I wish I could be in this long running show for as long as I can. And I also thought it would be nice to have a month off to re-energize. Well, be careful what you wish for, eh? Because now we have months and months of being off.

There’s a sequel to a musical I’ve been working on called ‘After Baal’. I performed ‘Baal – A Rock and Roll’ play at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre many years ago. The playwright (Rose Cullis), director (Jon Michaelson) and I are working on it, so that’s fun to explore. Where would this rock and roller be 20 years or so down the line? What happens to an artist who stood her ground and gets older? This is fascinating to me as I begin to age and consider our usefulness and stories and how people shift as they get closer to the end of their lives.

Also, in between playing ‘Come from Away’ in Seattle and Washington, I did an independent feature film with my creative partner and best friend, John. Now, we’re pulling a pitch together for a potential series.

3. What has been the most challenging part of the isolation and quarantine for you?

I’m a real social creature. Strangely enough, I also love time out, zoning out and going into a place of complete rest. I think not being able to be with people has been the most challenging. People get interrupted in Zoom calls and they can feel so awkward. I love an Algonquin round table of people sitting around with so much conversation, talk and discussion going on about ideas of theatre and art. You can’t get that same discussion going on a Zoom call or podcast as you can when you are together. Technology doesn’t allow it.

I miss being in a rehearsal room. I miss the social aspect. I miss the audience who is so important. It’s the need of the audience which creates this wonderful, delicious tension, and that need to be told a story or to hear a joke that makes live theatre crackle. The applause is nice but that immediate connection is what I really miss.

Just the not knowing when this pandemic will end and how things will reshuffle, I think, is the hardest point. Who am I if I’m not acting or creating? What purpose do I have?

4. What have you been doing to keep yourself busy during this time of lockdown?

I work out five days a week. I’ve been doing some promo videos, pod casts and on line cabarets; lots of these for ‘Come from Away’ because we want that investment there when we return. The fun challenge with these videos is trying to use the medium in a different way to create immediacy and intimacy.

As of yet, I can’t find the focus to read a book. I think there’s still stuff in my brain that I’m processing. I’m sure it’ll come back to me.

I read a lot of articles and things people post online. I follow certain friends online and see what they’re doing. I’ve also watched some Netflix shows. I’ve watched ‘RADIO:30 and SHE GREW FUNNY from the NAC. It’s impossible to get to see everything. There’s so much content on line. It's hard to get to see everything.

I’ve been visiting with friends and neighbours and keeping that proverbial two metre distance.
Some days I feel so, so busy but I rarely feel like I get anything done.

5. What worldly advice would you give to other performing artists who are concerned about the impact of COVID-19? Any sage advice for new theatre school graduates?

Allow yourself to be vulnerable. Allow yourself to be scared by all of this. But don’t retreat, if you don’t have to. Be innovative. Create art. Art will out. If you have time and energy, do it. We have some much privilege to take the time and be grateful for it.

And yes, be grateful, but also be really aware of the inequality that this pandemic has pointed out.

Listen to your heart. Don’t judge yourself too harshly. Look for the little waves of inspiration. Ride those little waves of inspiration. I feel badly for the young theatre graduates but lean on your classmates. Create work together. Stay in contact. These are the people who will push you. Find a way to connect. Being a good actor is vulnerability, risk and don’t be afraid to fail. There’s no one right way to do it. But having said all this, it’s also more than okay to cocoon and chill and regenerate.

Everything is about adaptability and flexibility. Listen but also fight for those things that are important to you.

6. Do you see any positives coming out of this pandemic?

The necessary recognition of injustice: racism, misogyny, recognizing the true value of essential workers; from health care professionals to the pizza delivery driver.

This pandemic is a chance for the planet to take a breath.

The more work I do with young people, and I’ve met some incredible theatre kids, they can see the bigger themes. I think there are some big innovators coming up.

I choose to be optimistic because we can’t live in darkness.

7. Do you believe or can you see if the North American/Canadian performing arts scene will somehow be changed or impacted as a result of COVID – 19?

Yes, there has been an impact. People have lost their jobs. Hopefully people will realize theatre and the arts stimulate the economy. I know art will survive. People are story tellers. The appetite for stories will never change, but how they’re delivered might shift. The community element will come back.

Broadway will come back, but it can’t come back too soon. Broadway has to be careful how it moves forward. Our ‘Come from Away’ producers are talking every day trying to think of strategies to bring us all back to New York to perform sooner. But safety and health, first.

8. Many artists are turning to streaming/online performances to showcase/highlight/share their work. What are your thoughts and comments about this? Are there any advantages or disadvantages?

I think artists have to do it. Story telling is in the blood. You need to put it somewhere. You will try in any way to connect with an audience.

I have noticed a distinctly different feeling if you watch something online as it is streaming live or catch the piece after the fact.

Because of the pandemic, a lot of things have different resonances for people now. Song lyrics and text pop differently.

9. What is it you still love about performing that Covid will never alter or destroy?

That sense of community will never be destroyed by Covid even as we mourn the loss of people together. I’m a good teacher and a great coach and Covid will never destroy that. Covid will never destroy the incredible writers, artists, designers, performers, and their need to create.

Covid will never destroy the problem solving involved in how to tell the story with all key people involved from actors to technical people.

With a respectful acknowledgment 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:

1. What is your favourite word?

Trust

2. What is your least favourite word?

Unprecedented (du jour)
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3. What turns you on?

Humour

4. What turns you off?

Rudeness and arrogance.

5. What sound or noise do you love?

The cardinal in my backyard. (du jour) It’s so bold. I love it.

6. What sound or noise bothers you?

Buzz saws on a quiet afternoon, especially construction buzz saws on a Sunday afternoon. Although right now, every day is a Sunday afternoon.

7. What is your favourite curse word?

Classic – fuck, just fuck. (and then Astrid just strung a bunch of curse words in a run-on sentence. LOL)

8. What profession, other than your own, would you have liked to attempt?

Something arts related or I’d love to run a coffee shop, it would be a specialty coffee shop where people would stop by, feel safe and just be creative. Coffee would be free. I’m a millionaire in this scenario.

9. What profession would you not like to do?

Anything to do with being a bureaucrat, paperwork, numbers – an accountant. A paper pusher. I love paper, but I would not want to push it around.

10. If Heaven exists, what do you hope God will say to you as you approach the Pearly Gates?

“Bettie would like to sing a duet with you and hug you. Hugs first.” Bettie is my mom.

You can follow Astrid Van Wieren on her Instagram @astridvw2020. You can also follow her on Twitter: @astridvanwieren.

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