Bahia Watson

Looking Ahead

Courtesy of Crow's Theatre

Joe Szekeres

First time I saw Bahia Watson’s stage work was in two extraordinary productions of ‘The Last Wife’ and ‘The Virgin Trial’ at Soulpepper which had transferred to the Stratford Festival.

There was a sharpness and clarity in her performance delivery in these two productions which made me pay attention to each word she said. Our recent Zoom conversation led me to learn more about her background and training as a performing artist.

Watson proudly shared her theatre practice and learning of the craft came through d’bi.young anitafrika and their storytelling practices and the traditions from which they pull. d’bi.young broke it down to Bahia that it’s the storyteller and the village, and this ancient relationship has always been a part of the human experience and always will be.

Bahia avers no one can take d’bi.young’s practice of storytelling away from us. When she breaks it down as d’bi.young has done, Bahia says we will always have the storyteller and we will always have the village. That relationship and understanding will endure.

Watson has also written monologues and started performing them and learning about the storytelling relationship from d’bi.young. This relationship has empowered her. There is a story to tell, and people want to hear it and they just become. People want a story to be told and appreciate it being told. With this understanding of storytelling, Bahia built her craft as a theatre/performing artist.

In September, she appears in Chekhov’s ‘Uncle Vanya’ at Crow’s Theatre. As always, I like to ask the artist how rehearsals have progressed to this point. Bahia confidently assures me they’re going well. She also adds:

“It’s a really beautiful group of people and I feel very lucky to be in this process with them. It’s a journey, every day is a full, big, long journey to go on in the play. Today we did our second stumble through so it’s starting to be woven together and how it feels as one piece rather than separate, broken-up scenes during rehearsals. I’m very grateful to be working on this play right now.”

Bahia loves the rehearsal process and the rehearsal room. For her, the rehearsal time has been such a gift as an actor to spend these weeks of playing through exploring, taking risks, failing, working on the story, talking about it and deepening it bit by bit.

What is it about ‘Uncle Vanya’ that Bahia believes speaks to her as an artist?

“Well, this production is an adaptation by Liisa Repo-Martell, and she’s done an amazing job. The way she has adapted the script feels very contemporary – easy to relate to. There are some timeless human themes in the story. No matter the era, there are people who are longing for love, longing for the dreams they had that they didn’t achieve, and longing for their youth. That longing doesn’t go away no matter how vast our lives become. The human experience in ‘Uncle Vanya’ remains true then as it does now.”

Bahia smiled and said at one point there’s talk in ‘Uncle Vanya’ about deforestation and its relationship to the earth. She’s amazed there was talk about deforestation hundreds of years ago and a similar conversation still goes on today in the twenty-first century. How appropriate and timeless indeed because Bahia stated things don’t change as fast as we sometimes think they do.

How true.

Watson goes on to speak on how the play feels very present for her. Repo-Martell’s adaptation does not feel old at all because it honours Chekhov’s original story and intent, but it has been worked to feel very alive and present. Additionally, Watson favourably speaks about the work surrounding Chekhov’s details about being human. As humans, we reach for the stars and sometimes we are disappointed and have to accept things the way they are.

On top of the rehearsal process and the upcoming ‘Uncle Vanya’ performances, a thing called Covid still remains omnipresent all around. The live theatres are still maneuvering on how to move forward,
especially as the weather begins to change slowly and we all move indoors.

Where does Bahia Watson see herself in the trajectory of this change in the theatre industry going forward? She paused briefly and said she found that an interesting question. She explained further:

“I still love the live medium and I feel that audiences still want to come and experience something live. Now, how do we go about it? There are a lot of reasons why things might change. Yes, there were opportunities to see productions outdoors throughout the pandemic when things appeared to be slowly under control. I did an outdoor show recently that could be taken to different communities. Live experiences are more important than ever.”

Bahia further reiterated how theatre will be a part of our lives and that we need to be in a place where audiences can’t be on their phones. Our minds need to be able to focus on one thing. It’s special to be able to gather once again, especially since we haven’t been able to gather over the last two-plus years.

Watson also commented on how her cast members in the green room were speaking about the state of theatre coverage. She wonders about the financial cost of live entertainment going forward and whether it will be able to sustain itself or will it be priced out because it can be seen as expensive. True, funding does come from the federal and provincial governments along with sponsorships and individual donors which is always appreciated.

Artists want to make live theatre and Watson believes audiences are ready after two plus years to come back and be in a room together, but it still plays in the back of her mind about the long-term effects going forward. Will live theatres and their business have to move out of bigger cities for a while to regional areas where the torch will be carried?

During the pandemic, Bahia developed an interest in radio to continue storytelling. It felt as if theatre communities were in their own little group and Watson wanted to connect storytellers across the country during the pandemic and beyond. She developed a digital radio station for storytelling called ‘Program Sound FM’ (https://www.programsound.fm/).

This project took overall eight months. The radio station connected with storytellers across the country. There was a full 12-hour all-day broadcast. She shared she just found out the station received its next phase of funding so the station will now be able to be developed further.

As we concluded our interview, I asked Bahia if she felt theatre was all sunshine and autographs.

She had a good laugh hearing that analogy because theatre and the performing arts are a lot of hard, humbling work. An artist must dig deep and become extremely vulnerable and be very open. This process of learning and accumulating enough information to create this world that other people can see and then letting it go at the end of the day, coming back and rebuilding it again in a new day takes stamina.

Bahia says theatre is a working-class art form. It’s not the big bucks. An artist has to do theatre because he/she/they LOVE it (and Watson emphasized ‘love’). There’s something about the journey. There’s nothing else like it at this point in rehearsals for ‘Uncle Vanya’ and developing the bonds with the other artists who will make this story come alive.

Chekhov’s ‘Uncle Vanya’ in a new adaptation by Liisa Repo-Martell and directed by Crow’s Artistic Director, Chris Abraham, runs from September 6 to October 2 in the Guloien Theatre at Crow’s Theatre, 345 Carlaw Avenue. For tickets and other information about the production or the new season, visit crowstheatre.com. To purchase tickets, please call (647) 341-7390 ex. 1010 or by email: boxoffice@crowstheatre.com.

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