Barbara Fulton

Theatre Conversation in a Covid World

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Joe Szekeres

When I read Barbara Fulton’s biography she had sent to me, I hadn’t realized just how many of the productions I’ve seen in which she has appeared. I’ve recognized her name in programs and it was a delight to be able to connect with her via Zoom today for our conversation.

She is a singer and actor who has worked primarily in Music Theatre. Until March of 2020 she played Diane in the Toronto company of ‘Come from Away’ at the Royal Alexandra Theatre.

After a year of theatre training at Halifax’s Dalhousie University, Barbara went to England to train at Bird College in musical theatre. Upon returning from England, she spent three seasons at the Charlottetown Festival and then played Grizabella in the Toronto production of CATS. (And I do remember Barbara’s performance.)

She worked with the Stratford Festival for 22 seasons with notable shows: Notably, A Little Night Music, The Lion, Witch and The Wardrobe, Fiddler on the Roof, Electra, Taming of the Shrew, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Hamlet, Into the Woods, The Mikado and The Miracle Worker. Barbara is a recipient of numerous Guthrie awards from Stratford and a Dora award for her work in ‘Life After’.

Also, in Stratford, Barbara sang with The Duke Ellington and Glen Miller Orchestras and has produced two jazz standard CDs with her husband Paul Shilton.

Thank you so much for your time, Barbara. I look forward to speaking with you in person when it’s safe to return:

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?

Well, at first, I have to admit that I was giddy with excitement at the thought we were going to have a month off, and that we would have a nice holiday. But that’s not how it turned out.

The week before I had just said to my husband that I was getting weary. I have an apartment in Toronto and my home is in Stratford. I would go home here on Sunday evenings until Tuesday morning. And that was great, but I was getting weary of the entire thing of six days a week for two years. I’ve had three weeks off interspersed in those two years, but it was uncanny that it was the week before the theatres were all shut down when I thought I don’t know if I can carry on and I was weary.

Then this ‘thing’ happened, and none of us knew how serious it really was. Yes, the first month was nice to be at home in Stratford. Spring was coming, going for walks, seeing all kinds of people in Stratford whom I haven’t seen in months.

And then this pandemic started to get a little tiring and this whole idea of having to stay and separate from people and not being able to gather in the way we used to be able to. That started to really wear on me. And then it started to get a little bit lonely.

I have a son who lives in Toronto and I was back and forth a bit but not much. I kept the Toronto apartment until the end of September and then I had to give it up. Closing up the apartment was a real nail in the coffin as well as I have no idea when ‘Come from Away’ will start up again.

My husband and I keep saying thank God our parents are not going through this pandemic. It’s a very hard thing for the seniors. My husband and son are doing alright. My son did get Covid early September and it was a mild case, so far he’s fine. It lasted maybe a week and a half. His taste came back and everything came back. His girlfriend didn’t get it all.

Paul, my husband, and I had been with our son the day before he was diagnosed, and it was terrifying thinking we could possibly have it. But we were masked and didn’t see our son without masks on. Paul and I had to go and get tested. That was a stressful time.

Paul’s fine. He works as a music director at a church and for the longest time the church wasn’t meeting. They don’t have a choir at this time so his workload is much less. But at least they were gathering for awhile.

How have you been spending your time since the theatre industry has been locked up tight as a drum?

My thing now is walking and listening to audiobooks, and it’s saving my life and getting my 10,000 steps in. It’s beautiful here in Stratford for the walks. I had a lot of enthusiasm for the mask thing initially thinking if this is what is going to be, so I made some masks. I made about 10-15 and gave some away and lost some since masks fall out of your pocket quietly or go flying away without me even knowing because they drop on the ground silently.

I was in the middle of rehearsal of a little outside show but couldn’t attend rehearsals until I had a negative test before I could return. This show did go on. There was a dance company called Corpus in Toronto and they do site specific and a lot of outdoor performances. So that’s how we got around this. We did this show in Trinity Bellwoods Park. It was myself and four other women and the show was called ‘Divine Intervention’. We were on a quint bicycle so five of us in a row on one bicycle.

It was kind of a crazy thing to try to learn to do, but what a joy to have to learn a new physical skill at this time. We were masked as well the whole time and had to physically distance in rehearsal. The whole show was set up so we wouldn’t get very close to each other. We just told this story through music and movement on this bike. It really got the attention of the audience as we sang on the bike. It was a delight and it got me through. I was so looking forward to it. I knew about it in late May so I knew about it all summer. The show ended October 4 and we were lucky as the weather was perfect in the fall.

Paul’s family has a cottage on Georgian Bay, and we were up there for two full weeks – one week in July and one week in August. For the first time, ever for me, I was always unavailable to spend any time at a cottage either because I was working at the Festival or performing in ‘Come from Away’. For me, this was so unbelievable as I couldn’t believe that I didn’t have to be anywhere, that I could just sit and enjoy myself for the two weeks and not worry about missing a show or being late.

My family is in Nova Scotia and they are very strict down there as well with no visitors.

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 nearly year long absence as something else?

I wouldn’t say Covid has been an escape from the theatre. It has been a cruel captor. For everyone.

Now that I’m now not up on the stage offering my heart to the character, the audiences and my colleagues, I often feel empty, not knowing what my purpose is anymore. I’ve been in this industry for 40 years, and all that time there was this natural engine that kept me looking outward towards this unknown and exciting energy that I plugged into daily. Sometimes it was hope, sometimes fear, sometimes sheer excitement and anticipation of what I was about to connect with out there with people whom I loved and respected, whom I laughed with and who infuriated me and so on and so on.

All I know of work in the theatre is coming together with a common, tangible purpose – to serve up a story that the audience can connect with. To share a piece of ourselves in the process and finishing the night with appreciation, there’s no other better job in the world.

So, it hasn’t really felt like an escape other than that first month. It feels like I’m being kept from the natural rhythm of my life.

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 wouldn’t disagree because I think that’s really logical. I’ve done some investigating into what the 1918 flu was like and what kind of impact that it had and compare it to what’s going on.

It was about five years before that virus stopped being a threat at all. That’s a long time but that’s without vaccines.

So, I’m hopeful that the vaccine will speed up things up compared to that experience. There’s lots of talk about Broadway coming back in September, and that’s all well and good. It’s not just us we’re talking about. We’re talking about the general public’s comfort level with gathering and being close together for that length of time.

Whether or not theatres can or are interested in setting up plexiglass between seats, between the actors on the stage and the audience, there’s so much I can’t fathom about what Mirvish is even thinking at this time and what to do. Their discussions must be all the time in thinking what should we do? There are options and a lot of them cost a lot of money.

The other option is to wait this out. That’s fine for those of us who are capable, able, and still the right age (Barbara starts to laugh). I sort of worry that perhaps I’m ageing myself.

I think all of us in ‘Come from Away’ are ready to pick up right where we left off. There might be some people who have moved on professionally, but I think most of us are in for the long haul. We’re all going to have to rehearse the show to get it back to where it was before the shutdown.

Just to add to all this, in a post Covid world I don’t really know what the theatre will really be like. Naturally, I believe we will be through the worst of this virus but whether or not it will be safe to gather? I don’t know.

Part of this is question is if it’s going to change me. I think we’re dependant on connection with each other. Story telling is ancient; it’s a teacher; we need to see ourselves reflected back at us to learn to learn empathy and perspective.

Sometimes theatre is described as an escape, but I prefer to think of it as a portal, consciously or unconsciously we’re learning what it means to be human by watching stories unfold. We will not lose the theatre that we knew, it’s just going to take a long time.

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?

This is hard because Covid has forced us to separate from each other emotionally as well as physically because you don’t get the emotional without the physical as human beings.

That muscle in me, I feel, has gone a little bit dormant. The whole business of connecting in a shared experience. And we’re missing out on a lot of shared experience right now. That’s going to be a challenge, but no better place to do it in a theatre.

I’m not too sure as a performer how Covid has transformed me because I haven’t performed in awhile. As a person, I’ve become a lot more aware of other people. The whole idea of wearing a mask, yes, you’re protecting yourself and others. The caring about others is surely more evident right now and necessary.

There’s a caution moving forward that I didn’t ever use to have. None of us did. We just assumed that we were all in this big soup together and we were all fine. Being close and involved with each other, I took for granted. I’m not sure I do now.

‘Come from Away’ is going to be an emotional experience for all of us when we return because of what the story entails and details so that transformation will be strongly evident when we return. The director, Christopher Ashley, has told us we are reporters of what occurred after 9/11, but it’s going to be a challenge to not let our emotions get the better of us when we do return to what this production stands for – empathy and compassion for others.

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?

It's funny I felt danger in my own life when my son contracted Covid and I had to stay away from work. I lost sleep about my son having Covid. It was terrifying. He’s fine as he only had a mild dose, but it was still terrifying.

My world started to spin with understanding just how dangerous a virus this and how much of a danger I might be to others which was something I had never felt before. My presence in other people’s company is potentially dangerous. I had a test and was negative. Until I had that negative test, I felt like I wanted to disappear and not be near anybody and be responsible for anymore of this ‘horribleness’. That’s what it taught me just how we are all connected and so responsible for our actions.

When I transfer that danger onto the stage, I totally agree with Ms. Caldwell’s definition. Danger is present only if you are in the moment. The work of an actor on stage is to keep it fresh every night as if it’s your first time doing it. There’s techniques to get through or to just let go and just be fully present.

When you are fully present in life as well as onstage, that’s a really vulnerable place to be. And when you’re that vulnerable, it’s dangerous. I wonder if that’s what Zoe Caldwell means by danger in this context. The audience can feel danger if we are fully and truly in the moment. If you’re completely in, it’s almost scary because you don’t know what’s going to come next.

If we can all feel that danger, it’s a much richer experience.

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?

I’m going to be a lot more sensitive to other people’s level of comfort. I don’t know how it’s going to work when we get back together as a group and be in the same room.

I’m terrified of bringing something into that space when we return because of my closeness and proximity to all of us.

I’ve learned though this that different people have different levels of comfort or discomfort with this situation. It hadn’t really occurred to me that I could catch Covid just from someone walking by but now, when I walk by people in Stratford on the street, I have to be more aware of other people’s level of comfort.

I hope that masks are around for quite some time, just in case. There’s won’t be any possibility of anyone wanting to go to the theatre unless they’ve been vaccinated. Nobody knows how long these vaccinations will last.

Again, the late Hal Prince spoke of the fact that theatre should trigger curiosity in the actor/artist and the audience. Has Covid sparked any curiosity in you about something during this time? Has this time away from the theatre sparked further curiosity for you when you return to this art form?

I feel so almost stuck. I don’t feel like I’m living the same life that I once did. It feels like a forced retirement.

It might be a good thing, but I’m not ready for retirement yet. I’m always going to be available if anyone wants to pay me to sing.

As far as curiosity goes, having this time has been really a gift because I’ve read so many books. I’m now very much okay with sitting down and spending a couple of hours reading. I’m not a news junkie, but it’s something I can click into if I want to.

The gift of time has been incredible so I’m curious about all the things going on in the world. Books I’ve been dying to read. There’s also a curiosity about each other and how everybody is feeling emotionally. We’re all riding this thing out in the best way we can, and I love having conversations with people just about how they’re doing.

In ordinary times, we talk about what we’re doing, but don’t talk about how we’re doing. Covid has made me curious as to how others are feeling. That’s a human curiosity.

I love having the time and freedom to explore and be curious about other things.

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