Blythe Wilson trained at the Vancouver Playhouse Theatre School right out of high school. Christopher Newton started it and Blythe was there when Larry Lillo was in Vancouver. There were eighteen of them and Blythe was there for two years, but she left early because she landed a job and took off.
I’ve truly enjoyed watching her work on many stages across Ontario. The last time I saw her perform before the pandemic was at the Stratford Festival as feisty ballet teacher Mrs. Wilkinson in a dazzling production of ‘Billy Elliot the Musical’. I also saw her work there in ‘The Music Man’, ‘Guys and Dolls’ and ‘Julius Caesar’.
I also recall her work as Baroness Schraeder in ‘The Sound of Music’ at Toronto’s Princess of Wales. This was the production which selected Maria from the CBC show ‘How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria?”
Blythe also joined the US Tour in Los Angeles in 2010 of ‘Mary Poppins’ where she played the role of Winnifred Banks. She made her Broadway debut in ‘Mary Poppins’ in 2011 when she joined the company there to play Winnifred Banks.
She next appears in ‘Home for the Holidays’ at London, Ontario’s Grand Theatre.
We conducted our conversation via Zoom. Thank you so much for your time, Blythe:
Could you share one teacher and one mentor for whom you are thankful.
Right off the top, I immediately thought of and am still in touch with her – Susan Gilmour, a brilliant Canadian artist who really influenced me.
I met Susan in Charlottetown when I was all of seventeen years of age. Susan was so graceful. She was just so humble and a solid worker and gentle with all of us. We were all playing her school children, and I’ve just watched her over so many years. We’ve worked together, then separated, then worked together, and as soon as we come back together there’s that instant friendship is right back there.
I always think, “What would Susan Gilmour do?” at this point. She leads so beautifully, and I thought if I ever become into that position of being in a company and being looked at for leadership, I just think “Do how Susan did.”
Susan really influenced me and how she held herself onstage, backstage, working with everyone, how she was involved in her community and how close she is with her family.
I connected with all of these things she has lived in her career.
I’m trying to think positively that we have, fingers crossed, moved forward in dealing with Covid. How have you been able to move forward from these last 18 eighteen months on a personal level? How have you been changed or transformed on a personal level?
To be honest, I had a really, really tough time the first five, six, seven months during Covid. It really shocked me to the core. I had an entire year of work lined up, and periodically through the first year, every time the theatre company had to terminate our contracts, we were given a notice.
So, you feel like you’re starting to move on and work through the pandemic, and then all of a sudden there was this really shocking reminder that we are terminating this contract and moving on.
Throughout that whole first year, it really jolted my being as we all were traumatized by it.
I looked to nurturing my soul in ways of getting outside, gardening, cooking. I became obsessed with menus. My husband and I are real foodies, we’re really enjoying cooking for us, for friends. I found nurturing my soul through nurturing other people safely and checking in on those whom we knew were alone, solo, single. I found that helped.
It was a wild year. I just kept shaking my head thinking, “Who would have thought that we’re in this?”
Some days I was just pushing myself through that weight of Covid and getting outside. I was pushing myself over exercising with these strange injuries occurring and I though that I need to back off.
You feel like you need to give yourself something to do during the day because we are so scheduled as artists and how our entire day is logged out for us. To not have that I just felt lost without stage management telling us what I’m supposed to be doing.
There was also the silver lining of so much freedom with my busy brain calming down and really enjoying the beautiful simple things in life, but still there was that underlying pressure of ‘What is happening? Will it come back?”
I remember completing a puzzle one day and then yanking it off the table and crying. I was having a fit and I threw the puzzle into the wall. I was yelling at myself and Mark, my husband, was behind saying to me,
“Blythe, it’s okay.”
And here I am saying, “It’s over. There’s no more.”
It was a lot for all of us in all different ways.
How have these last eighteen months of the pandemic changed or transformed you as an artist professionally?
I think it’s coming back to it. I’m realizing that I can take time throughout all of this and that I really need to trust what I’m doing in this process.
Before the pandemic I really focused on getting it right, right away, getting my words in my brain. There was this sense in me that I have to be perfect by the end of week one.
You just can’t.
As an artist, it’s allowing the time and the thought and just being a little more patient with self and brain.
We’re all discovering coming back into rehearsals for ‘Home for the Holidays’ that part of our brain has really slowed down. We’re in high-speed mode learning a ton of material, but there is still a part of me saying, “It’s okay, there will be time to figure this out.” and the pandemic allotted me that.
‘Covid brain’/ that fog has really changed the artist. Some of us have not been as busy as others have been busy. If I was in a vulnerable mood and on Facebook and I saw a lot of people booking shows, booking commercials, working on Zoom workshops, you always compare and then you feel like I’m making bread again today. That always happens in our business and you do get used to that, but this time, I thought this just didn’t seem fair. When will it happen for all of us to return?
I think there is room for all of us to be back in this work environment and back in doing what we love to do.
That fog, even a month ago, there was a lot of that self doubt that many of our cast members have been open about. There was the thought that I haven’t been doing what I should have been doing, and I’m so out of practice and how will I go back?
But it’s amazing when you’re in the business as long as we’ve been – we’re all different ages – I’ve been at this since I was 18 professionally. You do build those tools. They are all back there and it’s realizing the trust is there of those tools of memory, and choreography, and music.
The one thing I was most concerned about was vocal and vocal fatigue. There were times when I was on walks when people asked if I was still singing, and there were a couple of months where I hadn’t sung at all and completely silent. I burst into tears just trying to vocalize.
In your professional opinion, how do you see the global landscape of professional theatre changing, adapting, and morphing as a result of these last 18 months?
It felt like another huge eruption with Covid when Black Lives Matter occurred. For me, I just felt overwhelmed again.
The changes are good. These changes need to happen. Everyone needs to be heard and to have their voice.
We’re learning along the way. We’ve all made mistakes and we will continue to make mistakes, and to allow those mistakes to be made. Being back in the room was being open and people are voicing opinions now. I now, for me, I would stay silent and listen and just watch and feel the temperature of the room.
There is some of that as well, and I think change is good.
There was a period of time where I felt maybe it was time for me to step aside. I’ve had this beautiful career and maybe it was time to step aside. Now coming back to it, I just feel like there should be a place for all of us, FOR ALL OF US.
Artists weren’t going to come back until at least two years especially for the musicals, the singing, the dancing. This is really, really hard coming back. We’re not back to where we were before the pandemic hit. We are back, we are fully layered. Wardrobe has built us this huge singer’s mask.
At times it feels like there’s this boundary between all of us as artists. At times we still feel nervous when we walk by each other in the hallway, or is it okay to touch another person? Some feel comfortable taking off their masks, and that’s fine but I’m not there yet.
Having had 18 months off, we’re trying to do our best work but there’s this other banter in the back of your brain monitoring us as always happens with our lives. It’s even more, I find, for artists, that we’re feeling overwhelmed.
What intrigues/fascinates/excites Blythe Wilson post Covid?
What excites me is the community coming together and theatres are reaching out and drawing in artists again. What also excites me is theatres also reaching to audiences and inviting them back in again.
What fascinates me is people working and going back to their craft and what they love to do and what we’re made to do and our calling to do.
What frustrates/annoys Blythe Wilson post Covid?
The frustrating thing is not seeing our faces right now. There’s very gentle, tentative hugs, and no one is really sure about giving or receiving hugs at this time.
I feel like I’m a nurturing spirit and I feel guarded and that I have to watch everything I do. The impulse is there and the voice behind it saying, “Nope, don’t do that.”
I miss the faces. We were in the Artists’ Lounge having our lunch and we can take off our masks to eat. A cast member looked at me and said, “It’s so great to see your face.”
We’ve been working and chatting for this past week, but we have not visually seen one another on account of these masks. So that’s the total drag.
The annoying thing is that fear. I want that fear to go away, the possibility of Covid, the idea of Covid.
How are rehearsals going for ‘Home for the Holidays’?
We’ve completed a week of rehearsals. They’re overwhelming. We were thrown a ton of music, and we are in brilliant hands with our musical director Alex Kane. She is brilliant. Dennis Garnhum, our director, has this huge vision of the show. Dennis has been sitting brewing this show in his mind, and we hope we can accomplish this mammoth task.
I have to say this is the most singing I’ve done in any musical, and this is a 90-minute musical. I think it’s going to be a gift to the artist and a gift to the audience. It’s a real coming together.
Try to answer these in a single sentence. If you need more than one sentence, that’s not a problem. I credit the late James Lipton and “Inside the Actors’ Studio’ for this idea:
If you could say one thing to one of your mentors and teachers who encouraged you to get to this point as an artist, what would it be?
“Be on time. Learn your lines. Write down your blocking. Be kind. Don’t be an asshole, just don’t.” (and Blythe and I share a good laugh)
If you could say something to any of the naysayers in your career who didn’t think you would make it as an artist, what would that be?
“If I work hard and stay committed, that’s all I can do as we continue to age in this profession.”
What’s your favourite swear word?
“Aw, for fuck’s sakes.”
What is a word you love to hear yourself say?
What is a word you don’t like to hear yourself say?
I catch myself when I say, “I hate…” because that’s a really negative force
With whom would you like to have dinner and discuss the current state of the live Canadian performing arts scene?
My agent. (and the look on Blythe’s voice and the tone of her voice made me burst out in laughter once again)
What would you tell your younger personal self with the knowledge and wisdom life experience has now given you?
Be patient, be patient, be patient, be silent, step back, watch, take it in. Take it in.
With the professional life experience you’ve gained, what would you now tell the upcoming Blythe Wilson from years ago who was just in the throes of beginning a career as a performing artist?
I would always think “What would Susan Gilmour do?”
What is one thing you still wish to accomplish both personally and professionally?
Personally, there’s a part of me that would really love to travel more and see the world. I know when I’m away from Canada, I really let go of who I think I am. It’s wonderful being somewhere else and being someone anonymous. Not that I’m recognized everywhere I go, but I just want to see how the world is moving and I get to dip in.
I would love to travel more, but during Covid it felt like that was never going to happen. I’ve done some Canadian travel to go see my parents in Vancouver, and getting on a plane was a huge accomplishment during Covid.
I’ve never fully learned how to completely read music and I wish I was patient enough with myself to really fulfil that task professionally. It has set me back in rehearsal for many, many years that I sit in a terrified state and it’s difficult to admit as a musical theatre and singer.
I try to follow music. I’m ear taught. I come home and I drill the music that’s recorded. It would be nice to know how to read music.
Name one moment in your professional career that you wish you could re-visit again for a short while.
I was thinking about this question last night. When I was in my early 20s in Chicago for a year and a half performing ‘Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat’ with Donny Osmond.
I was understudying the narrator and I went on many times with Donny. We did a show Friday, two shows Saturday and two shows Sunday. We had a 5-show weekend. We were all in our 20s and dancing our tits off and it was a huge show.
We would meet either Saturday or Sunday on the beach and play volleyball. Donny would show up. We would all be there playing volleyball and just escape the show.
It was a mammoth weekend coming up and again, following Donny, he was an amazing leader. He’s been a star all his life so there was a bit of detach, but when he would enter the group of the ensemble it was a pretty sublime moment of being with him. He let go of who he was for the moment, and his kids, and his commitment to the show and he would just BE with us.
I just relished those moments on the beach. Because we were so young and in our twenties, we’re still in touch with each other. We had every month we had a huge reunion on Zoom, and Donny chimed in a couple of times and there he was in Utah in his sound studio.
We all took the time to thank him as he made us all feel part of something that was really great.
What is one thing Blythe Wilson will never take for granted again post Covid?
Seeing people’s faces, for sure.
Would Blythe Wilson do it all again if given the same professional opportunities?
I have to admit there were a couple of times during Covid that I wished I had chosen a different career.
There were times when I thought, “What have I done? How is all of this work so easily shut down and brushed to the side?
I don’t feel like that now. I still want to be part of it all. It doesn’t feel like I’m at an end. During Covid, I thought it’s done. It’s at an end, it was a great ride but let’s think of something else. That’s not how I feel right now.
I think there’s more for all of us to take part in. There is. There’s a place for all of us.