The Self Isolated Artist
Ian Brown Photography
In my recent compiled profile, I wrote that Canadian playwright Norm Foster would be the kind of guy where you could sit down and discuss everything and anything with him over a few beers in a pub. I wouldn’t solve the world’s problems with him, but Norm just seems like the kind of guy to give a new slant, spin or take on seeing the world from another perspective.
From this online interview with Bruce Dow, I learned he is the no holds barred, cuts straight through the crap stuff to get to the heart of the matter, kind of guy. So be strongly aware of this as you read what Bruce has to say.
With Norm, I’d have a few beers. With Bruce, I’d have a few glasses of wine, just sit back and listen to him. Why? Because I believe that Bruce would do the same for someone whom he calls a friend.
Bruce was a marvelously uproarious Pseudolus in ‘Forum’ when it played through Toronto’s Mirvish Productions. Bruce also appeared in one of the many casts of the famous (or infamous) ‘Les Miserables’.
You’ll see from his first answer that he was appearing in previews for the musical based on ‘Diana, Princess of Wales’. This was one show in the Big Apple that I was hoping to get to see. I still hope the show doesn’t lose its momentum after we get out of all this.
Thanks, Bruce, for this interview and for your time:
1. It has been just over two and a half months right now that we have been under this lockdown. From your Facebook page, I see you’re living in New York and that you are a member of the cast of ‘Diana’. Are you still in New York now or did you return home to Canada? How have you been doing during this period of isolation and quarantine? How is your immediate family doing?
‘Diana, a true musical story’ was in previews at the Longacre Theatre on Broadway. We were rehearsing in the afternoons and doing previews at night - less than ten days away from our Official Opening Night.
When the announcement was made that Broadway was shutting down, I saw it as an opportunity to come back to Toronto to see my fiancé, friends and family. The Broadway League told us that we would only be shut down for three weeks. I assumed it would be longer - but I had no idea it would be this long. (It’s only been two and a half months? It feels like an eternity.)
On March 31st, the entire company, crew, creative team and producers met online for a toast to what would have been our Official Opening Night. Over 70 people joined the Zoom chat. It hit me then that we were not going to be coming back to each other for a very long while.
For the first month plus, because I was living with roommates (3 grown-ass middle-aged men in a 2 bedroom apartment - Me sleeping on a cot in the living room. #StillAm) and because my fiancé was living with his parents - we were in a form of quarantine, so I didn’t see him other than on FaceTime.
My roommates are saints. None of us expected this. I can’t believe it’s only been two months. It feels like forever. In the last few weeks, we been able to meet while “social distancing” - and I’ve helped out around the in-laws garden a bit - always “social distancing”.
Though I realize mine are 1st world, privileged problems… It’s been hard. Very hard.
My roommates and my fiancé’s parents are all of an age where this shit could kill us. I have asthma and a tendency to bronchitis. If I get this disease, I’m gone.
It’s not so much the fear of death as… the fear of losing a life I finally want to live. There are things I want to do. Ways I want to give and serve.
That said - my understanding of the life I want to live has drastically changed - and perhaps, this whole “time out” has given me a great gift in the chance to reflect and grow.
Still. It’s hard and it sucks. Really, really sucks - but not perhaps in the ways you might think.
2. Along with your work in ‘Diana’. were you involved in any side projects before the pandemic was declared and everything was shut down? Were you involved in the planning stages of any new projects? How has the cast of ‘Diana’ been doing for the most part during this lockdown?
I can’t speak for any of the cast of ‘Diana’. We are in touch sporadically. Our producers and the creative team (the writers of the ®Tony Award Winning ‘Memphis’, and the creative team behind ‘Come From Away’) are very much committed to ensuring that ‘Diana’ will be among the shows on the rialto when Broadway re-opens.
Everything else that I was working on before and during ‘Diana’ has come to a screeching halt.
But, I’m also aware that I’m not feeling the same drive, so I’m not missing it.
This “should” be the time for me to finish any number of projects. But, I’m not. And that feels healthy to me, right now. “Shoulds”, in my experience, never lead to healthy choices.
3. What has been the most difficult and/or challenging element of this period of isolation?
So many things. I’m sure what I am feeling is similar to what many are feeling - a complete lack of focus and direction in life, with the added bonus of a near-complete lack of tangible options toward moving forward in life. I can’t do what I do - and I can’t find anything new to do.
I say ‘near-complete’ because, believe me, I am digging in every corner of existence, trying to find my purpose and direction - I am digging so hard my fingernails are bleeding.
And I am finding some very interesting things… none of which I would have expected.
4. What have all of you been doing to keep yourself busy during this time of lockdown?
I am teaching online - a college level course in acting through song, and private lessons/coaching through my mini-company Dow Workshops. (https://brucedow.com/dow-workshops/) For a long time now, teaching has given me the greatest reward in my life. It is challenging, rewarding, daunting and fulfilling.
That… and… aside from digging in corners till my fingers bleed, I have been getting out for walks when possible… eating and drinking too much… and sleeping too little. (My cot is not comfortable, and my body is old.)
As for “Creativity”? I am not feeling remotely creative. So, I am not pushing myself.
I find there are some folks who are feeling the creative bug - that’s wonderful! Then there are some not feeling creative - that’s also wonderful!
What I fear is the toxicity I am witnessing in some who are feeling compelled to be creative when they are not feeling it innately.
It’s a part of our art that scares me and disgusts me -
It’s that toxic “the show must go on!” even when everything in your heart (and the universe) is telling you to stop. pause. reflect. rest.
5. Any words of wisdom or sage advice you would give to other performing artists who are concerned about the impact of COVID-19? What about to the new theatre graduates who are just out of school and may have been hit hard? Why is it important for them not to lose sight of their dreams?
In context with what I’ve said above: No one should lose sight of your dreams. BUT - the universe is telling you to pause and reflect.
Now is the time to ask yourself WHY you have these dreams and to ask yourself, “are these dreams healthy for me?” Are they feeding me, or are they poisoning me?
Do they come from a positive, forward moving energy - “I want to explore and give” - or do they come from a wound, a need, an emptiness - “I need attention and validation.”
One kind of dream is healthy. The other can actually prevent you from growing and healing, and can end up hurting you very deeply.
(The one’s who need to read that will either feel a sigh of relief, or they will be thrown into a panic. Don’t panic. Choose the sigh. Breathe - always.)
6. Do you see anything positive stemming from this pandemic?
Our world has been a train wreck for a long time. Our art has been reflecting the world’s panic in both healthy and unhealthy ways. Calling attention to our individual stories has been of vital importance. There have been some astounding conversations in our art of late. (We can see how the United States has ignored, glossed over, and sugar-coated its stories for far too long, and now the country is imploding.)
On the other end of the spectrum, some wounds have been weaponized - embracing a confrontational politics - as a child having a screaming tantrum with its thumbs firmly stuck in its ears. No conversation can be had.
We are going to need truly inclusive stories coming out of this.
The narcissism of Instagram and Facebook and Twitter (guilty as charged!) and our knee-jerk desire to fix the wrongs of the world with a clever quip and a click-of-support have proved insufficient.
Our desire to scream of our differences has been healthy and necessary, but I don’t see it as a means to an end.
I’m hopeful that, if we are able to survive this “pause”, we will be able to think more broadly and more inclusively than ever before.
7. In your estimation and informed opinion, will the North American/Canadian performing arts scene somehow be changed or impacted as a result of COVID – 19?
There will be no live performance with anything resembling a full-house or a “live” audience until there is either a vaccine or a successful treatment.
We saw what SARS did to Toronto - It took years to recover from that. And back then, we only shut down for two weeks. Two things will probably occur:
a. People will need to rebuild their financial situations to a level where they have disposable income to spend on things like theatre
- OR - we will have to find another funding process, yet unimagined.
b. People will have to rebuild their confidence in sitting in close proximity to a stranger so that they will feel safe on a plane or in a theatre seat.
So - if we can’t come up with a clear cure/vaccine - and/or if we can’t come up with an entirely new financial model - and/or if we can’t find a new form of spatial relationship with our audiences - We will not be coming back for a long, long time.
Guessing 12-18 months or longer. Most likely if SARS is the model - 2 or more years.
In terms of content in art: I feel we must shift the conversation from its present focus on individuation and confrontational politics and find a place where we can share our differences and grievances in a healthier way - and I believe that place is much further down the road than our present position.
But… Inclusivity - if that’s the right word. We need to find a place where we can recognize our mutual humanity while in no way diminishing one another and where we can accept/embrace the responsibility we have to each other.
If we can’t talk to each other, we can’t learn and grow.
It may mean we may not get to have our full conversations the way we want to have them at this point. And that’s going to be hard for a lot of us.
But, I believe we will be able to have those conversations in a richer and deeper sense further down the road, even though, right now, we may need to jump ahead for a moment - We will need healing after this.
A lot of healing.
We aren’t talking about our dead right now in anything more than numbers. We are gonna have to talk about our dead -Birth and death are the two things we all have in common. Our awareness of them is what makes us human.
We will have to talk about that - but, in a new light .
8. Many artists are turning to streaming/online performances to showcase/highlight/share their work. What are your thoughts about this format presentation? Any advantages to doing this? Disadvantages? Are you participating or will you be participating in this presentation format soon?
I think ALL performance is great and necessary! As for how it’s being accomplished online: we are working out the kinks! Look at the first strips of film from the birth of cinema… it’s an imaginative mess! That’s where we are right now with online work.
Filmed versions of stage productions are noble and beautiful - but they still kinda suck. Online readings and creations are proving successful in “what they are” - but they still kinda suck.
But that’s why we have to keep trying!
How can we make online versions of stage productions more engaging?
What is the actual online experience as different from the theatre or the cinema or the lecture hall?
- We don’t yet know! SO - Keep playing and making mistakes and making glorious messes!
That said - there is a toxic trap online of which each artist must become aware, and upon which they must reflect before engaging. Unfortunately, you can see a fair amount of desperation in some of the work online right now. While it is par for this unknown course, that desperation can take an individual and personal toll on the artist.
Intuitively, I set myself some rules: I have participated when asked - and I’ve felt it’s “right for me, right now”. I have turned down some offers - because they didn’t feel right. I even accepted one very prestigious offer, only to decline it recently, because I wasn’t feeling it.
Right now, as a creative person (I know that’s who and what I am) -who is NOT feeling creative - I feel it is my purpose to be a voice against the panic.
Creative is me. I do not have to create constantly for that to be true. I am trying to avoid the endless cries of the bottomless abyss (the internet) as it screams to be satiated.
The internet will always need more and more content. I cannot fulfill its needs. But I also know I cannot fulfill my needs through the acquisition of “hits” and “likes”.
So, my philosophy: If you’ve got it? If you’re feeling it? Flaunt it! Bravo! Explore content creation!
- but expect no glory till, perhaps, long after the fact. (and even then!)
If you’re not feeling it? - even though you know you’ve got it - If you wanna sit in a corner and stare at the wall?
Choose that! Choose your mental and spiritual health over the constant cries from the internet in its unending quest to be satisfied.
Stop. Pause. Reflect. REST.
9. What is it about performing you still love given all the change, the confusion and the drama surrounding Covid?
I’m not loving performing right now - and I’m okay with that.
I have taped a couple of self-tape auditions, and it was nice to dip my toe. I’m good. I’ve still got it. (I just don’t want it right now.) I have recorded a couple of songs for various church services and events for friends of mine. I still love to sing.
But I don’t have to do either in front of an audience to feel valid and whole right now. I guess that’s what I’m learning - about myself.
As for the confusion and drama? I’ve had enough of that bullshit in my life and my work! (meaning every good family and every good play is full of ‘confusion and drama’) I’m very tired of the drama we manufacture for ourselves, for our lives - Most of our life drama is manufactured. Very little of it is real.
This Covid thing is REAL.
Drop you own drama - (‘cause really? aren’t you bored with it yet? I’m bored of mine!)- and deal with what is real, right now.
Food. Shelter. Family/Friends.
Live what’s real…
With a respectful acknowledgement 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:
a. What is your favourite word?
lesbian. (seriously. it just feels so great to say it. its origins are amazing, and it means something beautiful!)
b. What is your least favourite word?
Right now? “Creativity.” (fuck off, “creativity”)
c. What turns you on?
The idea that there is something huge happening right now. Lives can and will be changed - for better and worse. We are being shaken by the scruff of the neck.
d. What turns you off?
Anger - might sound funny after this - I know text has no tone of voice, but none of the above is said in anger… just in fatigue… with a wistful smile.
Anger is always pointed at the wrong people, at the wrong time, and is delivered in the worst possible way.
e. What sound or noise do you love?
Laughter. (dull answer, but joyously true…)
f. What sound or noise bothers you?
Construction. (It’s not ‘progress’)
g. What is your favourite curse word?
h. What profession, other than your own, would you have liked to attempt?
That’s for me to know and you to find out - and why is this question in the past tense? I very well may yet change professions.
i. What profession would you not like to do?
Anything that isn’t real. I want dirt and sweat on my skin and in my nostrils. I want ideas to circulate my brain. I want healing and sharing. I don’t want anything to do with “hits” on my “page” (He says, scrolling through his Twitter with the other hand… but, seriously, the internet is toxic AF these days)
j. If Heaven exists, what do you hope God will say to you as you approach the Pearly Gates?
I can’t reflect on my life and expect him to say, “you tried your best”. I know I haven’t. But, I know I have tried. To be responsible. To be honourable. To make amends. To help find peace for those I meet.
To learn more about Bruce, visit his website: www.brucedow.com.