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Colm and Donna Feore

Moving Forward

Ann Baggley

Joe Szekeres

To the 115 Canadian and American professional theatre artists whom I’ve profiled over the last six months: thank you so much for sharing your stories and your thoughts with all of us. On a personal note, it is the arts to which I have turned during these sometimes very trying six months of the pandemic to keep me focused and going in knowing the end will be in sight.

I passionately believe with all my heart and being the end of this pandemic is in sight. When is anyone’s guess?

Live theatre will be back, and it will be a pleasure to return and watch all professional artists grace the stage again with those roles, those ‘dream’ roles, you so very much want to play. Who knows what format theatre will take as we slowly emerge from all this? But that is the exciting part in anticipation of wondering how the theatres will tackle this new challenge.

When the decision was made in October to conclude the ‘Moving Forward’ series November 30, I struggled trying to decide who to ask as there were so many other artists out there with whom I so very much wanted to contact but time restraints didn’t allow me – at least for now.

But who?

I came upon a trailer of ‘Bon Cop, Bad Cop’ a few weeks ago online, and I just knew right then that I wanted to ask Donna and Colm Feore for an interview. I just sensed they as well were the right choice to conclude this series.

And so, I contacted the Stratford Festival to ask for a contact to get in touch with the Feores. And I was equally humbled and elated when Donna got in touch with me to say she and Colm would be delighted to participate and to conclude the series. Donna is an extraordinary director and choreographer of many shows at the Festival. I’ve seen Colm in many wonderful productions at the Festival as well along with many television and film roles.

Thank you/Merci, Donna and Colm for the interview via email. Until we all see each other again:

It has been an exceptionally long eight months since the pandemic began, and now the numbers are edging upward again. How are you feeling about this? Will we ever emerge to some new way of living in your opinion?

DONNA: It is very troubling to see the numbers climb so high again in November. It is a stark wake up call that Covid has gone nowhere and we are completely dependant on behaviours of our society to keep everyone safe. Hand washing, distancing and mask wearing continue to be the smartest action we can do at the moment. I am optimistic we will come out the other side of this pandemic. The recent news of vaccines is very encouraging!

COLM: I am feeling optimistic and defeated by turns. On the one hand, I believe we will be back when circumstances allow and that we can stay ready for that moment; on the other, the sum of what we’ve lost is huge and I am trying to reconcile that loss with the need to keep moving forward. When we emerge from this pandemic period I think we will keep what we have learned about best practices and have a new, and I hope, appreciation of the value of what we do, both our audiences and ourselves.

How have you been faring? How has your immediate family been doing during these last eight months?

DONNA: I think there are good days and there are fewer good days for me. I miss the social and physical contact with people. I have however been given a huge gift of time to see friends that I have lost contact with over these last years with busy schedules.

My immediate family is doing well. We had our daughter home for almost 6 months as she is a professional volleyball player, and her sport was shut down. Our son just graduated law school, so he was home for an extended period of time before he started articling. Our oldest son and his wife work form home in TO but we found we had more time with them. I believe we would have never had this time with our adult children without this pandemic and I will be profoundly grateful for it forever.

COLM: I began the shutdown committed to keep working on what I was doing when we stopped. When it became clear we were not coming back, I grieved for the work done but began to think about the new perspective the shutdown offered. Our business is precarious. If you are lucky enough to do it and keep doing it, you keep going, almost afraid to stop. When you are forced to stop you start to reflect. We had some of our family with us to share our time and even though it was weird we cherished it. These moments showed us what is really important.

As an artist within the performing arts community, what has been the most difficult and challenging for you professionally and personally?

COLM: Well, professionally this has been catastrophic. And, like my wife and I, many of our colleagues and friend are two artists households. The threat is existential. We’ve relied on each other to reach out and encourage, philosophize, laugh and cry about the situation. And it helps. I’ve got a lot of balanced advice from other artists about how to cope with the stresses of these days. Some offer wisdom, some books, some recipes, some exercise ideas. All useful, all welcome.

DONNA: I miss my creative teams most of all. I realize now that it has been taken away, just how much I love and cherish our time together. The laughter, the brilliant ideas, the collaboration.

It is a loss both professionally and personally because we are a close group and have worked together for a long time. It just always was so great to be together. I miss them all so much. We have stayed in touch a fair amount these last months. It is an important bond that a pandemic can’t destroy.

I worry for the artists, especially the artists that are alone. I feel terrible for the younger generation of artist that is just beginning, but I am especially sad for the actors and creative artists that are mid career and on the cusp of huge breakthroughs. It is painful to see them having to put everything on hold and rethink knowing how incredibly talented they all are.

Were you in preparation, rehearsals, or any planning stages of productions before everything was shut down? What has become of those projects? Will they see the light of day anytime soon?

DONNA: At the Stratford Festival I was directing and choreographing a version of “Chicago’ that I had been given the permission to completely reimagine. There are 15 production numbers in the show, and we were one day away from the sitzprobe for ‘Chicago’. The sitzprobe is the first time the company gets to hear our orchestra play the score, and the singers get to sing the songs with the orchestra. It is a magical day ALWAYS, no matter the show but this one felt incredibly special.

‘Chicago’ has a magnificent score and to hear our brilliant musicians play it was going to be off the charts! It was heartbreaking to have to stop dead and, when we went in to collect our belongings, the rehearsal room was set up for the sitzprobe. I will never forget that feeling of sadness when I walked in the room and saw that. I feel extremely optimistic that it will be produced in the future, so we just have to be patient.

I was also directing and choreographing a new musical of ‘Here’s What It Takes’ written by Steven Page and Daniel MacIvor. We had been developing the show for over 2 years and we were in production on week 3 when we stopped. It was another blow to not see the show produced and it was going to be in the beautiful new Tom Patterson Theatre. I am very hopeful that it too will have a life in the future.

I also have two shows that are in pre-Broadway tryout phase. Both of those shows are new works, and both have dates set for fall of 2021 and early 2022.

COLM: I was rehearsing ‘Richard III’ which was scheduled to open the new Tom Patterson Theatre as an echo of the production with Alec Guinness which opened the festival in 1953. We were well on our way and I had been preparing for many months before we started so when we stopped and then realized we weren’t coming back, it was a shock. I continue to work on the play, but I don’t see us returning to it until at least 2022.

What have you been doing to keep yourself busy during this time?

DONNA: Lots of hiking!!

I am the creative producer on a new project for the National Arts Centre Orchestra. It is a 4-part television show that features some of our most gifted artists both in the worlds of music and the visual arts in Canada. I am excited and look forward to an announcement of the project in the very near future.

I have been working on both shows being produced in the USA with the writers throughout the pandemic. They are both brand new musicals, so we have taken this time to continue working on the score and the script. It has been wonderful to have the time in a more relaxed environment to really dig in.

I have cleaned out my house and continue to do so. I cannot believe how much stuff we have accumulated and kept over the years! It feels good to purge and do the stuff around the house that I have said I would do for the last 10 years!

I have connected with friends that I have not seen or talked to in far too long. That has been such a positive part of Covid for me. We have some close friends in Stratford that have been in our bubble this whole time, so we feel lucky here. We also are extremely fortunate to have an amazing family that we are so grateful for.

COLM: Well, once the biggest question of our day became “what’s for dinner?”, I knew I’d have a purpose. I love cooking and having time to try stuff out has been great. I’ve had a chance to read more and more widely. We’ve also begun to just start fixing things up around the house that our work allowed us to ignore for so long. And perhaps the best thing is that we had a couple of our adult children isolated with us while they studied for various things. It was a great pleasure getting to know them better.

Any words of wisdom or advice you might /could give to fellow performers and colleagues? What message would you deliver to recent theatre school graduates who have now been set free into this unknown and uncertainty?

DONNA: To be honest, everyday is a new day of discovery of what interests me and how I enjoy spending my time. Live theatre will be back. It will be different, but it will be back. I guess I would say to keep trying to work on your skills. Keep exploring new skills and get curious about other things. These are opportunities that you might otherwise not have had without this enforced pause in our industry.

Colm has always been interested in so many other things other than acting and I admire his ability to allow curiosity to take him down some really exciting paths. I am trying to do that more and I highly recommend that a young actor and creative artist coming out of theatre school allow that curiosity into their being.
It is a scary time for so many artists. Our industry was uncertain enough financially, so this added stress is a lot for many to bear. I hope and wish that people are finding a way through it.

COLM: I am certain that public performance will return and that the lessons of the pandemic will change how it works. I think that the best way to ride out this crisis is to continue working on your craft. It’s about staying ready and being flexible. And no matter what you are doing to make a living, never stop the imaginative work of the actor.

I was taught that every class was an acting class, that there was always something to be learned from living. Nothing is wasted. That said, I know that for the perennially unemployed this has gone from a dry spell to a desert, but we must trust that what we offer the world is desperately needed and, as soon as we possibly can, we’ll be back.

Do you see anything positive stemming from Covid 19?

DONNA: That’s hard because there has been so much suffering and continues to be for so many. I do however feel that Covid has given time for all us to reflect on our choices, our actions, and our evaluation of the future.

I have talked a lot about family and friend time which has been such a positive. I have also seen so many artists create a new path for themselves that is so impressive! It is amazing to see the talent that has come out of these artists.

Our community in Stratford has been hit hard both in the theatre, the retail, restaurant and hospitality industry. I have watched a community get behind each other and support each other so much. People who are hard hit themselves reaching out and helping others. It has made me love this city of Stratford even more.

COLM: In the face of such global suffering I find it hard to see much positive though perhaps, the time for isolated reflection has been of use. We’ve had time to question our choices, and I know that moving forward our choices will reflect the experience of Covid.

Do you think Covid 19 will have some lasting impact on the Toronto/Canadian/North American performing arts scene?

COLM: No question that Covid will transform the performing arts locally, nationally, and globally. We are going to have to learn to live with it, or something like it, forever. The lessons of science will allow us to come back together, but I think it will take some time to figure out how. The one ray of hope I have is a fundamental belief in the deep desire humans have for community. We need to share our stories, our songs, ourselves, it’s part of what makes us human.

DONNA: Yes, it will. There is a hard reality for all the performing arts in North America. It will be a long climb for the arts to get back to a healthy financial position again.

I do think we have all taken for granted that we will always be able to do what we love in our industry. Our worries were our next jobs. When the anchor was thrown overboard in our speedboat, and our industry literally stopped around the entire world, it proved that it can all be taken away instantly. I know I will never take it for granted ever again.

Some artists have turned to You Tube and online streaming to showcase their work. What are your comments and thoughts about streaming? Is this something that the actor/theatre may have to utilize going forward into the unknown?

DONNA: I think it has been particularly good for some artists to be able to continue showcasing their work and teaching on You Tube and other platforms. I am interested in content that is developed strictly for a digital platform. I think it is something that can live alongside the live event in the future. We live in a huge country geographically and being able to digitally reach communities that do not have the means to come to a live event whether it be theatre, dance, opera or symphony is crucial to the future of the arts and their relevance.

COLM: I’m happy to see artists taking advantage of whatever medium is available to get their work out there. In a few short years there have been profound changes in how people get their entertainment. If an artist can connect with their audience via You Tube etc then why not? I will always love the live experience with both players and audience in the same space and if that space must be virtual, bring it on.

Despite all this fraught tension and confusion, what is it about performing that Covid will never destroy for you?

DONNA: Our creativity remains in us all. That won’t go anywhere. It is where it needs to be right now, whatever that looks like.

COLM: I have been incredibly lucky to have worked on a few projects while under Covid protocols and restrictions, and what it couldn’t kill was my gratitude for, and delight in, the work. Acting is a crazy business at the best of times but working under these peculiar conditions made me appreciate how much I enjoy it.

Not retiring just yet!! (Editor’s Note: and I’m pleased you’re not just yet)

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