When I saw Colton Curtis on stage a few years as the elder Billy Elliot at Ontario’s Stratford Festival, I knew the Canadian musical theatre world was in VERY GOOD HANDS. He is an extraordinary dancer and artist who stopped ‘Billy Elliot’ in an exciting solo dance piece that was captivating and mesmerizing to watch. Exquisitely performed.
Colton also appeared in Stratford’s production of ‘A Chorus Line’ with a string of other artists who commanded the Festival Stage with unabated enthusiasm. Incredible work to watch. Additional work in which he appeared at Stratford: ‘The Rocky Horror Picture Show’, ‘The Music Man’ and ‘HMS Pinafore.” I asked him off the cuff how he will be at his first curtain call after the pandemic was lifted. His words:
“I’ll be all smiles and professional during the bows onstage, but I know backstage I will be a weeping, blubbering mess.” Thanks for your honesty, Colton, as I’m sure many audience members will experience the same emotions as you.
On top of his work as an artist, Colton is also a photographer and launched his business in July 2020. I’ve seen his extraordinary work in some headshots of other artists whom I’ve interviewed for this series.
From his website: “Colton began performing at an early age in his home province of New Brunswick. Upon graduation from high school, he moved to Ontario to attend his Bachelor of Musical Theatre in the Sheridan College program where he received the Brian Lineman triple threat award for each year he attended.
Between his years at Sheridan, he spent summers working for the Charlottetown Festival, as well as training with Florence Ballet Company in Florence, Italy, and performing with the Finger Lakes Music Theatre Festival in New York State.”
We conducted our conversation via Zoom. Thank you, Colton, for your time and for sharing your thoughts and adding to the discussion:
It’s a harsh reality that the worldwide pandemic of Covid 19 has changed all of us. Describe how your understanding of the world you know and how your perception and experience have changed on a personal level.
It goes without saying that it’s changed a lot. I’ve personally changed the province I live in. Currently, I’m now in Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island. I was in Stratford until October. I’ve done a re-shuffle of things to make the past year work.
My understanding of the world maybe hasn’t changed but has become a lot clearer because I’ve actually had time to think about things. I’ve spent a lot of time this year learning, on learning, thinking about the world I want to create and the world I want to work in, and the art I want to create.
Now that we’re into Year 2 of this pandemic, as a young adult I’ve just grown up a lot. With a lot of time that has passed, I do feel like a different person when I last stepped on stage in 2019.
With live indoor theatre shut for one year plus, with it appearing it may not re-open any time soon, how has your understanding and perception as a professional artist of the live theatre business been altered and changed?
My perception hasn’t changed a whole lot but the business itself has changed immensely which is incredible.
This year has given the time for people to step back and look what we’ve been working in, the environment we’ve been working in, and for people to use their voice. Let me preface by saying that I love the theatre community. I think this is great opportunity for a lot of those voices that have never been heard in a long time to get the platform to speak out about things that drastically needed to change within the entertainment industry.
I think we’re going to see theatre made differently which is exciting. I love big Broadway type and style of musicals that shine and sparkle. When we return after this pandemic, I think we’re going to see things pulled and pared back; smaller cast sizes at least for a bit until theatre companies get the means to create these big budget shows again.
As an ensemble dancer that is terrifying for me when I first came to that conclusion. My career for the past five years at Stratford was as an ensemble dancer. I was at The Shaw Festival understudying and dancing.
It’s something scary to think about as theatre companies no longer have the money to create these big shows. When Stratford announced their summer season with cast sizes of four or five people doing a cabaret in a tent, it was, “Oh yeah, right, this is what we’re going to do now.” In order to get back up and running.
That side of the business has changed, but it’s exciting that we’re slowly seeing people get the opportunities to voice their concern to see new people step into power positions in theatre companies, and for more people be given the opportunities to create art that we didn’t see before.
We see many theatre companies committing to anti-racist policies and turning around the people who are in these director positions, directors’ offices positions. I think this is all great, but we still have a long way to go. It’s the beginning. We’ve had the time for the call to action for the whole community to step things up.
As a professional artist, what are you missing the most about the live theatre industry?
I miss the people and the community, but I really miss working. I miss the first day when you crack open the score and start learning the music. I miss the discipline that it takes physically in order to get into shape to do a show, and the stamina required to do a two-hour musical.
I don’t think a lot of people understand that to be a musical theatre performer is akin to being like an Olympian athlete. I’m not tooting my own horn. Just imagine what it’s like for those who want to be in the Olympics. That same discipline is necessary and required.
I really miss that stamina of working so hard. And of course, we’re trying to keep that up in our own ways whether through dance classes, voice lessons.
As a professional artist, what is the one thing you will never take for granted again in the live theatre industry when you return to it?
Hmmm…I mean I’ll never take for granted again the feeling of being on stage with thirty other cast mates in front of an audience of 2000 people.
That is a feeling that I will hold on to dearly.
That’s not to say that I never did take that feeling for granted, as there’s no feeling like it that can replace it.
That is something I will hold on to dearly forever. It’s like a drug.
Describe one element you hope has changed concerning the live theatre industry.
One thing specifically that I really want to see changed when we get back to the industry is young adults stepping into leadership roles of positions and power within theatre companies, whether it be as Associate Artistic Directors. I feel like that is something that is missing a lot of the time in places where I’ve worked at least.
We constantly hear that theatre is a dying art all the time. Let me just say that I don’t think like that at all. Well, if people say this then get some young people who know what other young people are like and are attracted to do and put them in a leadership role to create something that will be irresistible to the next generation. This is something that I get so frustrated about a lot of the time.
This is something I want to see happen. Take a look at Jayme Armstrong and Kimberely Rampersad. Jayme received a Woman of Distinction award in the arts community and Kimberly is the Shaw Festival’s Associate Artistic Director. That is exciting. That is so awesome.
More of that, please.
Oh, I don’t want to sound ageist, (and Colton and I share a good laugh) but on the record I think those with experience in the industry have done a wonderful job, but we need to stop hearing theatre is a dying art form. There are so many young people who aspire to do this so it can’t be dying as there’s still a need for it.
Explain what specifically you believe you must still accomplish within the industry.
I love this question.
I feel like I have so much still to accomplish.
I love what my career has been so far but a lot of it has been dancing in the ensemble of musicals which I love, but it is never what I thought my dream in theatre was going to be. It’s never what I saw for myself.
I still have so much I want to accomplish. I want to create new things. I want to break the mould of what we think theatre can be a little bit and challenge audiences.
I’m creating this inter multi-disciplinary show with James Kudelka, a former Artistic Director of the National Ballet. I’ve always wanted to do something where I have created a hybrid between a play and ballet because I really think they are similar art forms actually. I’ve been working on this, so it’s been keeping me going.
It’s through ‘Talk is Free’ Theatre so I’ve been thankful for that opportunity with Artistic Director, Arkady Spivak. He is really shaking things up which is incredible in giving the permission to do exactly whatever they want so I feel really lucky that he has given me that opportunity. So, Stay Tuned for what’s in the works there.
Some artists are saying that audiences must be prepared for a tsunami of Covid themed stories in the return to live theatre. Would you elaborate on this statement both as an artist in the theatre, and as an audience member observing the theatre.
As an artist, there’s probably something interesting there in this possible tsunami of Covid themed plays. Artists have had a varied experience as to what this time has looked like.
I don’t think anybody wants to talk about this time of Covid right now. I don’t think anyone wants necessarily to spend a couple of hours per night what we just lived through because it’s not been lovely, it’s not been the best time.
I don’t think audiences want too either. Who knows, maybe in twenty years time or so, that’s something we can look back on and remember.
There has been some really cool art that has been made during this time that we’ll be able to look back on and appreciate.
Near future??? NO!!!!!, but in a few years, maybe.
As an artist, what specifically is it about your work that you want future audiences to remember about you?
Hmmmmm…..you know what, my hope for when people watch me perform is that they are transcended into a different realm. I think about that a lot.
As we move forward out of this pandemic, I also want people to be inspired by my creativity. I’ve thought about this a little bit.
I want to change the way people think, and I want to inspire them by my creativity in the ways I do that.
Theatre was made to entertain and to escape. When I perform, I want people to get sucked into whatever world I’m in, and for them to leave their seats even for a few seconds.
Who knows? That could change, but it’s funny, you know? Will people even remember? I don’t know.
To learn more about Colton, visit his personal web page: www.coltoncurtis.com.
Instagram: @coltonccurtis. To see Colton’s photography: @coltoncurtis.jpeg.