Cory O'Brien

Theatre Conversation in a Covid World

Tim Leyes

Joe Szekeres

I’ve stated it earlier in other profiles from the Toronto company’s profiles of ‘Come from Away’. We need this show now more than ever once it’s safe to return. Hopefully the Toronto company will return again SOON.

Cory O’Brien is just one member of a tremendous ensemble of dynamite actors who make me want to see this production so much when it does finally return.

Cory holds a BFA Acting from the University of Windsor. While there he studied vocal performance (singing) with Jeannette Dagger. Once he moved to Toronto, he largely studied with David Dunbar.

He has completed seven seasons at the Stratford Festival; toured North America in ‘Mary Poppins’ and performed in theatres in Alberta, Quebec, New Brunswick and extensively all over Ontario.

Cory was part of the original cast of ‘The Lord of the Rings’ with Mirvish. He appeared in ‘Cats’ at the Panasonic Theatre, performed in the Toronto Fringe Festival as well as the Next Stages Festival. Additional work with Toronto Operetta Theatre.

We conducted our conversation via email. Thank you so much for taking the time and to add to the conversation, Cory:

Many professional theatre artists I’ve profiled and interviewed have shared so much of themselves and how the pandemic has affected them from social implications from the Black Lives Matter and BIPOC movements to the staggering numbers of illnesses and deaths. Could you share with us and describe one element, either positive or negative, from this time that you believe will remain with you forever?

This is a tough one. There are so many implications to this time in our lives (point in history really). I think we will continue to feel the vibrations for years to come before anyone will be able to say with any certainty what has ‘happened’ during this time.

You mentioned Black Lives Matter and BIPOC movements... I would actually say that Black Lives Matter and BIPOC awareness has grown. And I hope that awareness never goes back to normal. The death of George Floyd happened early in the pandemic, at a point where most people’s lives were on hold. Where during normal times people could keep their heads in the sand and miss things that seem to be outside their daily experience, this happened while people were essentially holding their breath and watching events very closely. And what we witnessed was an undeniable case of racism, with horrifying consequences.

In the broader sense I think (and hope) we are moving towards a time where society shrugs off the apathy and self-centred views that allow systemic racism, fringe political extremists etc. We need to stop only seeing things in our personal spheres. Indeed, this time has shown us there is only 1 sphere we need to be concerned with - This planet... and we’re all in it (or on it) together.

I heard on the news yesterday that there was a police department in the GTA that has discovered, and been criticized for, systemic racism. The viewpoint seemed a little shocked. I think we need to switch that thinking up... we should be shocked if there WASN’T systemic racism. Accept it and let’s move forward making things better or everyone.

Post COVID will be and should be a new reality.

Have you learned anything about human nature from this time?

Ha! Learned about human nature? The above kind of covers that.

People have had a tendency to see the world through the lens of ‘what affects me?’ What a wake-up call to see ‘what affects the world affects me.... and what affects me affects the world’. I think people are generally good. And WANT to be good.

During the pandemic I’ve seen it time and time again... from people helping with basic needs when their neighbours are quarantined to people taking more time to say hello and check on their neighbours (in a responsible and socially distanced way!). However,... I’m sadly still shocked from when we were able to actually go in stores to see so many completely ignoring the protocols in place regarding distance and masks. I thought at the beginning of the lockdowns that after 4 weeks the spread should be entirely stopped.... or at least to the point where the origin of new infections should be easily traced and managed. 1 random international flight here or there etc... Obviously, that hasn’t happened ....

How has your immediate family been faring during this time? As a family, can you share with us how your lives have been changed and impacted by this time?

On a personal family note... we have fared better than many during the pandemic. We’ve been lucky to be able to spend this time together.

My wife and I have a daughter who just turned 2 yrs old. So this time is priceless.

The sad part is that our daughter isn’t able to play with other kids. We can see how badly she wants to interact with other kids if we take her to the park or see them out for a walk. How do you explain this to a 2 yr old? And what is that impact going to look like on kids at different ages moving forward??

But certainly blessed to be together as a family unit all the time!!

I know none of us can even begin to guess when professional theatre artists will be back to work. I’ve spoken with some who have said it might not be until 2022. Would you agree on this account? Have you ever though that you might have had to pivot and switch careers during this time?

I’m hoping for theatre to come back this fall... but time will tell.

As far as a pivot goes... I haven’t considered the type of pivot that would be everlasting. I still see myself in this business over the long haul. However - I have had to supplement with doing some construction work on the side. I’ve done lots of renovations over the years and this has merely made it a more regular part of weekly life.

I’m hoping to have our own house finished by late spring!! My wife has pivoted by creating a meal delivery company specifically targeting those looking for options on the Keto diet. Ketochickcreations.com. Website isn’t live yet but should be within a week or so.

How do you think your chosen career path and vocational calling will look once all of you return safely to the theatre? Do you feel confident that you can and will return safely?

Do I feel confident that I can and will return safely to my career? Yes. How will it look? Not sure entirely.... but I think on the other side of this there will be a collective longing embrace of the arts/theatre/live performance.

People are desperate for a sense of community right now, having felt so cut off from one another. It could be an exciting and ‘awakened’ time.... but there will also likely be some building back up through the rubble.

This time of the worldwide pandemic has shaken all of us to our very core and being. According to author Margaret Atwood, she believes that Canadians are survivors no matter what is thrown in their path. Could you share what has helped you survive this time of uncertainty?

In regard to Margaret Atwood’s comment.... I would imagine she has a much more worldly view as to how Canadians are different from others around the world than I have! I’ll take her word for it!

For myself personally... I would say family family family... the biological kind and the chosen kind. With so many forces pulling us apart (distancing etc)... the bonds of family and community are proving how strong and supportive they are, and can be.

Imagine in a perfect world that the professional theatre artist has been called back as it has been deemed safe for actors and audience members to return. The first show is complete and now you’re waiting backstage for your curtain call:

Describe how you believe you’re probably going to react at that curtain call.

JOY JOY JOY!!!!

I’m one of those actors who generally doesn’t enjoy a curtain call. I prefer to share the life of ‘the character’ with the audience. In that sense I share and help facilitate the communal experience of the story, whereas as a curtain call feels more like I’m presenting myself to the audience.

I had a director once say that the curtain call isn’t about you as an actor.... it’s about giving the audience the opportunity to show their appreciation for being a part of that communal experience I just mentioned. So, in that sense, the curtain call was about the audience and not me - that enabled me to be able to do curtain calls all these years without feeling awkward....

On the day we get back to theatre (and I strongly believe that I will be lucky enough to be back in ‘Come From Away’).... the curtain call won’t be about the audience or me... it’ll be about all of us! And I’ll get to participate in that!!! For the first time ever ... I can’t WAIT for the curtain call!!!!

There is a crowd of people waiting to see you and your castmates at the stage door to greet all of you. Tell me what’s the first thing you will probably say to the first audience member:

“Hi! Thanks for coming!” I’m tempted to insert a joke here such as “Yes I was in the show.” Or...”No I wasn’t in the band - you’re thinking of Jon Maharaj” but with ‘Come From Away’ I have been generally more recognized after the performance than previous shows I’ve done.

I think perhaps my personal energy just seems very different than what people see onstage. That first night back in the theatre I can see the stage door actually turning into a bit of a celebration - wouldn’t that be nice actually?!? We should make that happen...

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