Courtney Ch'ng Lancaster

Moving Forward

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Joe Szekeres

When we all emerge from this pandemic, I would really like to have a glass of wine, beer or coffee with so many of the artists whom I’ve interviewed over the last several months. A good majority of the time I’m unable to place everything they’ve shared with me in this column because we sometimes veer off on different tangents if the subject warrants.

Although artist Courtney Ch’ng Lancaster and I chatted over email, you’ll see from her answers below she has whetted my appetite to find out more and I wish I could ask more. She and her husband are new parents, (congratulations and best wishes, by the way), plus she has also been able to continue in her work as Assistant Artistic Director at Tarragon Theatre.

I’ve reviewed several of the terrific productions in which Courtney appeared: ‘Innocence Lost’, ‘Idomeneus’, ‘Spoon River’, ‘Of Human Bondage’, ‘The Crucible’ at Soulpepper.

She is a theatre maker from Antigonish, Nova Scotia, and the current Assistant Artistic Director at Tarragon Theatre in Toronto. Courtney is also a founding member of The Howland Company. During Covid-19, she has directed radio play versions of Three Women of Swatow, 7 Stories, and upcoming productions of Shape of a Girl and Democracy (Expect Theatre for Tarragon Acoustic).

Her theatre direction includes The Wolves (Howland/Crows, Toronto Theatre Critics Best Ensemble 2018 and MyEntertainmentWorld Best Production 2018), Cannibal (Scrap Paper/Next Stage), 52 Pick-Up (Howland, Best of Fringe 2013), Gray (Inamorata) and Three Women of Swatow (Tarragon – delayed due to Covid-19).

Her acting credits include Cyrano de Bergerac and Man and Superman at the Shaw Festival, seven seasons with Soulpepper Theatre and credits with Public Recordings, Canadian Stage, Citadel Theatre, Blue Bridge Repertory Theatre, Cahoots Theatre, Native Earth, and Tarragon Theatre. She is a graduate of the UBC BFA Theatre program, the Banff Citadel Theatre Program and the Soulpepper Academy. Courtney has twice been named a ‘Top Ten Theatre Artist’ by NOW Magazine and is a grateful alumna of the Loran Award and a recipient of two Dora Awards for Best Ensemble.

Thank you for participating, Courtney:

It has been an exceptional and nearly eight long months since we’ve all been in isolation, and now it appears 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?

People can get used to anything. It’s our worst trait.

Isn’t that terrifying?

Already, I’m used to endless zoom play readings. I’m almost starting to like it. I never have to put on real clothes.

In April, I was frantically washing my groceries. Now, the numbers are higher than ever, and yet I can’t seem to muster the same panic I felt in those early days, even as we hit numbers far beyond what we saw in the spring, and even as Toronto’s medical officer of health warns us to assume the virus is everywhere, right now.

I think back in August, September even, I was still in a mental state of emergency, but humans aren’t built to live like that. I’ve normalized this.

But I’m not sleeping well.

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

My family is mostly healthy, my family is safe, my family is not on the front lines of this pandemic. We are immensely privileged to have that kind of safety right now.

I was already prepared for 2020 to be a strange year: we had our first child in February. I went into parenthood with very little experience of children. I had changed one diaper, I had never babysat. I had never been ASKED to babysit, my aura of discomfort around children is so palpable! So 2020 already seemed like a gaping pit of unknown.

This reminds me of graduating from theatre school in 2008. All the business graduates around me were leaping into a depressed job market, a far cry from what they’d been promised. The theatre graduates were pretty sanguine in the face of limited opportunities and an uncertain future, we’d been preparing for that reality throughout our training. Artists are resilient.

I digress.

My husband is a musician, so much of his work performing and touring through the year was cancelled, but he has been able to access some of the government support and keep some work. I had taken on a learning position as Assistant Artistic Director at Tarragon Theatre in the fall of 2019, and so I had a maternity leave which I wouldn’t otherwise have had access to as a freelance artist (hot tip, artist friends, if you’re expecting, try to accrue those 600 hours of employment somewhere). This fall, post mat leave, I returned to my position at Tarragon, but the company has given employees the option to work from home through the rest of the season, so that’s what I’ve been doing. It’s sometimes hard with the baby but mostly great.

So, while we’re anxious about the future, worried about our families, and a little sad that friends and family haven’t been able to share in this first year of our child’s life, we’re okay, more than okay. We’ve had much more concentrated family time than we would’ve had.

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

I miss people. I miss the community of ‘hug-in-a-lobby’ theatre folks.

And there are big doubts, a career in the theatre, already so difficult, now seems even more daunting. Kristina Lemieux of Generator said in the Toronto Star “My advice for gig workers and artists is to expect that your ability to live off the gig economy in the arts will not return for seven to 10 years at best,”

This strikes me alternately as pessimistic and wise depending on the hour of the day.

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?

In 2019, when I found out I was pregnant, I’d already signed on to direct the world premiere of Three Women of Swatow at Tarragon at the beginning of 2020. In a rather hubristic decision, I fudged my due date oh-just-a-wee-bit (both in my own mind and with my producers), consulted with many theatre parents who were wonderfully encouraging (but maybe a little wary about my timelines), enlisted my mother and husband’s support, and decided to go ahead with the job. Tarragon followed my lead and set up a sweet nursery for me (Richard Rose turned his office over to the cause, insisting the heat was better in there), I arranged shorter rehearsal days and longer breaks, and it was full steam ahead.

Despite best-laid plans, baby was late, quite late, and I started rehearsals 9 days after birth. Which I don’t exactly recommend to anyone. But we were very fortunate in all aspects – a healthy child who was a good eater and sleeper out of the gate, a fairly easy recovery for me, my husband and my mother game to hold down the fort, and a wonderful team of artists working on the show diligently and sometimes independently as I took extended breaks to nurse. I set out for work every day tired, but giddy because somehow, it was working out.

Of course, things started feeling wobbly that second week of March. The bottles of hand sanitizer appeared on every surface, hushed conversations between me and my SM bloomed into full cast dishes about what little information we had at that point. The producers checked in with me to ask if I had concerns about my safety or my baby’s safety, but I was much more concerned about my mother. By March 12th I knew enough to book her a flight home to Nova Scotia, and we put her on a plane the morning of March 14th, before I started my second day of tech. We got through teching the very last cue of the show right before lunch, and then my wonderful SM, who later told me he’d picked up the pace “because we were going to get to the end of the show, dammit”, took me aside and said we needed to go speak to the Managing Director.

And so we were shut down, “for a month”, and we all went to drink and drown our sorrows at the thought of having to delay our opening for a whole month which of course became six months, and then indefinitely. The set is still up, as far as I know. And until recently, I still felt quite stuck in the mourning of that show, and the baby-art shuffle which was the first six weeks of my child’s life.

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

I’m working a lot, learning a lot. Many not-art type things, with a few pleasant art things thrown in like readings and workshops and radio plays. I’m parenting. I’m teaching, I’m questioning and planning with my colleagues at the Howland Company. Everything, save the parenting, happens on zoom. I’m agonizingly texting other new parents in the middle of the night. I’m very fortunate to not have to go out into the world much. I stare at screens a lot.

I’m examining a shift in my interests, and a gap in my training. I’ve been a freelance artist throughout my career, hustling for myself. Now, I feel that I haven’t done enough to strengthen my community. A new friend reminded me of this (https://www.cbc.ca/player/play/1336891971503) project led by the late, great, Ker Wells, wherein he activated a whole community into a pageant around the River Clyde and the state of its waters. This moment calls out for that kind of community building, for neighbours and friends to check up on you, feed and fight and march with you, and know your humanity.

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 given the fact live theaters and studios might be closed for 1 ½ - 2 years?

Oof. I think the usual advice still applies – diversify your skillset. Do lots of things. Write, direct, design. Learn an instrument. Make videos, make virtual reality…stuff (and then teach me how), make plays. Going into the theatre was always going to be a hard row to hoe, but if you do lots of things, there are lots of ways in.

But honestly, the next few years are unknown to me too.

Also, honestly? I think about quitting all the time. ALL THE TIME. It’s an option, amongst many. When I was about 20, someone I looked up to quit the theatre to run a non-profit for youth, and I was so MAD about it. I was venting to another established artist who gently told me “Courtney, life is long” and I huffed and puffed and swore I’d never quit. The artist I admired was back a few years later, refreshed, refocused. But it would’ve been okay if they hadn’t returned, too.

Community theatre is theatre. School plays are theatre. Theatre as a hobby is no less valuable than theatre as a calling (this idea was anathema to me until embarrassingly recently). Theatre schools make great, smart, engaged, justice-seeking, art-loving PEOPLE, regardless of whether they stay in the industry. So, I would tell a new graduate, if you want to pursue other skills right now, that is not a failure. Life is long.

Do you see anything positive stemming from Covid 19?

Theatre people: can we really go back to a 6-day work week after this? I don’t think I can.

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

Smarter people than I have said and will say smarter things about this.

I think the zoom reading might be here to stay. In certain contexts, it’s wonderful to be able to read a play with artists from across the continent. Our artistic borders are more permeable than ever.

Though maybe we’ll need a zoom hiatus for a bit when this shit is over.

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?

I winge (wince and cringe) about this because it’s not the same and I don’t always or even often love it, and I’m confused about how to monetize it to adequately compensate artists in a country where the arts are chronically, majorly underfunded, but I recognize the doors that are being opened. The ACCESS is amazing, seeing things that would have been impossible due to geography, money, and other barriers.

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

We’ll get back to it. Tonight, as I write this at 4:37am (it’s not the baby keeping me awake, it’s anxiety and too much blue light from my screens) I miss the sweat. I miss the rented period costumes that can’t be washed, and only the alcohol-water spray to keep the odours at bay. I miss talkbacks even though I hate talkbacks. I miss nice lobbies and shitty greenrooms. I miss making weird eye contact with audience members at the bathroom sinks after the show. I miss the shiver of a scene going well. I miss whining about everything, the inadequate heating backstage, the injustice of matinees, the wigs, the shoes, the cellphone in the audience, the paycheques, the reviews. I swear when we get back to it, I won’t whine for at least a week.

Oh, I can’t wait to get back to it.

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