Self Isolated Artist
Julian Stamboulieh, Beanduck Productions
The first time I saw Craig Francis’ name was in the programme for performing artist Rick Miller’s productions of ‘Boom’ in Montreal and ‘Jungle Book’ at Toronto’s Young People’s Theatre. I was pleased to learn as well that Craig was also following reviews from On Stage and the ‘Self-Isolated Artist’ series.
Craig (he/him) is a writer, director, illustrator, and multidisciplinary creator. As a founding member of The 20K Collective, Craig co-created with Rick Miller the productions ‘Jungle Book’, ‘Twenty Thousand Leagues Under The Sea’, and ‘Game of Clones’, and he is adapting ‘Frankenstein’ with Rick Miller and Paul Van Dyck. He's a producer, dramaturg, and Stage Manager for Miller's solo works: the BOOM, BOOM X, and BOOM YZ trilogy (Kidoons/WYRD/Theatre Calgary).
He performs improv comedy, and theatre credits include ‘The Refugee Hotel’ (Teesri Duniya). Craig’s animated digital shorts for the Kidoons Network and Not-for-Profit Organizations are seen by millions of viewers and are installed in museums in four Provinces. Craig lives in Montréal, has illustrated several books, and voiced games and animated series.
How have you been keeping during this artist isolation period with no clear end in sight for the performer?
I just hit 120 days isolation! That's a lot. Overall, though, I feel grateful and enormously fortunate. I had surgery for cancer in my leg in December and was pronounced all-clear before the pandemic hit, so I really feel for the people in the throes of other illnesses or suspended treatments during this time. The first shows I came back to in February 2020 were our Kidoons productions of Rick Miller's BOOM Off-Broadway, and Jungle Book at Young People's Theatre, which both had excellent theatres and audiences, and were well-received (including by yourself – thanks!).
What has been most challenging and difficult for you during this time? What have you all been doing to keep yourselves busy?
The most challenging thing has been moving my creative effort into new projects, and then finding their development also postponed. We had even cast our next project for rehearsal. I feel like I've gone through the Kübler-Ross "Five Stages Of Grief"... sometimes all in one day! There was the suspension of our Jungle Book run, then the remainder of the season, then the fall season for our 4 touring productions.... now we're looking at a solid year dark. Sometimes 2020 feels like a dream where you're standing on the side of a mountain and seeing a snowball rolling towards you, and it's getting larger and larger, in slow motion. But it's not snow, it's shit. And the mountain is also made of shit.
The silver lining is getting to be off the road and back in Montreal with my husband, for the longest stretch in years. As well, all my biological family is in BC, and ironically, I've been seeing them more than ever before, as everyone learned video calling. I also recently upped my training with a terrific GhostLight directing class with Jillian Keiley. I will be creating the design of our third family production Frankenstein as a graphic novel. Most of my work is optimistically forward-looking, but some is deliberate distraction.
Yet somehow RuPaul managed to foresee that need for distraction, and give us three overlapping series of Drag Race.
Craig, I remember Rick saying one of the hardest things he had to do was to let the actors know from the touring company of ‘The Jungle Book’ that the production tour has been cancelled. In your estimation and opinion, do you foresee COVID 19 and its results leaving a lasting impact on the Canadian performing arts and theatre scene?
That was a bad moment; and we had to do it a second time for a different show, also cancelled.
"Decimated" is not too strong a word, as one in ten artists or companies may not come back from this. It's not just us creators and performers who're suspended, but also the designers and technicians and crew who would work on the runs and tours. Further, given that programming happens 16 or months out or more, when our industry reopens, AD's will have to choose whether to run previously suspended shows or create new ones, but either way half the artists who might have expected to be in that season, won't be.
Beyond that, how performers perform intimacy may well change; I think we've all had that pandemic experience of watching a TV show where someone is touching someone else's face and you scream at the screen "DON'T TOUCH THAT PERSON! Oh, for the love of God, now DON'T TOUCH YOUR OWN FACE!"
We may well see a glut of COVID-isolation pieces and political tragedies, so I think my next script will be something maximalist, fun, and stupid. Meantime, online I'll be pursuing our video collaborations with Not-for-Profit Organizations, to help them tell their stories online.
Do you have any words of wisdom to console or to build hope and faith in those performing artists who have been hit hard as a result of COVID 19? Any words of sage advice to the new graduates from Canada’s theatre schools regarding this fraught time of confusion?
I would say it's a good time to practice self-care that is too often overlooked in the rush of this art form; to reconnect with the people who really matter, and to find your people.
I recently looked out an old quote by Armistead Maupin that I love, about chosen family: "Sooner or later, though, no matter where in the world we live, we must join the diaspora, venturing beyond our biological family to find our logical one, the one that actually makes sense for us."
Do you foresee anything positive stemming from COVID 19 and its influence on the Canadian performing arts scene?
I do. The conversations I've been listening to in support of Back Lives Matter, and The Indigenous Circle, and the Queer community, might not previously have the opportunity to bloom, because under normal circumstances someone would go, "We don't have time to think about this, we have to get a show up and open!" Now, everyone has time to think. From better social justice to better backstage hygiene, we may come out of this with some new best practices.
YouTube presentations, online streaming seems to be part of a ‘new normal’ at this time for artists to showcase their work. Nevertheless, I’ve spoken with some individuals who believe that online streaming or YouTube presentations destroy the impact of the moment of a group of people who have gathered with anticipation in one sitting to watch a particular production.
What are your thoughts and comments about the advantages and/or values of online streaming? Do you foresee this as part of the ‘new normal’ for Canadian theatre as we move forward from COVID 19?
With Kidoons productions, Rick Miller, and Irina Litvinenko, I already create digital shorts that help Not-for-Profit organizations deliver narrative content. That is not theatre, but it's creative storytelling that's very fulfilling to me, and also lets me pursue my visual art.
Thanks to the covid-response streaming of theatre, my family in the UK has been able to see our "Jungle Book" and "Twenty Thousand Leagues Under The Sea" productions on Broadway On Demand, and I have also watched pieces that I otherwise wouldn't have been able to access. Of course, the best of these were filmed for cinemas, and so aren't really theatre. Filming in front of a live audience helps, but there's a shared energy in the room that can't be duplicated.
Some theatre-makers have possibly been naïve, going "We're going to figure out how performance could work on social media!" as if there weren't an established ecosystem of performers doing that already. But one piece that I have enjoyed is using social to complement the production as outreach and behind-the-scenes process, generating interest in the art of theatre itself. I hope that continues.
I have participated in a few readings on Zoom, and as a playwright I hope this will remain as a viable, non-public way to hear text delivered by terrific actors, for accessible work-in-progress performances and feedback.
As far as "real live theatre" goes, I am optimistic people that will want to buy tickets and return as soon as possible.
What is it about the performing arts that COVID will never destroy?
The delight of a performer and audience in a room all suspending their disbelief at the same time, to create a shared reality.
With a respectful acknowledgement to ‘Inside the Actors’ Studio’ and the late James Lipton, here are ten questions he used to ask his guests:
1. What is your favourite word?
2. What is your least favourite word?
3. What turns you on?
A well-turned phrase well delivered. Failing that, Henry Cavill.
4. What turns you off?
Using "gifted" as a verb; what did the word "gave" ever do to you?
5. What sound or noise do you love?
Wind in leaves.
6. What sound or noise bothers you?
The squeak of Styrofoam® packaging makes every hair on my body stand on end.
7. What is your favourite curse word?
What is your least favourite curse word?
Homophobic slurs, anything demeaning because of gender or sexuality. Stick with fuckface. Or maybe asshole, everybody's got one.
8. Other than your current profession now, what other profession would you have liked to attempt?
9. What profession could you not see yourself doing?
Anything involving driving, I let my license expire because I'm really... not great.
10. If Heaven exists, what do you hope God will say to you as you approach the Pearly Gates?
“Your friends are waiting for you downstairs.”
To learn more about Kidoons, visit: www.kidoons.com.