Cynthia Dale

Moving Forward

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Joe Szekeres

Let’s count ourselves lucky, Canada, that we have an eloquent and articulate Cynthia Dale who opened her compassionate heart and soul to me in our conversation about how she has been faring during this worldwide pandemic.

I remember watching her work on CBC’s ‘Street Legal’ during my undergraduate years, but I had no idea how diverse her stage performance resume was until I reviewed it myself. At the Stratford Festival, I saw her work in a poignant ‘Miracle Worker’ where Cynthia played the tenaciously resolved Annie Sullivan.

Ms. Dale was also touching in her portrayal of Maria Rainer in ‘The Sound of Music’. Most recently, I saw her work in an astonishing production of ‘Fun Home’ through the Mirvish series where I freely admitted that I wiped tears from my eyes at the end.

Cynthia and I conducted our conversation via Zoom. Thank you so much, Cynthia, for this opportunity and I hope to speak to you in person soon:

It has been an exceptionally long five months since we’ve all been in isolation, and now it appears we are slowly emerging to some new way of living. How have you been faring? How has your immediate family been doing during this time?

Actually, I don’t feel like we’re emerging at all. I beg to disagree on that. The numbers are horrendous in Ontario today (and Cynthia is correct on this account as the number have been rising the last few days). I feel like on pain of death people will feel like we’re emerging.

It’s been an interesting time. I have a low-level rung of anxiety all the time. It’s like a low-grade fever that’s there all the time because I think it’s just there in the world. There’s no doubt that in the beginning there was an overwhelming amount of sadness and fear, and I don’t have the same amount of that anxiety, fear and sadness as I had. I still have incredible caution.

I’m also not a fan of the term ‘new normal’. I don’t know what that means. We will never go back to the way life was, I don’t think. It will just be different. As far as the industry I’m in, I understand there are film and tv productions and things getting back and filming, but under such incredible circumstances. Theatre has not gone back and cannot go back, and it will be so long before that can happen, and this makes me incredibly sad.

The term ‘new normal’ is a sugar coating and fake. If this has taught us anything, it’s to be incredibly honest in every single situation with every single person at every moment because there’s no time left. For years, we’ve heard use the good china, burn the good candles…people, what are you waiting for? Do it now, honey, c’mon, enough already.

As a performer, what has been the most difficult and challenging for you professionally and personally?

Well, I guess they sort of bleed together because the most challenging thing for me was to sing again, in fact. I couldn’t sing. I lost my voice. My heart, I couldn’t sing. I was too sad. I was too in fear. I locked it all down and I didn’t sing for five, six months. I had no real desire to do it.

I don’t sing just for the sake of singing as there’s a goal in mind. I didn’t have a thing I was working towards because ‘towards’ was just a big question mark. Koerner Hall wasn’t going to happen so I didn’t have to work on those. And so, personally it was just all I could do to open my eyes every morning, thank God for the day, thank God for my health and go from there. That was it. It was a matter of putting one foot in front of the other, and all I could plan was what was for dinner, that’s all. That’s the only plan that could happen for thousands, millions of people. We couldn’t plan anything else.

It was just a matter of taking care of yourself, taking care of your family, and just getting through. That morphs and changes and you plant flowers, you help move your son into his own apartment and all those things, and life goes on.

And I started to sing again, thank God, in August. But it was an interesting process. People would send notes on Twitter, other singers would comment and say, “I tried to sing today and all I could do was sob.” And that’s what was happening. I sobbed every day for four months, like everybody in the world. People just cried, a lot. And it wasn’t about feeling sorry for myself, it was just a matter of this is all really hard what’s going on in the world.

And if you are at all an empath and feel what’s going on in the world, you are aware of it. I knew everybody was having the same problem I was having. So many other singers and people were having the same problem, so I didn’t feel weird or awed. I actually felt there was a great group of us around the globe feeling like this or that. And slowly, slowly, slowly, I listened to my body, I listened to my spirit, l listened to my heart, and I knew I would sing again at some point, but I didn’t push it. I didn’t have to because there was no gig coming up.

And when the possibility of something coming up, I started to sing again.

I wasn’t different from so many performers, really. I have friends who are on Broadway, friends who are in shows in Toronto, and they literally walked out of their dressing room one night, and their stuff is still sitting in their dressing room. It’s like everything is frozen in so many areas of the world. People who left their offices back in March, their desks are still exactly as they were, the coffee mug, the pictures of the family, the ‘to do’ pile. People didn’t know how long this was going to last or that this was going to happen.

I wasn’t different from everybody else. Everybody is still feeling this and I’m not ashamed to say it’s been really hard. The richness of my garden and family and cooking, (and thank God I love to cook), all of that, my goodness what would we do without it?

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?

I wasn’t actually filming or rehearsing anything, but I was supposed to be doing a production of ‘Follies’ this fall in October at Koerner Hall, a concert version. That was in the world, in my psyche and in my body in thinking about it, rehearse, learn the music. That inevitably got stopped.

I had a few other music concerts and gigs to sing at but other than that, no.

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

I walk a lot but Peter (Mansbridge, retired newscaster from CBC) and I don’t walk together. We walk in our own spaces, listen to our own audio books. I paint, I love to paint and that for sure got me through the first eight weeks. I painted a lot.

I’ve always been a big reader. I read a lot. Binge watcher of TV and goodness knows I’ve watched a lot more now than I have before.

We all sort of do what we do, to keep busy, happy and fulfilled. I’m loving singing right now and that’s a good thing. The singing is just for me right now.

It’s a funny time, isn’t it?

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?
Even before all this whenever I’ve mentored, taught, lectured, I’ve always said to theatre students, “Get a Business Degree”. You are a business! You are a business and you’re going to have to know how to pay your agent, pay your taxes, maybe start a theatre company, pay a publicist. Do all those things and you need to have that ability.

It’s great you can do a triple time step, that’s wonderful; it’s great that you can sing a high C and know five Shakespeare monologues, but you also need to know the nuts and bolts, and that has absolutely nothing to do with you may want to do something else in life, or you should have a back up plan. I don’t believe that it’s not about that, at all.

You, yourself, are the backup plan, and so you need to fill up yourself with knowledge and with stuff that gives you opportunities because you may turn 40 and get sick and tired of having $350 in the bank which is what a lot of actors and performers have. You don’t go into this industry for money. If you’re lucky and click on TV or film, you might make some money, but you need to know more.

And so, I would say to anyone even before Covid and the pandemic. Now, I say it even more. I have friends who are the leading players in some of the top shows in the city who are working now at the liquor store. They have to pay the bills. These people were making top dollar in the theatre, one of the most coveted jobs in the theatre scene, and they have to do something else now.

There’s nothing wrong with that. It’s a noble thing to pay your bills. You need to be able to diversify.
In our parents’ generation, they did one thing – teachers, plumbers, accountants. They did one thing, hit retirement and that was it. Now, young people do this, and they do that. It’s not an either or. They can be incredible photographers and have a great career and take 8X10 photographs for headshots, and they’re kick ass dancers and singers and work all the time at the Stratford Festival. People do lots of things – they have a web design company during the day and work at night on Broadway. Younger people do more things and different careers. They don’t do one career for 30 years anymore like our parents did. It’s a different thing.

If you’re 21 and coming out of theatre school, I might say, “You may not want to do this in twenty years time, or ten years. You may, as it’s a calling and there’s no doubt about it, but that doesn’t mean you don’t have to stop any passion you have for something else. It doesn’t lessen your ability to be an actor or a singer or a dancer. It enhances it. It fills you up more.”

I guess that’s what I would say.

Do you see anything positive stemming from this pandemic?

(with a slight laugh) Yes, sometimes, the question is, ‘Does it outweigh the negatives in my mind?’
Staycations instead of travelling. Lots of things, but the question to me is does it outweigh. I’m not a negative, downer type of person so I can’t live in the place of it’s all that. I have to believe the good that will come out of this will outweigh the bad. It’s really hard to think of that though with all of the people who have died, all the people who have lost someone.

It’s really hard to believe that the good could ever outweigh it. I’m a keener, a Pollyanna, but it’s really hard to believe in the face of the sadness.

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

Devastating. Absolutely devastating. I can’t imagine how some of these larger theatres are going to continue.

Just North America alone…Think of the touring companies. How do you do that? How do you entice people back? I don’t see how you entice people back into a theatre until there’s a vaccine, and a safe vaccine at that.

I can’t imagine people wanting to sit beside someone. It’s one thing to get on an airplane and sit beside someone to travel across the pond. Yes, it’s longer than a two- or three-hour theatre show. I don’t want to sit in the theatre and wear a hazmat suit. I don’t want to sit in a theatre and think my two or three hours of potential enjoyment are at the cost of potentially getting sick or getting someone else sick. It’s the opposite of the enjoyment and the magic of theatre.

I don’t want to sing in fear. I can’t sing in fear. I can’t sing afraid. And singing is one of the worst things for transmitting it, right? And so, I don’t want to sing or be in an environment where someone could get sick or I could get sick or bring it home to my loved ones.

I think it’s going to be a long time. I think there will be shows that were up and running that won’t be running again be that in Toronto or definitely on Broadway. It’s almost a given in the West End. Just this week Andrew Lloyd Webber came out again and said some of his shows just won’t come back that were playing.

It’s going to be years and years before recovery.

I think of those school touring programs. They seem so small but they’re so important. How do you get them back? For some kids, that’s their first inkling of theatre. That spark, when they lie their head on their pillow and think, “My God, something changed in me today.” Or they sit at the dining room table over dinner and tell their parents, “Please, I want to take a dance class, or I want to learn to play the saxophone.” This ripple effect has stopped-there will be none of that.

My dearest friend is a Grade 8 teacher and all those extra things like band practices, choir, stuff related to the arts has just stopped. Those kinds of things are truly heartbreaking to me. That’s a black hole that’s going to be felt for so long, the missed opportunity of inspiring a kid to be in the arts. That’s gonna happen and we won’t feel it for 10 or 15 years. That breaks my heart.

I always felt the most important time at The Stratford Festival was the fall season when all the school groups arrived to watch a play. This is the audience of tomorrow. These are the ones who will keep coming to Stratford and keep the Stratford Festival alive when I’m long gone. They’ll be here, they’ll be bringing their kids here. Those audiences, those shows, gone. That breaks my heart.

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?

No, it’s not really my thing. In the beginning, the first six, eight weeks, I co-hosted a show with Tom Jackson called ‘Almighty Voices’ that was singers. Tom kept asking me to sing, and I said, “Tom, I can’t sing but I’ll co-host with you.”

Once, in honour of someone who had passed, a group of us sang ‘Amazing Grace’. But other than that, it’s not my thing. I don’t play an instrument. I can’t accompany myself. It’s too hard figuring out how to link me with the orchestra in Edmonton which were all options.

I’ve watched some live stream shows. I don’t count watching ‘Hamilton’ when it played. It wasn’t a live streamed show, it was a filmed version and I could watch that every single day for the rest of my life.
It’s not my favourite way to watch. It’s a different thing. It’s not theatre.

There’s nothing wrong with watching television or going to the cinema, but it’s not theatre.

(Cynthia then links her fingers together) Theatre is here (left fingers), the audience is here (right fingers) and the magic is in between the two. It’s what happens right there. It’s in the ether. It’s ‘that’ thing called ‘it’, and ‘it’ doesn’t come across on film or in television. It’s a different thing and thank God it is. You can’t describe it.

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

(pause) You’re going to make me cry…(pauses)…

It’s a funny thing, I turned 60 this year and I don’t have the same ambition as I’ve had for the last 45 years of my life. And I’m aware of that in my body. It’s changed, it’s morphed.

I don’t feel like I’m done yet, but I don’t feel like “It’s the be all or end all” or “I have to be performing.”
Believe me, I’ve asked myself this question many times as I sit up here in my little office. This is where I sing. I check in – what is it…it’s not about the vocal cords because singing for me is so much more than the vocal cords. Where is it in my body that I still love to perform or still feel like I want to?

I did a show called ‘Fun Home’ in Toronto (side note: I saw it and cried at the end). I found it interesting at that point in my life I was more nervous (almost sick) for the opening night of ‘Fun Home’ than I was the ten years of opening nights at the Stratford Festival. It didn’t matter.

I found it interesting and I think about it and why was it that particular opening night of ‘Fun Home’. That show cost a lot to do and to live, and all of us paid for it every night but happily to pay it.

I’m prepared to pay it still. I don’t have to pay it as often as I used to do. It’s not because I don’t want to as I’m still prepared to do that and give that. Thank God, that’s come to me because there aren’t a lot of parts for 60-year-old broads, that many that you really, really want to do. And so, if I was in a corner, crying because I wasn’t working that’s different but I’m not. I’m fine with it.

I just now know when I sing now there’s something that vibrates that still feels good. It’s like taking my B12s in the morning, another vitamin in my body, another something which still reminds me, “I’m not finished yet.”

We’re in the process of building a house in Scotland and I may be spending a lot of time over there in my life. If I’m desperate to sing, I’ll go sing in a pub, I don’t know what I’ll do. I’ll go sing in the Highlands somewhere because that vibration is something that I still need.

To learn more about Cynthia Dale, visit her website: www.cynthiadale.com.

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