Once again, Cyrus and I shared some good laughter during our 45-minute conversation. He was candid, frank and honest with me (and yes, we sometimes did dive into some ‘colourful’ language during our conversation.)
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I did see his work last year in ‘Oil’ at ARC Theatre, thankfully before the pandemic shut down all productions worldwide. Some of Cyrus’s credits include: ‘Bunny’ at the Tarragon. Scrooge in Ross Petty’s A Christmas Carol: The Family Musical with a Scrooge Loose at the Elgin Theatre. Selected shows from his 6 seasons at the Stratford Festival include The Changeling, Macbeth, As You Like It, Bunny (original production), The Taming of the Shrew, Possible Worlds, Cymbeline, Peter Pan, Titus Andronicus, Richard III and Wanderlust.
Happy moving between musicals and dramas, some favourite credits are Twelve Angry Men (Soulpepper – Dora Award, Ensemble), Kiss of the Spider Woman (Talk is Free), Passion Play (Convergence/Outside the March/Sheep No Wool – Dora Award, Ensemble), You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown (YPT), The Tin Drum (UnSpun Theatre) and An Inconvenient Musical (Factory). After two seasons at the Shaw Festival, Cyrus acted in several shows for Canadian Stage including Rock N Roll, Habeas Corpus, and Take Me Out.
TV credits include Reign, The Border, The Summit, Anne of Green Gables: A New Beginning, and on the Murdoch Mysteries playing Roger Newsome, and now that Roger is dead, his identical twin brother, Rupert.
Cyrus trained at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art. He is married to comedian, podcast, and television writer, Joanne O’Sullivan. They have an 11-year-old daughter, Eliza.
We conducted our conversation via Zoom. Thanks again for your time, Cyrus:
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.
(Cyrus laughs)…that’s like three massive questions you’ve asked…
Man, oh man, way to cut out the small talk, Joe…(he laughs again) I don’t want to give a glib answer because this is a big question…I think, for me, it’s just a hugely increased sense of precariousness and uncertainty. It’s been a period of great reflection and time to think and time to reconsider everything from relationships to politics to professional practice.
And now, in the spring of 2021, I wish I could say I had some calm, gathered insight but what I have is complete uncertainty about what the future will bring for my family and myself, specifically and especially for my kid. There’s a lot of fear, not just in me but in the majority of my colleagues I speak to. There’s a real sense of ‘What’s next?’
It’s not a hopeless feeling. There have been so many things in our profession, especially in the last year, that have been so meaningful and important. Most significantly, we’ve had time as a profession to question the racism and colonial roots of theatre in Canada, and the very nature and structure of power in our profession.
All of that is vital and exciting and important, but I wonder about the world those changes will be enacted in.
(Cyrus laughs again) That’s maybe a bit of a joyless answer but, to be honest, that’s kind of where I’m at now, where my wife is at and where many, many, many, many, many of my colleagues are at. It’s just a sense of ‘Geez, what are we gonna do?”
This pandemic will affect the kids in ways that I think are difficult to measure. I think of my daughter, Eliza. She’s in Grade 5 now. It can’t possibly be healthy for them to be sitting in front of a screen for eight hours a day. And who knows, kids are incredibly resilient, and I’ll know she’ll be back in her groups of friends soon for socializing, but it’s a habit forming thing, this time with a screen.
And kids today live with so much fear. Set aside they’re living through a pandemic, all the children my kid’s age are aware of the impending climate catastrophe which, at this point, is not if but when.
God, Joe, it appears all I’m saying is gloomy shit…it’s not a very encouraging time to be a parent and there’s not a lot of faith in our elected officials the majority of time that they will effect positive change that will last and be meaningful for their generation.
I’ve become much more politicized. I was protest oriented and political before all this stuff started. And this pandemic has only made me more so, on her behalf and people younger than me.
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 industry been altered and changed?
Well, you know within the shutdown there’s been a great questioning for our profession. As someone who represents the dominant culture, I’ve done a lot of questioning about my own role in how things are.
Professionally, I’ve questioned a lot about what my role is now, and what I ought to be thinking about and doing has all been questioned. There’s not a lot of intellectual or emotional stability to be found in terms of ‘This is what I like’ or ‘This is what I want to do’ or ‘Here’s what I’m going to aim for”. I don’t know any of that anymore.
And I don’t necessarily think that’s an unhealthy thing. It’s just a precarious thing. My main feeling is ‘Can I actually call this a profession?’ When I think ‘profession’, I think of something that sustains you and while my love for it is unabated, I really question how many people the theatre is going to be able to sustain when it comes back because a theatre can’t run off a 20% Covid spaced house.
I’m not without hope. I think a lot of the thinking and the re-considering and the attempt to change the way theatre is structured and administered will be hugely positive in the end. It will be.
Right now, mostly it’s a profound sense of how we’re going to move forward.
I’m working with Talk Is Three Theatre in Barrie, and (Artistic Director) Arkady Spivak has created this amazing thing called the “Artist BIG” Program. He is really trying to re-configure the relationship between artists and institutions in a way that I think is incredibly important and powerful, and smart. And so, a lot of theatre companies talk about having a company; that company model is really more corporate, meaning company or family is what’s invoked when someone is being disciplined, but most of the time there’s no real loyalty and no real sense of continuity or home or artistic ownership.
Whereas Arkady is bringing artists on and saying [he] will guarantee a certain amount of work for three years in a row and giving the artists enormous agency around what work they’ll be doing, and that’s extraordinary. The feeling of having an artistic home is an incredible thing which I hope eventually more theatres will seek to emulate. Arkady didn’t invent this idea. Obviously there have been resident artists in most companies at some point, as there is at Soulpepper, for example. But the idea of having a basic guaranteed income is really innovative in Canada.
As a professional artist, what are you missing the most about the live theatre industry?
I miss nothing about the ‘industry’ part of that sentence. I miss everything about the community. I miss my colleagues. I miss the thrill of risk and closeness and exploration and vulnerability and humour and love and fun, and just adrenaline and audiences and that awesome roller coaster kind of fear.
I miss all of it.
No one in this business ever misses the business part. (Cyrus grinned and offered a good hearty laugh)
Whatever complaints you might have about Canadian theatre, the community is just gorgeous. People are fantastic, and I feel tremendous love for my community here and for my friends and colleagues. (I could see then in Cyrus’s eyes and his voice began to quiver a bit that he truly meant what he said.)
I miss the work, the work of acting. You don’t realize how much you’re wired for something until it’s gone.
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?
Any of it.
The last show in Toronto I did was ‘Oil’. It was one of the last shows to close. I thought a lot back to how I felt doing that show. It was a great. I felt great love for the cast, the work, the production. Huge pride in it, but I was also hitting a wall of weariness with being precarious with the business side of things. A bit of a “meaning” wall – what does this mean, doing this? Who are we doing it for?
And it had nothing to do with the production. It was just where I was at professionally. There were younger people in the cast who were new to the business and so excited, and that made me aware that I had become a little jaded. Not about the work, but about the life that comes with it.
But now what I would not take for granted is ever doing it again. Because I don’t feel I’ll ever do it again in a regular way. Theatre will be something I do perhaps once or twice a year and that’ll be it.
Describe one element you hope has changed concerning live theatre.
Oh my God….This year has been a massive time for change and reflection. I mean, 2020 wasn’t the beginning of the conversation, but the BLM uprisings of 2020 and the time and space for reflection imposed by COVID on theatre forced us as a community to face the systemic racism built into our culture and our profession. I hope that the positive changes that happen in our theatre ecology as a result of that reflection extend into the power structures of our business and institutions and aren’t just gestural, performative, and superficial. That is my hope.
I am trying to figure out my own role in all that and figure out how my own voice will be useful in that conversation, if at all. I’m not sure.
Explain what specifically you believe you must still accomplish within the industry.
‘I don’t know’ is the answer to that question. If I did, I’d be a much less restless brain. I don’t know. I don’t know.
Honestly, the baseline answer is, “Make a fucking living.” That’s been the baseline for so long. That’s been the baseline for most actors. The idea of choice is available to maybe 5% of our business. Unless you’ve been hugely lucky in film and TV or your parents are rich or both, most of the time you’re just trying to survive.
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.
I think that is an unlikely prognostication.
From the beginning of this thing, there have been jokes about all of the Covid plays that are going to happen. But I think the better theatre artists will take this and run with it from a metaphorical standpoint rather than a literal one. Hopefully.
But because I need to survive, sign me up for your Covid plays, folks! But, I don’t even think that’s true. Everyone is so fucking bored with it. What playwright is going to say, ‘You know what I need more of in my life? You need what I need to dedicate two years of my life to? Writing about Covid.”
You know how long it takes to write a fucking play? It takes forever. And then after you finish it, nobody knows if it will be produced. Obviously, some playwrights know, but It’s a massive commitment.
If I were a real playwright, I wouldn’t suffer through two years of writing a Covid play because I want this out of my life. If you are sensible, you will avoid this theme and it’s pretty unlikely any theatre producer would pick or pay you or pay to mount that show unless it was MINDBLOWING!!!!
As an artist, what specifically is it about your work that you want future audiences to remember about you?
(Cyrus begins to laugh again) As a theatre artist, I have very little hope that my work will be remembered. I mean, it’s written on water, it’s written on air.
I guess if I were to hope for anything if people have seen me work, it’s that I didn’t make safe choices. I like risk, but again everybody thinks they’re doing something risky, but who fucking knows?
I don’t know, man. If anyone remembers me at all, even if it was a negative memory, that would feel like a win at this point.
I’m being facetious. My kid doesn’t know any of the actors I adored when I was a kid. So, it doesn’t even matter if you’re massively famous, you will be forgotten. Eventually. (And Cyrus laughs again)
I think that’s a really healthy way to think as an artist, especially in theatre when you know this is not made to last.
Theatre is for right now. And it should be.