In the early stages of the pandemic in 2020, my discussions with most Canadian, American, and European artists led me to understand just how their professional lives have become forever changed and dramatically altered. In all honesty, I’m still wondering how this pivot back to the indoor live theatre will look for them and their colleagues as necessary worldwide social movements have spotlighted the need for change.
I first came across Dylan Trowbridge’s name in the early stages of GhostLight. All of the co-founders of GhostLight wanted to create a space to keep the theatre community active, inspired and connected while the industry was shut down. During the last few days, theatre news from Broadway indicates the theatres in Manhattan will be open this fall.
Still no word about the indoor Toronto and Ontario theatres. Yes, there are pockets of outdoor theatre and I for one am pleased to hear this news, yet still Canadians wait when we can all return indoors.
You’ll see from Dylan’s responses he has tried his best to remain positive and to keep moving forward.
From the University of Toronto website: “[he] is a Toronto-based actor, director and teacher who began his career at the Shaw Festival where he played the title role in Christopher Newton’s production of Peter Pan. Other Shaw Festival credits include leading roles in The Lord of the Flies, The Matchmaker, Widowers' Houses, The Coronation Voyage and Rutherford and Son. Dylan made his West End debut in 2009, playing Neil Kellerman in Dirty Dancing at London’s Aldwych Theatre.
He also spent two seasons at the Stratford Festival, appearing in Mary Stuart, Measure for Measure, Titus Andronicus and The Grapes of Wrath.
Additional theatre credits include: Tribes, Julius Caesar (Canadian Stage), Taking Care of Baby (Critics Pick Award for Best Supporting Actor), the English language premier of Wajdi Mouawad’s Tideline (Factory Theatre) and Tiny Dynamite (Theatre Smash).
Dylan is a founding member of Theatrefront, with whom he co-wrote and performed in Return (The Sarajevo Project), earning a Dora nomination for best new play. Film and television credits include The Handmaid’s Tale, Anne with an E, V Wars, Impulse, American Hangman, Dark Matter, Private Eyes, Alias Grace, Orphan Black, Bomb Girls and Hemlock Grove.
As a director, Dylan’s productions of The Harrowing of Brimstone McReedy and Space Opera Zero! for Toronto’s Eldritch Theatre have earned multiple Dora nominations, and one win. Other recent directing credits include Herringbone and The Yalta Game (Talk is Free Theatre) and Every Brilliant Thing starring Gavin Crawford (Festival Players).
Dylan is the Artistic Associate of Theatrefront, the Associate Artistic Director of The Festival Players of Prince Edward County and the Co-Founder/Co-Creative director of GhostLight, Canada’s online platform for mentorship in the theatre (ghostlight.ca).”
We conducted our conversation via email as Dylan is an extremely busy family man. Thank you for taking the time to add to the conversation, Dylan:
The doors to Toronto indoor live theatre have been shut for over a year now with no possible date of re-opening soon. How have you and your immediate family been faring during this time?
Thanks for asking this, Joe.
While this has been a profoundly challenging time, I have tried my best to seek silver linings where I can. I’ve got two amazing kids, and I have spent a lot more time with them over the last year than I would otherwise have been able.
When everything shut down last March, I took the opportunity to teach my youngest son how to read. We had a great time with it, and we never would have been able to do that under normal circumstances. We established some fun family traditions during the pandemic: Thursday night campouts in the living room (or on the balcony in the summer). Takeout and old episodes of ‘Survivor’ on Friday nights. Because there are four of us and a dog packed into a condo, I have been fortunate to avoid the massive challenges of isolation that so many people have had to deal with over the last year. We’ve tried to make it fun however we could.
About indoor live theatre shut for over a year, there is a void for sure. More than anything I have missed the social interactions, the ridiculous jokes and meeting new people. I miss the event of theatre. The anticipation when the lights go dark. The thrill of audience and artists sharing a space.
How have you been spending your time since the theatre industry has been locked up tight as a drum?
I’ve tried to keep busy!
A few days before all the theatres shut down, Graham Abbey and I had opened a production of ‘The Winter’s Tale’ at U of T. We’d had such an inspiring experience working with these students, and we were discussing the possibility of creating more training and mentorship opportunities in the near future.
Then when March 13th hit, and, like everyone else, all our immediate theatre plans evaporated. Graham called me and we began a conversation about building an online platform for theatrical mentorship. We wanted to create a space that would keep the theatre community active, inspired, and connected while the industry was shut down.
Through that conversation we laid the groundwork for what would become GhostLight (www.ghostlight.ca) Alongside co-founders Stephen Barnard, E.B Smith and Adrianna Prosser, we spent the next several weeks developing this platform, recruiting mentors and creating our launch event Friday Night at the GhostLight (featuring Margaret Atwood, Adrienne Clarkson, Torquil Campbell, Colin Mochrie).
In May we launched our first series of free classes lead by some of the great theatre artists in this country, and we continued to do so throughout 2020—offering 19 classes to over 300 students.
Then, in September, Graham and I returned to U of T to teach Advanced Performance: Mainstage Drama. In that class we created two digital theatre pieces: an adaptation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Rosamund Small’s play ‘Tomorrow Love’. It was a great opportunity to explore the possibilities that exist when creating theatre online.
I also shot a couple of Film and TV projects: ‘Marry Me this Christmas’ for the Bounce Network and ‘Titans’ for HBO Max. In April I directed a new play workshop for Alberta Theatre Projects (a company I have long admired), and a “First Day Read” for Talk is Free Theatre.
I also work with Festival Players of Prince Edward County (https://www.festivalplayers.ca ) as associate AD. We are busy planning an exciting season of outdoor theatre, music, dance and comedy for July and August.
The late Hal Prince described theatre as an escape for him. Has covid been an escape for me or would you describe this year long absence from theatre as something else?
I think he must have meant that theatre is a great escape from ordinary life, and that I can understand and relate to. Theatre allows us to live in wonder and to transcend the ordinary
This year-long absence from theatre has not been an escape for me though. It definitely has caused me to reflect and re-evaluate my life and my work in a healthy way. As actors and theatre artists, so much of our identity is wrapped up in our creative lives.
This year forced me to cultivate an identity outside of those parameters. I have learned that while I love being an actor, I don’t need to base my sense of worth upon it. It’s also taught me to keep an open mind about what theatre is, and what it can be.
The popular opinion (and I totally understand it) is that theatre is defined by live assembly in a physical space shared by actors and audience. But this year has taught me to challenge that.
We are storytellers. When the traditional parameters of our story telling are taken away from us, how do we adapt? I have been profoundly moved by digital theatre. I have been wowed by digital visuals in online plays. I have laughed heartily. I have witnessed beautiful, genuine connection between actors over Zoom. I have witnessed student actors deepen their understanding of the craft in an online classroom.
So, while it hasn’t been an escape, it has been enlightening, transformative and satisfying.
I’ve interviewed a few artists several months ago who said that the theatre industry will probably be shut down and not go full head on until at least 2022. There may be pockets of outdoor theatre where safety protocols are in place. What are your comments about this? Do you think you and your colleagues/fellow artists will not return until 2022?
My understanding of this virus and the various vaccines is limited, so anything I say here is complete speculation. My instinct is that it will be at least a year before people are attending theatre in a way that resembles to what we are used to and accustomed.
Once we get everyone vaccinated, it will take some time for audiences to gain the confidence to gather in large groups again. My hope is, in the meantime, theatre-makers will be inspired to get creative with their approach to alternative strategies.
I started my career doing outdoor theatre in Montreal. There is a magic to it when it’s done well. And it can attract non-traditional audiences.
I think we will also see companies getting innovative with hybrid models of theatre: a live performance in a real theatre with a tiny audience and live streamed to a greater audience in their homes. I’m curious about how this challenge can create new models of theatre. The advent of Zoom theatre has opened up performance possibilities that transcend geography.
While I don’t expect we will return to ‘normal’ in 2021, I am confident that this obstacle will lead to innovative approaches that could transform the way we create and attend theatre. I think theatre historians will look back on 2020-2021 and expound on on its vital transitional moment in the way we create theatre.
The most important thing in all this? All levels of government must prioritize supporting arts organizations. As things stand, there is no scenario that will allow us to generate the ticket revenue sufficient to meet our costs. If we want a thriving performing arts sector on the other side of this pandemic, it is vital that we keep companies afloat.
How has Covid transformed you in your understanding of the theatre and where it is headed in a post Covid world?
What our industry has endured over the last 14 months will forever change the way we create theatre, and the way audiences experience it.
The most important moment we have experienced as a result of Covid is the reckoning that took place, and continues to take place, at arts institutions across this country. The closure of theatres created an opportunity for theatre artists to shine a spotlight on the systemic inequity and racism that has been taking place in our theatres and cultural institutions.
I believe that a positive, permanent transformation has begun to take place. I anticipate that we will continue to see healthy, innovative leadership models evolve because of this, and that will affect everything from programming, to process, to casting and hiring practices.
With regards to how we will create theatre in a post-pandemic world, my hope is theatre artists will be inspired to devise work that celebrates what makes the medium unique: liveness, gathering, collaboration and imagination. Great theatre can be like a party or a concert. It should be an event.
Unpredictable. Dangerous. Exhilarating.
I expect that there will be a greater urgency to the work we do and a hunger in the audiences that experience it.
Have you felt danger during this time of Covid and do you believe it will influence your work?
In 2006 I created a play with actors from Bosnia called ‘Return: The Sarajevo Project’. These artists grew up during the war in Bosnia and experienced legitimate, tangible threats to their lives every single day for several years; it affected everything. Their work was raw, spontaneous, and unpredictable and I learned a great deal from being on stage with them.
I have not experienced that kind of sustained and palpable danger.
Covid has been frustrating, stressful, and inconvenient. It has posed a threat to my livelihood and my ability to pursue my dreams. But it would be inauthentic to suggest that I have a deeper understanding of danger that I will bring to my work as a result of this.
The word I keep coming back to is “urgency.” I will create theatre with more urgency when this is over. I’ll make up for lost time. I’ll relish the opportunities to collaborate with great artists in a shared space in front of an audience.
I’ll enjoy it more. I’ll play more. And I won’t take one second of it for granted.
Has this time of Covid made you sensitive to our world and has it made an impact on your life in such a way that you will bring it back to the theatre?
In 2019 I suffered a serious concussion while rehearsing a play. I was unable to act on stage for the entire year.
Then I lost a very close friend to a tragic accident.
And then Covid hit.
These three events permanently altered the way I see the world. Life and health feel much more fragile now. Everything we experience is raw material for the work we do. I hope and expect that these challenging events will have a positive impact on my work as an actor and director.
Once again, the late Hal Prince spoke of the fact that theatre should trigger curiosity in the actor/artist and the audience. Has Covid sparked any curiosity in you about something during this time? Has this time away from the theatre sparked further curiosity for you when you return to this art form?
Covid has intensified my desire to do three things that I have been unable to do: traveling, creating theatre and socializing.
I want to meet new people and see new places. I think that our work requires us to feed our imaginations by seeking out a multitude of perspectives and pursuing new experiences.
That’s what I plan to do as soon as I am able to do so.
Follow Dylan on Instagram: @dylantrowbridgeyyz