Courtesy of Crow's Theatre
An anticipated nervous excitement might be the best way to describe the ten minutes before I had the golden opportunity to be in the virtual presence of actor Eric Peterson, a highly respected artist from CBC’s ‘Street Legal’, CTV’s ‘Corner Gas’ and many stage productions throughout Canada.
The butterflies in my stomach flew away as he genuinely put me at ease quickly through much laughter in the interview that I was annoyed when Zoom informed me I only had ten minutes left in the conversation. I still had many things to ask him about his career and his upcoming work in Chekhov’s ‘Uncle Vanya’ to be staged at Crow’s Theatre in September and directed by Artistic Director, Chris Abraham.
I’m always interested in where artists have received their theatre training. Eric’s facetious response:
“So, you start off with a totally embarrassing question… I’ve never been formally trained.”
And when you are as good as Eric Peterson, who the hell cares whether he was?
He had one year at the University of Saskatchewan in the drama class which he says got him hooked on “this terrible, terrible profession I’ve been involved in now for 55 years or something like that.” (and I’m in stitches of laughter this early in the interview) Eric also completed one year at UBC. One of the great things he says came from his year there were meeting so many people like John Gray, the late Brent Carver and Larry Lillo. Eric once again had me in laughter when he called all of them many years ago ‘emerging artists’ and now they are ‘submerging artists’ where he put himself at the top of the list.
Peterson had lived in England for a while. He was stage manager for a time and an assistant stage carpenter. Peterson has learned about acting through participation in plays which is a good way as far as he is concerned because artists get to work with all kinds of different people. There were some years when he felt embarrassed because he had no formal training from places like NTS or the University of Alberta, or Britain. But those days are behind him right now as he considers how fortunate he has been in his career and says, ‘it’s a little late now to be concerned about the training.”
Eric jokingly spoke about his Dorian Gray years (and they were terrific, by the way) on CBC’s ‘Street Legal’ where he looks back at it when he had so much hair and thinner. But I agree when he says why should we rail against the passage of time.
I also wanted to get Eric’s personal and professional perspective on where he sees the trajectory of the live Canadian performing arts headed over the next five years on account of the continuing Covid presence and its new variants. Eric recognizes how the theatres are leaving it up to the individual choices of the audience members to wear a mask or not which seems to be working in helping to keep Covid at bay as much as possible. All this plus the vaccines and the booster shots are doing what they are supposed to be doing. From what Eric knows, there will be a couple of performances where masks are mandatory at Crow’s so those who wish to attend may do so and feel safe. This seems to be the reality we will all have to live with for now.
Will Covid demolish live Canadian theatre?
That will never occur and live theatre will never leave us because Eric believes [it] is too dear to our hearts. Peterson recounted back at Crow’s in June when he performed in George F. Walker’s ‘Orphans for the Czar’ and the heavy enthusiasm of the audience for just being out of the house and being able to attend live theatre once again. Eric compared this feeling to being at a reunion.
He also shared he had just finished reading a book about Christopher Marlowe where the theatres in Britain were closed on account of the plague. In a sense, live theatre has dealt with pandemics and disease. It’s just part of the environment. We here in this country are just not used to doing it in this modern age where we think we’re a fraction away from immortality.
I never got a chance to see his work in ‘Orphans for the Czar’ as it was covered by a colleague. In true facetious response again, Eric told me how marvellous he was in it (and my colleague most certainly agreed), but I did get to see his five-minute appearance near the end of an astounding ‘Detroit’ at Coal Mine Theatre. Eric loved his time in this production. He compared himself to ‘The Ghost of Suburbs Past’. ‘Detroit’ was a surreal experience for him because as he states: “I was kind of in another play where I came on in the last four minutes. I was a character nobody heard about and I began talking about people nobody heard about.”
And now he’s in rehearsals of one of the great masterpieces of live theatre – Chekhov’s ‘Uncle Vanya.’ I asked him how rehearsals are going at this time:
“They’re fantastic, fantastic, and interesting, very, very interesting. We have got a decent rehearsal time, so the stress and deadline of the opening aren’t as present which is always good in rehearsals because people don’t feel that kind of stress and are more open, easier going and more relaxed. The more relaxed you are, the more creative you are and there isn’t that fear of how am I going to get through this.”
Eric then spoke glowingly of his cast and how superbly talented and gifted a leader Chris Abraham is as a director because he is so well prepared with a thoughtful mind and amazing energy. This is not meant in a formulaic manner, but Eric is appreciative of the creative atmosphere Chris engenders and encourages during rehearsals. It’s a wonderful scary challenge, but so enriching that Peterson feels he’s part and parcel of something important. Eric then joked how he hoped Chris doesn’t read this article so he doesn’t get a swelled head. (and again I’m in fits of laughter).
As a theatre artist who is Artistic Director, Eric believes Chris’s programming is an absolute connection to the world in which we now live. In one way or another, any slated play is not going to be a museum piece but will be something audiences can relate to in a personal way or civic way. In other words, what we see on Crow’s stages are aspects of the world in which we all live in, that we read about in newspapers. Eric and I then shared a good laugh because there are no such things as newspapers anymore so it’s what the young people see on their damned instruments.
What has also made Eric excited about rehearsals and eventual performances of ‘Uncle Vanya’? No matter how long ago they were written, classic works like ‘Uncle Vanya’ still encapsulate absolute accuracy about the human condition in one way or another. These plays speak as loudly now to audiences as they did to contemporary audiences when they were first written. It is up to the production and the company involved to exemplify what was intended. Eric told me the company had completed its first ‘run through’ (or as actors call it a ‘stumble through’), and for him, it’s both a terrifying and awesome experience.
Eric’s theory as to why ‘Uncle Vanya’ still speaks to twenty-first-century audiences? The two and a half years we’ve experienced the absence of theatre because of the pandemic have left us contemplating ourselves and how we are doing and whether should we be doing anything differently. Each of the characters in ‘Uncle Vanya’ is doing exactly that. Each asks: “Who am I?”, “I don’t like what’s going on, and I must change”, “I can change, and I should change.”
For Peterson, questions like these may and do sound serious on the one hand but these questions are also incredibly comic. It’s a kind of entertainment that isn’t about escaping the human condition. It’s a kind of entertainment that looks at the human condition where an audience member can say, “Yes, I can see me in that, or I can see other people in that.” And along with these questions and discoveries, it’s also the ‘What the hell is going on here?’
So, for Eric, ‘Uncle Vanya’ is funny, it’s sad; there’s violence in that with gunplay, unrequited love stories, all of this kind of human activity that we all know so well. With a play like ‘Uncle Vanya’, we witness it, and we can imaginatively participate in the lives of the characters on stage and do what theatre does.
Eric believes audiences must come out to see ‘Uncle Vanya’ because he guarantees they will be transformed by it. Audiences will arrive at the theatre in one frame of mind wondering how we are, and we will come out the other end highly entertained, delighted and possibly changed in attitude about who we are.
To conclude our conversation, I asked Eric what keeps him motivated in this industry with his 50-plus years of experience:
“Acting. We all question why we do it, and for me, I like to get up and show off in front of other people. I begin to wither unless I can grab the centre of attention. (and once again I’m in fits of laughter) I know that’s not a very honourable kind of motivation. Silence is my own sense of self-criticism and acting allows me to be someone else.”
Eric continued and I could sense his honest commentary:
“The economic and security rewards of the life of the artist can be problematic, but there is something incredibly valuable about people who enjoy together trying to make something interesting and beautiful and funny and entertaining, rather than making war on other people or doing this or that.
Artists bravely pretend. The arts serve a deep pleasure in humans regardless of how society may look at them. There have always been artists treasured by culture and society. That’s what joins us together through our imaginations in large groups, small groups, and individuals.
We do need people to help us stop life in the flow of life so that we can look at the life and then it can flow on again.”
Eric Peterson will appear in Chekhov’s ‘Uncle Vanya’ in a new adaptation by Liisa Repo-Martell and directed by Crow’s Artistic Director, Chris Abraham. The production runs from September 6 to October 2 in the Guloien Theatre at Crow’s Theatre, 345 Carlaw Avenue. For tickets and other information about the production or the new season, visit crowstheatre.com. To purchase tickets, please call (647) 341-7390 ex. 1010 or by email: firstname.lastname@example.org.