Frances Loiselle and Michael Williamson
As this Pandemic Profile series winds down, I thought it was important to check in with emerging theatre artists at the beginning of their careers and to see how they’ve been faring during these last sixteen months. Many of the seasoned artists to whom I’ve spoken are concerned and hopeful that the emerging artists have not been deterred or discouraged.
Frances Loiselle and Michael Williamson have not been swayed at all as you will see from their responses below. If anything, both have faced the results of the pandemic head on with the knowledge that their careers may appear different looking ahead, but they will move forward and continue in a career which they still admire and appreciate.
Loiselle and Williamson are both graduates of Toronto’s George Brown Theatre School. They have appeared in a variety of summer productions with Port Perry Ontario’s ‘Theatre on the Ridge’ with their most recent as Tinkerbell and Peter Pan in 2018. This summer, they will perform in a touring production of C. S. Lewis’s ‘The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe’ around the Durham and Scugog Regions on your driveway, your front lawn or even on your street. I’ll include the link at the end of the profile.
The three of us conducted our conversation via email:
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.
FL: The pandemic was a good shattering of the illusion that anything about your life is remotely under your control. You can’t control anything; you can’t plan for anything. Things just happen to you, you accept, you change, and you continue.
Covid, or more precisely folks responding to it, hit home with the reminder that we do not all experience this life, and this world, in the same way. There are some deep, deep injustices and inequalities constructed into the fabric of our society, by white supremacy, capitalism, and colonialism, many of which by virtue of my privilege I could comfortably remain ignorant to. Many of them benefit me, as a white woman, and endanger and oppress others. They also steal a better, more just world away from all of us.
The pandemic, as well as the enforced isolation and loss of employment, and most importantly the labour undertaken by many BIPOC activists, educators, authors, journalists, and peers in writing pieces, creating art and sharing knowledge, forced I think many of us to stop looking away and take some responsibility. The pandemic shook up the foundations of what I took as regular, every day, unchangeable life, and it made more possible the questioning of this state, these institutions, myself and my attitudes. I’m still very much learning.
MW: I suppose for myself, the pandemic has shed a lot of light on my mental health. I think I have lived with a lot of things that I had been ignoring for most of my life, but the pandemic has aggravated those things enough that I think I am now starting to acknowledge them and work through them. So, the pandemic has definitely made parts of my life a lot more difficult but it is also giving me opportunities to face some of those things that I might have ignored for years to come.
In regard to “the world I know” I think a lot of people are starting to become more aware of a world bigger than just themselves or the people they are in contact with. Through that, I think people are taking this opportunity to become much more active and really define themselves in what they stand for and what they can actually be doing to make the change they want to see in the world.
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?
FL: I feel a little like a fraud, answering a question as a professional artist of the live theatre industry, because most of my time, and especially during this pandemic, I haven’t really gotten to be that. Just starting out, work as a professional artist can be few and far between.
I think it has been an interesting time of all of us collectively getting to question, what is live theatre? My romantic notion of it is up on a stage, or at least in some in-person space, with an audience present. But I’ve seen some fantastic shows (and been a part of one!) that were definitely not film, not television, that were live, not exactly theatre, but this whole new entity.
Initially, I wanted to entirely dismiss “zoom” theatre. I found it depressing, a pale imitation of reality, it didn’t offer to me anything I loved from in-person theatre. But I’ve changed my attitude on that because some great artists have made some cool stuff.
MW: I think reinforced is a better word for me. I feel like through this shutdown of most live theatre it has only solidified my stance on the essentialness that is live theatre for society as a whole.
Live theatre is a wonderful place to share and experience; be inside a room with many others as you all witness something going on in front of you. Whether that experience is funny, frightening, or riveting, you all are allowed to go through something in the same room while still being kept safe.
As a professional artist, what are you missing the most about the live theatre industry?
FL: I miss being live, in theatres. Being around other bodies. Strangers gathered to witness a performance. Seeing real human people in front of me speaking, feeling, listening, sweating, and breathing, and breathing with them. Feeling the collective audience response around me, and not merely my own. The sense of, for a brief span of time, forming a small community, together. Being alone, in my bedroom, watching a screen, sometimes just feels lonely.
MW: Working in a room with your whole team. There is no substitute. And while zoom and other mediums people have been using to work through are nice and provide a variety of comforts for everyone involved, nothing compares to the joy, unity, and cohesive strength that can come from working with your team face to face.
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?
FL: The little in-between moments. The camaraderie you build with your collaborators when you sit down to eat lunch together, or warming up before rehearsal, or getting dressed before a show. The new relationships you get to build, the cool and interesting new people you get to meet. When you have to sit alone on your living room to warm up before your zoom show or wear a mask and move six feet apart as soon as you break for lunch, it’s difficult to make and enjoy those connections.
MW: Probably the rehearsal room/stage. It provides such a wonderful freedom and atmosphere for everyone to create; to leave behind whatever else is going on that day, whereas when you are rehearsing at home everything serves as a constant reminder about your “non acting life”.
Describe one element you hope has changed concerning the live theatre industry.
FL: I’m hoping that there is a move away from the “you have to work yourself to the bone” attitude towards making theatre. To be honest, I was mostly trained and brought up in that attitude, and I was really devoted to it for a long time. You are taught that you have to work incredibly long hours, shirk all other responsibilities in your life, and experience incredible mental, physical, emotional strain to create good theatre. It was both an expectation and a behaviour that was rewarded. And I took pride in being tough enough to survive it, and it meant I had a very toxic attitude towards expecting others to do the same.
But I’m coming across more conversations, now, and people speaking up, especially many artists who are often marginalized by these attitudes-
Black and Indigenous artists, artists with disabilities, artists with young children- about how it doesn’t have to be this way. I’m trying to reconsider that assumption.
First, it’s an extreme privilege to be remotely able to make theatre in that way. It assumes you don’t have loved ones to take care of, mental or physical health issues or differences of ability to accommodate, that you aren’t experiencing an additional, invisible burden of dealing with white supremacy inside and outside the rehearsal hall. “Working yourself to the bone” for theatre, for any art, really is just not an option for the majority of people, students, artists, arts workers. And it shuts them out.
Second, it’s really not an option for anyone. It just burns you out and makes you want to quit. It makes you need to take time away to recover, if you’re lucky enough to be able to. Why am I having to recover from making art?
I think the pandemic has been a part of it, of mine and other folk’s reconsideration around their devotion to “working to the bone.” There’s more conversations, now, about how people are doing, how long they can handle rehearsing on zoom. Maybe many institutions are doing it superficially? I hope not. It feels like a shift.
I certainly hadn’t stopped to consider it until the pandemic. But I obviously want to acknowledge I didn’t suddenly come to realize this; a lot of artists have been speaking about this for a long time. I actually recently read Yolanda Bonnell speaking on this subject in another ‘Self-Isolated Artist’ interview for OnStage Blog.
MW: Hopefully, demand for it!
Explain what specifically you believe you must still accomplish within the industry.
FL: Um… everything? Quite a bit?
I don’t feel like I’ve accomplished very much, yet. I’m not sure yet what I want to accomplish, what path I might take. I think my next step, for me, is finding more of a voice as an artist. My training and experience have been more as a facilitator of others’ voices. That is your work, as an actor. You are a collaborator, you contribute, and you help shape the piece, but (for me anyway) I don’t really feel I am a creator. I assist in the creation process.
But I would like to also be an artist, with a voice, with something to share, and I just don’t really know what it is yet. I struggle with feeling I have anything of importance to share, really. I feel comfortable as an interpreter, and I want to develop my own voice. To do some of my own work.
MW: Well there’s a lot of things here. I’m still very much starting out, so I have a pretty hefty bucket list but if I had to pick something I would say getting the opportunity to act alongside some of the actors I grew up loving in some mainstage show.
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.
FL: We make art in response to life, to our lived experiences, our perceptions of this world. We make art to comment on, explore, reflect, celebrate, criticize, question, transform what we observe. So of course, with COVID having affected so many of us, in such different ways, all around the world, artists will want to respond.
I think, or at least I hope, this doesn’t mean a very homogenous, repetitive slew of theatre pieces talking about the exact same experience of the pandemic, from the same perspective, with the same ideas, over and over.
The pandemic has been many things. The pandemic has been about isolation and loneliness, about maintaining connection, and accepting solitude. It has been about the staggering inequalities and injustices in our society being laid so bare, becoming such a matter of life and death. It has been about loss. It has been a dystopian sci fi weirdness of masks and social distancing and mass vaccination clinics. We could make a lot of varied, interesting theatre out of all this. Especially if a huge diversity of perspectives and voices are given the money and support to do so, and not just a handful of old white guys who spent the pandemic safe in their living room trying to figure out how to share their screen on Zoom.
MW: I don’t think it’s that difficult to piece together really. The Covid Pandemic has universally affected the whole world for over a year. I think whenever something like that happens a ton of art is created around that experience (any large war, the aids crisis to name a few). So much of art is based around sharing an experience with one another and Covid might be one of the biggest shared experiences we have had recently.
As an artist, what specifically is it about your work that you want future audiences to remember about you?
FL: No idea!
I still deeply identify with the label of “emerging artist.” I feel sometimes like I look at fellow “emerging artists,” my peers, and they seem to already be developing a strong vision, a confident voice, good relationships, be blossoming into lovely and interesting butterflies of artists.
And I am still contorted in a safe gooey cocoon, existing as a half-formed mush of vague ideas and self-doubt. So my work, my artistic voice, still feels a little unknown.
I guess, if it’s about the work I’ve done so far. I’d like to be remembered for my honesty. I’m still working on being honest with myself, with others, in my life. In my work, I always want to be honest.
MW: I think it would be an honour to just be remembered outside my own circle of friends and family for my work. I think though for me, it's less about being remembered for my work and more being remembered for being someone people wanted to work with.
To learn more about Theatre on the Ridge’s productions this summer and the touring production of ‘The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe’, please visit www.theatreontheridge.ca.You can also visit their Facebook Page: Theatre on the Ridge; Twitter: @TheatreOTRidge;