Performing artist George Masswohl has graced Canadian stages in highly charged performances over the years. I had the opportunity to see him play opposite Fiona Reid in a solid production of ‘Sweeney Todd’ at Canadian Stage. A little tidbit of information I also discovered. George sang the title role of ‘Sweeney Todd’ off stage for Vancouver Opera at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre when the actor playing the titular role developed vocal issues. Wow! I applaud George’s dedicated professionalism to ensure a quality production for the entire community.
Recently, until the pandemic was declared, George also appears in some little play in Toronto with packed houses called ‘Come from Away’ where he plays Claude, the mayor of Gander, plus other roles. By the way, the Toronto company is extraordinarily wonderful, so if you haven’t seen this production make sure you do when we can all return. I’ve had the opportunity to interview some of the Canadian and Broadway cast members for this column, and ‘Come from Away’ is one show I do want to see again.
George is also a member of The ROWDYMEN, a band dedicated to the preservation and the propagation of the vibrant music of the people of Newfoundland. Hopefully, the band will play somewhere in Toronto when it’s safe for all of us to return.
I also discovered from his Facebook page that George studied English Language and Literature at my alma mater, The University of Western Ontario (Go, Stangs!) Excellent choice, by the way.
We conducted our conversation via email. Thanks for the conversation, George:
It has been an exceptionally long eight months since the pandemic began, and now the numbers are edging upward again. How are you feeling about this? Will we ever emerge to some new way of living in your opinion?
If I’m being perfectly honest, I feel differently from moment to moment. As things drag out, and confusion reigns, despair and hope come in waves. But so far, I’ve always managed to come back to hope. I renew this effort every day. That is my current way of living. I’m keeping it in the moment.
How has your immediate family been doing during these last eight months?
It’s been tough on my family. My partner and stepson and I have all been shut down. She is a dancer and yoga teacher and he was working, variously, as an usher at the Royal Alexandra Theatre, at an escape room business, and at the Beer Store – which is a filthy job in an environment where most patrons seem to be non-compliant vis a vis Covid protocols, and management less than vigilant. Almost all of these have become impossible for me now.
Beyond our household, it’s even tougher. My sister struggles with the new difficulties in her already difficult work as a counsellor at a women’s shelter and with caring for our 90-year-old aunt, who lives with her. In addition to all of this, we are still in the aftermath of having lost our mother last year after a long and difficult series of illnesses. Having said all of this, we are remarkably upbeat and, as mentioned above, fiercely committed to coming back to hope, finding the joys where they can be found…and doing our damndest to incorporate fun into our days wherever we can.
As an artist within the performing arts community, what has been the most difficult and challenging for you professionally and personally?
The part of me that thinks it’s over…that 35 years of constant hustle has come to a dead end. Watching my colleagues, all at different phases in their journeys, going through similar angst. Trying to imagine, at age 53, what I’ll do for the rest of my life if that part of me, heaven forbid, is right.
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 was working on recovering from hip replacement surgery to return to my cherished community and the role that I love in the Canadian company of ‘Come From Away’.
What have you been doing to keep yourself busy during this time?
I have been working with my band, ‘The Rowdymen’ with Greg Hawco and Gerry Finn. It has been a saving grace for all of us. Not a money maker at this stage, but it has kept me creative, and for that and them, I am very grateful.
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?
I think it’s best for me to defer to their wisdom and ingenuity. The smart money in this business has always subscribed to the credo that the best way to ensure your employment is to create your own work. If they were to ask me for advice, I think I’d offer that up, and encourage them to do whatever they can to reimagine and rebuild the industry. I’d also pledge to continue to do the same – and pledge my support.
Do you see anything positive stemming from Covid 19?
Oh, well, there has to be something. Can I tell you in a year?
Do you think Covid 19 will have some lasting impact on the Toronto/Canadian/North American performing arts scene?
You better believe it. Many theatres, like many other small businesses, have shuttered forever. Our associations are tapped out and struggling to maintain relevance in a desert landscape. Funding is stretched beyond previously imaginable limits. Our artists are suffering immeasurable psychological stresses. On top of it all – and not surprisingly as it has ever been thus – much of the rest of society seems blind to the connection between the content they voraciously consume and the value of the artists who create it.
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?
I’ve been involved in quite a bit of it, mostly as fundraising for various entities struggling to survive. I’m not sold on it as a vehicle for theatre. We need communal experience…book clubs, concerts, poker games, choir, sports, church, THEATRE. Having said that, I’ll be involved in a live stream on Boxing Day. Stay tuned. 😉
Despite all this fraught tension and confusion, what is it about the art of performance that Covid will never destroy for you?
My creative spirit. The fire of creativity in me is burning hotter than it ever has. I went through a bunch of years where, for various reasons, I didn’t care about anything. I was telling everyone I was retired – and they were starting to believe me. But even through that, I was, somehow, able to preserve an ember to carry forward. I never really know quite how, but I know that I have an undeniable drive to survive. My creativity is at the centre of that flame.
To learn more about The Rowdymen, visit their Facebook page: The Rowdymen,
Twitter: @TRowdymen Instagram: @The_Rowdymen