Glenn Sumi

Looking Ahead

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Joe Szekeres

I’ve read many of Glenn Sumi’s articles in Toronto’s NOW Magazine over the years. At the conclusion of his profile, he speaks about being balanced and fair in his commentaries on live theatre and film. Whether we are critics, reviewers, columnists or simply theatre and film goers, let us hope as we emerge from this Covid world in which we now find ourselves that we can also be ‘balanced and fair’ in how we view any work of art.

Glenn is the Associate Entertainment Editor at NOW Magazine, where he’s written about film, theatre and comedy since the late 1990s. A member of the Toronto Film Critics Association and the Toronto Theatre Critics Association, he’s written about and discussed the arts for a variety of outlets, and for three years was a weekly pop culture commentator on CTV News Weekend. He misses live theatre and seeing movies in actual theatres. Being part of the recent Canadian Screen Awards feature jury – done on Zoom – was the most fun he’s had in 13 months.

We conducted our conversation via email. Thank you so much for adding your voice to the discussion, Glenn:

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.

Wow, what a place to begin. Bare minimum, this crisis has made me think about the enormous social and economic gaps in society. Most office workers have been able to work remotely from home, but that’s impossible if you’re a supermarket clerk or factory worker or security guard. It’s cracked open how badly run many of our institutions are. Did any of us know how long-term care homes were run until last year?

Did we ever think that we’d get more useful and practical vaccine information from a pop-up Twitter account called Vaccine Hunters (@VaxHuntersCan) than from our government? Seeing anti-mask and “freedom” demonstrators has been utterly demoralizing and has made me think a lot about personal vs. collective freedom. Seeing how places like Taiwan, Australia and New Zealand have handled the virus – strict lockdowns (including limitation on how far you can travel), contact tracing, quarantining – has shown it’s possible to return to some normalcy if you follow the science and work together.

On a personal level, I didn’t realize how important even casual day-to-day interactions were before this: working in an office, sitting in a café, sharing small talk. Your world is so much richer and more interesting when you’re exposed to other people and ideas on a regular basis. I live alone, and I haven’t hugged anyone in 14 months. I was never a big partygoer, but I miss being in small groups eating, drinking, and laughing, meeting friends of friends, that sort of thing. I miss big family gatherings, catching up with people in person and not via social media or email.

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 of the live theatre industry been altered and changed?

I guess I instinctively knew it before, but only after the pandemic did I fully grasp how many people are actually involved in the theatre industry: everyone from the box office clerks and ushers to the photographer who does the season brochure to the restaurant workers near the theatre. I’ve also been thinking about the economic realities of theatres – things like the minimum audience capacity needed in a theatre to break even. And it’s made me think about something that’s been troubling me for the 20+ years I’ve been writing about theatre regularly and interviewing its artists: how so many people in the industry come from privileged backgrounds and have families to fall back on in tough times.

On a more positive note, some of Toronto’s more creative companies have found ways to keep the theatrical spirit alive, via phone plays, audio dramas and other creative substitutes.

What are you missing the most about the live theatre industry?

Live theatre? I miss everything. The artistry, of course. The energy communicated between the performers onstage and the audience. The 3D-ness of it all – watching a filmed play on a screen doesn’t come close to being at the play. (I was wondering why, in the single time I visited the Art Gallery of Ontario last summer, I was so drawn to the sculptures, and I think it was because I was so tired of looking at flat surfaces.) I even miss annoying things, like the crush at the box office and intermission refreshment stands, the fidgeting and talking. The live theatre industry? Harder to say. The excitement around opening nights, I suppose. Seasons that don’t have the word “virtual” in them.

What is the one thing you will never take for granted again in the live theatre industry when you return to it?
The importance of a group of people sitting together in the dark experiencing something together.

Describe one element you hope has changed concerning the live theatre industry.

I hope last summer’s Black Lives Matter protests and the recent anti-Asian racism incidents have made the industry seriously question who runs theatres, who sits on theatres’ boards of directors, and how that affects the art form.

Explain what specifically you believe you must still accomplish within the industry.

Encourage and support more talented BIPOC writers to consider arts journalism and criticism.

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 as an audience member observing the theatre?

It’s inevitable. I’ve already seen lots of COVID-related material on social media and in comedy – both sketch and stand-up. You have to address the elephant in the room. And some TV shows that have taped seasons after the pandemic began decided to set their show during the pandemic, showing proper health protocols, etc. I’m very curious to see how theatre artists respond. Back in December, the satiric Beaverton already predicted how painful this trend might be, with the headline: “Health Canada Warns of Inevitable Spring Wave of Terrible COVID-inspired Fringe play.”

As with all things, it takes time for the full effect of an event to inspire original and lasting art. I think at first, audiences may be so exhausted and fatigued by the real thing that they may want to experience escapism.

Personally, I’m looking forward to plays that don’t rely on traditional narrative. Like millions of others, I’ve watched a lot of film and TV over the past 14 months, and I want to engage with theatre that’s less story-based and more abstract and metaphor-based, stuff that doesn’t necessarily work well on Netflix.

What specifically is it about your work that you want future readers to remember about you?
People don’t have to agree with what I write, but I hope they feel I’ve been balanced and fair.

To connect with Glenn Sumi on social media: Twitter: @glennsumi Instagram: @goaheadsumi

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