I’ve seen Gregory Prest’s fine work on stage at Toronto’s Distillery District Young Centre for the Performing Arts for Soulpepper - two which come to my mind were the extraordinary ‘Of Human Bondage’ and a quizzically intriguing: ‘Little Menace: Pinter Plays’.
Gregory grew up in Pictou, Nova Scotia. He completed his undergrad at Acadia University, then attended the National Theatre School (graduated in 2004). He started the Soulpepper Academy in 2009 (he was in the second cohort) and has worked primarily there since then and up to the present teaching, acting, directing, and creating.
We chatted via email. Thank you for participating, Gregory, and I look forward to chatting with you in person very soon when it is safe to do so:
It has been an exceptionally long five months since we’ve all been in isolation, and now it appears we are slowly emerging to some new way of living. How have you been faring? How has your immediate family been doing during this time?
All things considered, I’ve been doing just fine. My family is healthy and safe. My uncle passed in April back home in Nova Scotia and that was very difficult – not being able to gather, share grief, do all the things we do to help family in the difficult moments. There are ups and downs of course; fear, uncertainty, comfort, curiosity. It is impossible for me to separate this isolation experience from the major conversations that have been and are happening in our communities large and small. This is not a small-time even though so many day-to-day activities have shrunk to what feels like a very small life.
As a performer, what has been the most difficult and challenging for you professionally and personally?
Professionally I think one of the most difficult challenges has been trying to eradicate “meaning” and the need to find it during the heavier more uncertain times, specifically around work, cancelled work, and the uncertainty of future work. But that’s what we do for a living – find meaning – in a moment, a line, a relationship, an exchange, a silence, an exit, an imagined past, a feared failed future – I’m hard-wired that way. I’ve been attempting to sidestep this potential existential crisis by reframing the question of “what does this mean?” to “what’s the opportunity here?” My success rate is questionable. There’s some radical acceptance involved.
Personally, I really miss my family. Even though we have figured out ways to communicate differently and share in experiences together, I miss them, wish I could be with them and be of more use to them. In some ways, we have been forced to grow more intimate and vulnerable with our words but I’d give anything to be back home playing cards around the dining room table and laughing. Years ago, my mother made a gathered green velvet table cover that sits permanently under the tablecloth, like a casino. The cards are an arm’s length away in the buffet drawer where I imagine serving spoons are supposed to go and the rum is in the cupboard below that. After dinner, we clear the dishes to the counter, off comes the table cloth and we play cards for hours.
It will happen.
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?
Yes, I was just about to start rehearsals for Roland Schimmelpfennig’s Winter Solstice which was/is a co-pro between Soulpepper and Necessary Angel, and then in June I was scheduled to do a week long workshop of a play I am writing which needs a new title but at present is called Bremerhaven. In an alternative universe right now, I would be a little over a month into rehearsals for Harry Potter and the Cursed Child playing Ron Weasley.
I also help run the Soulpepper Training Room and we had a very exciting series of classes and workshops planned throughout the summer and into the fall that we had to postpone. We were able to pivot some of the Training Room activity online to a series of masterclasses/conversations with Daniel Brooks, Philip Akin, Nina Lee Aquino, Esie Mensah, and Weyni Mengesha airing throughout the summer. We’re trying to figure out how best to rethink this specific phase of development for Bremerhaven, and as for Winter Solstice and Cursed Child, I am waiting for further instruction.
What have you been doing to keep yourself busy during this time?
There was a long stretch in the summer where Paolo, my partner, would be in the living room crunching and planking along to an online Barry’s Bootcamp (sometimes twice a day) and I’d be sitting in bed drinking my 6th cup of coffee, staring out the window, reliving a long list of embarrassing snafus and faux pas, whittling new holes in my belt, and wondering if I should be taking myself a bit more seriously.
I’ve been doing lots of walking, writing, reading, connecting with old friends, exploring different Toronto neighborhoods and biking paths, thinking, and spending time investigating particular areas of interest (also known as “hobbies”). Sarah Wilson, Mike Ross, and I are writing a new musical so I’ve spent lots of time putting off that. There are a couple of other Soulpepper development projects on the go that are keeping me engaged and creative.
One of my favorite things in early isolation was walking through different neighborhoods every couple of days to check on the status of the magnolia trees.
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 given the fact live theaters and studios might be closed for 1 ½ - 2 years?
I don’t think I’d feel comfortable giving advice to fellow performers and colleagues (everyone’s situation is different) but I guess I can share what I wish someone would tell me: keep your sense of humor, allow yourself to be in the moment, do all the work you need to be doing, engage in the difficult conversations and the difficult thinking, and also cultivate and insist on softness.
To recent theatre school graduates, I would say hang on and hold on. We need you. We need your brains and your hearts and your talent and your ambition. We’ll be together in a theatre again. Also, this is a great time to meet people in other ways – reach out to members of the community, people you may look up to, ask questions, build relationships. I can’t imagine what it might feel like to take that big step from school in a moment like this. Shift any dread around “what does this mean?” to “what’s the opportunity here?” I’m trying to do it. Let’s do it together!
Do you see anything positive stemming from COVID 19?
This is an incredible opportunity to look at how we do things in the theatre and hold them to the light to see if we’re interested in doing them the same way again in the future. Positivity for me would include more patience in some areas, less patience in others, more kindness, more support, and more understanding of the precarity of what we do in the systems that we have been doing them.
Personally, I know I have taken many things for granted both in work and in life. I tried not to, but I did.
Never before has it been so clear to me that the cultural institutions in this city and across the country are not “givens”. Was it naïve of me to think they were? Perhaps. But we all come to the theatre community in our own way and when I arrived here in my twenties with nothing in my bank account and a terrifying student loan, I wasn’t concerned with the vulnerability of the Tarragon Theatre as a business. Now I see, if I believe in what they’re doing/what they want to do if I want there to be a hub like Tarragon for Canadian playwrights if I ever want to work there again, or my friends and colleagues to work there again, if I want that institution to continue, it is my responsibility to support that theatre, see their shows whether I can afford a full price or a pay-what-you-can ticket, explore their online offerings, and invest into the eco-system of Toronto theatre.
Of course, I participate this way, but I know I need to do this with more understanding and commitment. I know it can be hard and it doesn’t always pay you back, but it is essential. I use Tarragon as an example, but it goes for any company. Early in my career, I thought of these places as rock steady institutions of power that either hired me or not. This experience has asked me to see them differently and I think of that as a positive.
Side note shout out: Love, support, and admiration to the leaders of our theatres and other cultural institutions, big and small, who are shouldering difficult decisions daily and working to plan, program, forecast, and budget in this uncertainty.
Do you think COVID 19 will have some lasting impact on the Canadian/North American performing arts scene?
I am very curious about this. I don’t know. I can’t imagine it won’t. I do hope that when more of us are back, when decisions are being made, and rooms are filling up again, that we can somehow maintain and work with a sense of abundance. I would love to not create in fear and uncertainty – even some delusional abundance could work. I understand resources may be limited, but creatively, let’s be big and messy and give it all away.
Some artists have turned to YouTube 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?
If you want to and can, do it. It’s a time that is inviting us to think about what we do in different ways. I have some personal reservations but I’m a difficult person.
Despite all this fraught tension and confusion, what is it about performing that COVID will never destroy for you?
Wow. This is a big question. I hope/trust that I will never be tired of watching, playing in, and exploring relationship. It’s what I love – watching relationship and how it changes (or doesn’t). All you need are at least three people: two people in relationship to each other open and vulnerable enough to being seen by the third. I guess you don’t have to be open and vulnerable - if you’re not, I’ll make my own story out of that. I like being any one of those three.
What makes it satisfyingly is that all three are experiencing it at the same time in their own different ways but in the same room.
You only get that in theatre. I miss it.
To learn more about Gregory, visit his personal website: www.gregoryprest.com.