Gugun Deep Singh
Self Isolated Artist
Cylla von Tiedemann
Gugun Deep Singh’s name periodically appeared liking some of the profiles I had compiled. When I saw his picture, I kept wondering where have I seen this man before. And once again it dawned on me. Gugun was part of a solid ensemble cast of ‘Men in White’ staged at Factory Theatre and directed by Philip Akin.
His resume is impressive. Gugun was born in Toronto, raised in Mississauga but moved to Los Angeles with his family when he was in Grade 12. He graduated from high school in LA and attended university out there.
Medicine was his sole goal at that time but theatre was his elective so he changed majors. Gugun spent a year discovering many new ways to fail while attending the Theatre School at DePaul University in Chicago. He took a year off, then moved to New York City. He completed the musical program at Circle in the Square Theatre School followed by a fellowship with the Shakespeare Lab at the Public Theatre. He has bee working as a professional actor ever since.
Notable film credits include the ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ films and the forthcoming ‘Scrapper’. On television, he has appeared in ‘Nurses’, ‘The Expanse’ and ‘The Detectives’.
Our interview was conducted via a Zoom conference call and boy, oh boy did I ever have a good time asking him these questions and seeing sometimes his facial features when he answered. What struck me as very respectful after some of the questions was the way in which he paused to think before he spoke. Thanks for doing that, Gugun. I wish more people would be like that:
1. It has been the almost three-month mark since we’ve all been in isolation? How have you been doing? How has your immediate family been doing during this time?
My parents live in California on the west side of Los Angeles. I’ve been ok. Some days are tougher than others. I’ll admit that I do consume a fair amount of media. It’s not always just television. I get a lot of energy from interacting with folks. I had just returned from the US before Covid-19 hit. They didn’t even have a name for it. I had gone a week ahead before my partner joined me the week after. We had a great trip visiting family, but to come back and feel the shift was very interesting. Some days are tougher than others, but it’s great to have purpose. Being disciplined to institute some structure. I look at the days as opportunities to do things rather than trying to structure the day.
It’s been a complex time as well because I’m thinking about my parents and not being able to see them. They’re in their seventies so there is that possible threat to their health from Covid. On top of that, the cultural and social tumult has been on my mind and the issues coming to the forefront. Isn’t it interesting that we are now living through some chapter in a history book for future readers? I rarely leave the house without wearing the mask, carrying the hand sanitizer and practicing the distancing. No one in recent history in the western world has placed this much attention. Everything is covered. Gosh, this is one hell of an answer, isn’t it?
To sum it up, I’ve been managing to keep positive, sustain my energy, remain curious remain healthy, check in on friends and family and maintain healthy practices. I’m maintaining these connections and encourage them to do the best they can because we all have a lot on our minds today from the threat of Covid.
2. As a performer, what has been the most difficult and challenging for you professionally and personally?
In this time, I’ll caveat this by saying I moved back to Canada to be in Canada, to work in Canada as a Canadian, and to a lesser extent as a Canadian of colour. I wanted to be up here, to return home, and to check in on my peers. I have a lot of friends who work in film, television and theatre in Los Angeles and New York as that’s where I went to school and I do consider it my second home. I’ve been thankful for the opportunities in LA and New York as it has been a privilege.
The creative market of film, television, and theatre in Canada and in the Toronto area is wonderful. I don’t have the relationships yet even though I have the experience. In the time of Covid, this has been rough to be in Canada in wanting to connect with others. Big time. I was looking forward to seeing with a freshness who was building work and where I wanted to work in the summer. Last summer I worked on a show in a park with ‘Shakespeare in Action’ in Weston.
I’m very keen to collaborate with new artists to build relationships and longevity as a performer/actor and possibly diversify as writer, producer, and director perhaps. So, the loss of connection and the distance that Covid has brought with my peers in trying to achieve this goal has been difficult and getting the wind knocked out of me has been tough.
The other challenge might be getting right to the point and returning to brevity in answering the question and carrying on.
3. 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 not currently contracted on anything. There were projects to which I was attached. I have some small things I’m developing myself, planning, putting notes together and having more time to work on it. I have the time, but I don’t know if I have the inspiration as other things take your energy. I have a couple of days to finish up on this indie feature.
I want to remain on people’s periphery for my talents as an actor. To be hired because producers think I’m the one for the role.
It’s going to be exciting to return with new conversations with new and established companies who might want to do things a different way.
4. What have you been doing to keep yourself busy during this time?
Well, I’m trying to improve my culinary skills. That’s been a nice change of pace. I’m grateful for the time. I’ve pivoted a bit in learning other things I’m keeping in touch with family and friends. I’m in a writer’s boot camp learning about writing and producing of children’s television. John May has been running this workshop. I was invited to audit and now the nature of the health crisis has allowed me to focus on the writing camp.
My partner and I are spending more time together which has been wonderful.
I’m still approaching things as a performer first, but I’m also learning how to improve my producing and directing skills. I see this transition as an archipelago. I figure I’ll get to that island as long as I’ve come through the other islands.
I remain excited for the day I can go back to work.
5. 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?
It’s okay not to be okay. That’s a bigger lesson as our ever-increasing understanding of mental health is key and how taxing it can be. There is no cookie cutter approach. In this time there are opportunities still opening up, but you’re going to have to re learn certain things.
For example, a self tape.
“Take a breath. What is it you want to say?” These are words I would also say to theater graduates.
Theatre grads have received a certain group of opinions. Those opinions might be great training. Training is not any substitute for experience and the wisdom that comes from the experience. I would tell theatre graduates – “Get ready to apply your wisdom. Learn, read, invest as it’s the experience which is far more useful in the business.”
Invest in who you are and distill what it is you want to say. We don’t get an opportunity to pause like this so take advantage of this opportunity to learn instead of receiving as you would have done when you were at school.
6. Do you see anything positive stemming from Covid 19?
It’s slowed everybody down. And that’s good. Running at a breakneck pace is tough. It wears you out.
Learning how adaptable, flexible and resilient you can be is important. This takes time and it’s okay that things take time. We also need to find the stillness, to breathe and to consider. The lessons coming out of the crisis – the crisis was already in our head and heart.
If we’re speaking, we’re not listening. Turn it around. We need to listen more.
7. Do you think Covid 19 will have some lasting impact on the Canadian/North American performing arts scene?
There’s an estimate that it might take ten years for the greater economy to recover. I’m trying to focus on something I learned in school - When on stage, distance can give you strength and perspective. If the distance will help give us perspective, then the nature of how endangered arts and culture has been will become apparent.
I have no idea when we will come back. There’s a culture here in Canada of how we secure the grant and the money for arts and culture.
I think ‘drive in theatre’ might become a thing. Old school skills with vocal training will come in handy; learning how to sustain the voice in an in the round space that doesn’t maintain the sound. Revisiting the Greeks and how they presented their plays will probably come back.
Resources will be lean, but the collaborative spirit of communication and community will survive from the Indigenous community to the LGBTQD2 spectrum. The business will suffer a bit, but the arts will survive because the ingenuity is there.
The rallies being reported around the world will have a far greater impact on us. The lasting impact will be the conscientiousness coming out of it. The awareness is there. The door is now open, and we have to step through it. The arts will remember this. We’ve had this awakening and the arts will continue to remind us to keep moving forward. There will be positive change and shifts in the arts as we move forward and become available.
8. 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?
Streaming has become part of our reality. The entities that are most greatly invested in the business have realized the opportunity of streaming for the need to survive. Not all the entities need it to survive. It will be necessitated in certain live streams of performances. People have adapted how to adapt and film a work where you feel like you are right there in the audience. It’s film making but how to adapt the energy of the moment in the play and how to bring it to life.
I like the union has adapted so the artist continues to get paid. Residuals and buy outs are now on the table but it’s important the union brings this forward in this new reality.
Presenting a play is different from a film and theatre. The theatre actor will have to become aware of the streaming. It will become part of the business. You Tube and streaming are not going away.
9. Despite all this fraught tension and confusion, what is it about performing that Covid will never destroy for you?
Performing is human, especially as a theatre artist. That’s just my belief. Covid can’t take away the imperfections of the human, which becomes perfection for the theatre artist. Covid created distance but I can use that distance to create connection from distance. Remember, the plague didn’t destroy William Shakespeare and the theatre. He wrote about life which is messy. That’s life. Covid will not destroy the spirit of human imperfections of life.
As a respectful acknowledgment to ‘Inside the Actors’ Studio’ and the late James Lipton here are the ten questions he used to ask his guests:
1. What is your favourite word?
It’s a Punjabi word – RUDG-KAY. It’s an inside joke. It means ‘with enthusiasm’/ ‘with gusto’.
2. What is your least favourite word?
‘Um’ – I say ‘Um’ a lot. It’s a place holder, just a sound. It’s filler. It’s a non word. It’s onomatopoeia.
3. What turns you on?
Audacity/courage/authenticity (I feel like I’ve contacted these)
4. What turns you off?
5. What sound or noise do you love?
The bullfrogs at night by my partner’s cottage.
6. What sound or noise bothers you?
Hesitation (it may be silent, but it remains very noisy)
7. What is your favourite curse word? Horseshit. It’s specificity, makes someone pause and it’s just waste.
8. Other than your own, what other career profession could you see yourself doing?
I’d want to help people. Something where I’m caring for others where I could take pain away and help others. I have moments where I wonder if I did complete my medical training as a doctor or nurse.
9. What career choice could you not see yourself doing?
Whatever anything repetitive, monotonous, uncreative. It doesn’t matter the field – ‘life in a cubicle’.
10. If Heaven exists, what do you hope God will say to you as you approach the Pearly Gates?
I would want God to wrap me up in a big hug, look into the centre of me, and ask ‘Are you at peace?’ I would like very much to be able to meet that gaze and nod my head.”
You can follow him on both Twitter and Instagram: @gugundeepsingh.