Heath V Salazar

Moving Forward

Gaetz Photography

Joe Szekerers

This time of isolation from live theatre and the emerging civil and social reforms have certainly made me aware of the importance of hearing from as many voices as possible within the artistic community. Several of the artists profiled have been extremely helpful in suggesting names of individuals who deserve to be highlighted.

I was pleased when two artists suggested Heath V. Salazar. In the twenty-first century, it’s wonderful that we have social media sites like Facebook to make initial introductions; however, nothing beats speaking to a person face to face which is what I hope I can do in the near future with all of the artists I’ve profiled so far, and when it’s safe for all of us to return.

And I was grateful to make an introduction as Heath told me they would be delighted to be profiled for this series

Heath V. Salazar (they/them) is a Dora Award-winning trans-Latinx performer and writer. Since graduating from Randolph College for the Performing Arts, Heath has developed a body of work as an actor that spans the gender spectrum in both theatre and film. Within the drag world, they perform multidisciplinary draglesque as Gay Jesus and are featured on Season 1 of the CBC Arts’ Canada’s a Drag. Through their writing, Heath was selected for the Spoken Word Residency at the Banff Centre of the Arts (’17) as well as the Emerging Creators Unit at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre (’18). In addition, Heath has gone on to teach as a guest lecturer at the University of Toronto.

Currently, while Heath continues the development of their short film, Préstamo, in partnership with director Tricia Hagoriles, they’re also an Artist in Residence with both Aluna Theatre and Buddies in Bad Times.

It appears that after five exceptionally long months, we are slowly, very slowly, emerging to a pre-pandemic lifestyle. Has your daily life and routine along with your immediate family’s life and routine been changed in any manner?

My daily life and routine have changed drastically over the course of the past five months. As a multidisciplinary artist, I’m accustomed to working multiple gigs throughout the week that involve audiences or being in close proximity with large groups of people. In addition, as a queer and Latinx creator, I personally hold a strong community focus within my work which involves actively engaging with audiences outside of a performance setting as well as regularly attending community events.

Due to safety restrictions, all of those spaces were put on pause which has completely altered my everyday life.

However, that community focus has been a great contributor in motivating me to seek out alternate platforms and methods of creating that allow me to remain in connection and of service to my communities and those around me.

Were you involved or being considered for any projects before the pandemic was declared and everything was shut down?

There are a number of projects that I was preparing for when the pandemic was declared. In addition to local gigs and performances, I was in the midst of making arrangements to move to Stratford, Ontario for the summer to perform as Rafe in Wolf Hall as a company member at the Stratford Festival. In the past year, I’ve been involved in creation and research development programs at the theatre including working as a guest artist for their Laboratory Ensemble as well as for the Stratford Incubator. This would’ve been my debut performance with the company, however, in order to keep everyone as safe as possible, the theatre was forced to close.

Fortunately, the Stratford Festival has worked actively throughout the pandemic to continue upholding a sense of community with their company members. They’ve arranged mini-challenges and projects to bring people joy, they’ve ensured consistent and transparent communication, and when the civil right movement currently taking place began, they took the time to listen and have used their reach and platform to engage in productive and important conversation with Black and Indigenous artists and creators.

The state of our world, let alone our industry, needs to change and having a company like Stratford take accountability for its history engages a lot of people in a dialogue they may not otherwise have had.
Describe the most challenging element or moment of the isolation period for you. Did this element or moment significantly impact how you and your immediate family are living your lives today?

One of the most challenging elements of the isolation period for me, particularly in the beginning, was navigating limitations regarding my ability to bring aid to my loved ones and community. Safety isn’t something that’s afforded to everyone in our society. Even before the pandemic started, violence and discrimination against racialized trans people, particularly those who are Black and Indigenous, disproportionately affected their ability to access basic necessities such as housing, healthcare, and food stability.

Since the initial lockdown, those circumstances have only escalated but, since I had lost my employment for the foreseeable future, I felt very limited in my ability to help.

However, the work I’ve done over the years has allowed me to learn from some of the most incredible activists on how to provide community support in ways that don’t involve monetary donations, and that translated very well even in a time of isolation and social distancing. This came heavily into play over the past couple of months.

Ways to help can range from promoting and sharing information about organizations that provide resources for marginalized communities, donating performances and/or performance fees for online fundraisers, attending protests and demonstrations that call for the reallocation of city/government funding to be put towards community resources, using social media platforms to share accurate information about how people are being affected and ways that your friends and peers can help, engaging in a personal dialogue with city officials to demand protections for our most vulnerable communities, learning about the impact that the redistribution of funds can have even on a minor scale, seeking out petitions with clear demands to bring aid to those in need and much, much more.
Quite often, difficult times can bring on feelings of despair and helplessness, but those I’ve had the privilege of learning from have shown me the impact that can take place when we stand together as a community.

What were you doing to keep yourself busy during this time of lockdown and isolation from the world of theatre? Since theatres will most likely be shuttered until the spring of 2021, where do you see your interests moving at this time?

During the time of lockdown and isolation from the world of theatre, I’ve largely pivoted my focus to online creation and performance as well as the development of new work through my residencies at both Buddies in Bad Times Theatre as well as Aluna Theatre. As a creator, my practice involves approaching work development from a holistic standpoint centering and prioritizing the human in human experience.
Working as storytellers within a capitalist context can, has, and does encourage toxic and damaging methods of working in order to ensure a high turnover of creation and consumption.

However, we as people are not products and if we’re going to tell stories about people, but all of them get damaged in the process, then what good are the stories? What are we actually saying when we tell them?
This pandemic has really highlighted those values for me. Life is very short and needs to be appreciated because, ultimately, we can’t stop ourselves from dying.

My main interests right now are nurturing my relationships with my loved ones and working to protect, empower, and advocate for those around me.

Sometimes that’ll be in the form of performance and sometimes it won’t. But life isn’t about performance, performance is about life; I’m making life my priority in whatever way that takes place.

Any words of wisdom or sage advice you would give to other performing artists who are concerned about the impact of COVID-19? What about the new theatre graduates who are just out of school and may have been hit hard? Why is it important for them not to lose sight of their dreams?

The greatest piece of advice I would give to performing artists and new theatre graduates concerned about the impact of COVID-19 is that your value as a person isn’t determined by the jobs you do and don’t book. Life will always bring what we least expect, but how we adapt influences the people we become as well as the world around us. As creatives, artistry can be a very personal element within ourselves but remember that though art is a glorious part of you, it’s not all of you.

Give yourself permission to become someone that you would admire in a way that centers your character, not your profession. That way, no matter what you do, your legacy will be one that you’re proud of.

Do you see anything positive stemming from this pandemic?

It’s a complicated thing to find the positivity in a time that’s brought people so much loss. However, I also think that there were a number of deadly crises taking place prior to the arrival of Covid-19 that were costing people their lives and weren’t being addressed until a mass amount of our population was forced to slow down. Canada has a consistent track record regarding the erasure of our history and the systemic racism upon which our country was founded.

Knowledge is powerful, but a lack of information hinders the ability to understand and address the long-lasting effects that this racism has had on people of colour on this land. The repercussions have manifested in our modern-day society through a number of violences including the mass amount of missing and murdered Indigenous women who have yet to receive justice, the disproportionate incarceration and murder rate of Black and Brown people at the hands of our police system, as well as the targeted violence experienced by our sex workers, particularly those who are Black trans women, only to name a few.

The world of theatre is largely regarded as progressive and inclusive, however, when we look closer, we find exclusionary practices that not only contribute to but encourage systems of oppression within both our workplaces as well as on a mass scale due to the number of people taking in the messaging within our work. My hope is that our companies and our theatre workers take this time to grow their scope of awareness in order to change the toxic culture that previously existed within our spaces.

We’re all capable of growth and, as an industry whose practice is so deeply steeped in compassion and empathy, I have faith in our potential to create a better work environment, and in the long term, a better world.

In your informed opinion, will the Toronto and the Canadian performing arts scene somehow be changed or impacted on account of the coronavirus?

I have no doubt that the Toronto and Canadian performing arts scenes will and have been changed on account of the coronavirus. This pandemic has cost people so much from their safety to their livelihoods and, worst of all, their loved ones. A lot of our people right now are grieving while others are ill, and we don’t know what our futures look like.

But when I turn to those around me in the performing arts scene, particularly disabled, 2SLGBTQ+, and BIPOC creators, I see phenomenal innovation and community care. This spans from performers, to writers, to lighting designers, and more. I’m watching, in real-time, as people adapt the use of the performing arts to keep one another alive and to share their ruthless faith for a new future.

Our practices across the board will have to be reassessed and adapt to our new circumstances. But I think that as long as we prioritize people’s safety and wellbeing over profit and product, we have a great capacity to improve and strengthen the future of our industry.

What are your thoughts about streaming live productions? As we continue to emerge and find our way back to a new perspective of daily life, will live streaming become part of the performing arts scene in your estimation? Have you been participating, or will you participate in any online streaming productions soon?

What I’ve found so far regarding the streaming of live productions is that it’s made the performing arts far more accessible for a lot of people. Our industry isn’t financially or physically accessible for many members in our communities which applies across the board from on-stage, to behind the scenes, to our audiences. I’ve received a lot of feedback in the past five months from people with a variety of different accessibility needs that being able to access performances, panels, and classes online has drastically changed their ability to become involved in and/or take in the performing arts.

This shows us that accessibility has been a possibility all along and that it’s crucial for it to be a priority in our work even as we begin to reconvene in person. We also need to keep in mind that viewing art online still has its limitations as it requires the ability to own a computer and have access to wifi, which simply isn’t a possibility for many people. As our industries slowly re-open and we develop new practices in regard to safety, it’s vital that we ensure accessibility becomes a core point in how we adapt moving forward.

These conversations have been prevalent for me in the past five months as a lot of my performance work has shifted to online. As a drag king, I watched the drag industry adapt very quickly. Within days of the announcement of the lockdown, drag artists were creating online content in a variety of different formats.

I, myself, have now participated in live online performances, fundraisers, interviews, discussion panels, and more. Most recently, I developed a three-part video series during Pride whose pieces were screened separately at online events throughout the month of June. The last piece in the series, All of the Above, can be viewed online through the CBC Arts website.

What is it about performing you still love given all the change, the confusion and the drama surrounding our world now?

Storytelling is an ancient practice and I chose the performing arts as a profession because I believe in their ability to influence monumental change within our society, thereby shaping our world. I grew up speaking three languages, so I’ve seen how limited words can be.

As a multidisciplinary artist, I view art as a form of communication that allows us to connect with some of the most profound parts of one another, as well as ourselves, in a way that transcends the confines of language. Performance allows us to document both our history as well our current human experience at the same time, all the while, influencing our future. It’s something I have great respect for and am incredibly honoured to be a part of.

With a respectful nod to ‘Inside the Actors’ Studio’ and the late James Lipton, here are the 10 questions he asked his guests at the conclusion of his interviews:

a. What is your favourite word?

Amor

b. What is your least favourite word?

Impossible

c. What turns you on?

Privacy

d. What turns you off?

Willful ignorance

e. What sound or noise do you love?

Family reunion rancheras at 4am

f. What sound or noise bothers you?

Sirens

g. What is your favourite curse word?

Nothing I’d let my mother read in an online publication

h. What profession, other than your own, would you have liked to attempt?

Immigration Lawyer

i. What profession would you not like to do?

Anything that involves euthanizing animals. I grew up in Sudbury, Ontario and as a teenager, I used to volunteer at the Science Center. The section I worked in specialized in caring for Northern Ontario wildlife but, for some of the animals, their feeding process involved having to euthanize mice.

Though I understood the importance, I just didn’t have it in me and, after seeing my face when my supervisors taught me the process, they thought it best that I not be allowed to do it because they were concerned I would free the mice.

They were correct.

j. If Heaven exists, what do you hope God will say to you as you approach the Pearly Gates?

‘Took you long enough.’

To connect with Heath, visit their social media sites on Instagram and Twitter: @theirholiness.

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