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Herbie Barnes

Theatre Conversation in a Covid World

Red Works Photography

Joe Szekeres

Toronto’s Young People’s Theatre new Artistic Director Herbie Barnes talks about the movers and shakers of the next generation to follow him at the end of this profile.

Even before this occurs, I am eagerly anticipating and waiting to see where he will take Young People’s Theatre just over the next five years itself because I would also call him a ‘mover and a shaker’ in the theatre industry.

According to YPT’S website: “Mr. Barnes is an accomplished playwright, performer, director and arts educator whose 30-year-career spans stages across North America. He was among the generation of young Indigenous artists in the 1990s breaking down barriers to forge professional careers in Canadian theatre. Mr. Barnes will officially begin his tenure at YPT in the fall of 2021.”

An Anishinaabe theatre artist from Aundeck Omni Kaning First Nation on Manitoulin Island, Mr. Barnes was raised in Toronto. His theatre career began in 1989 with Debajehmujig Theatre Group, touring Ontario with the first run of Drew Hayden Taylor’s Toronto at Dreamer’s Rock. Since then, he has collaborated with some of North America’s largest theatre companies and was nominated for a John Hirsch Director’s Award. His new play, Bent Boy, was workshopped at YPT and shortlisted for the Sharon Enkin Plays for Young People Award in 2020.

We conducted our conversation via Zoom. Thank you so much, Herbie, for the interview and for sharing your voice to the discussion:

We’re now one year without live theatre where the doors have been locked for who knows how long, Herbie. How have you and your family been faring during this time?

I have to say I’ve been one of the lucky ones, knock on wood. It started out where I thought it was going to be a two-week holdup when we got sent home from Magnus Theatre in Thunder Bay. And I went, “Oh, this is okay. I’ve been working a lot, and this is good, I’ll take a two-week break and then I’ll move on as we were supposed to take a tour from Magnus down to Nova Scotia.” I further thought we’ll pick up the tour in Nova Scotia and we’ll be fine and then I was going to go off last summer to work at the Charlottetown Festival.

No thought of this closing down for a year. And then it just kept going.

So, I took a little bit of a break at the beginning and then I thought I should find some work since I’m not working. I ran around and did a bunch of things online. We did children’s mysteries on the telephone through the Ministry of Mundane Mysteries. We would call kids on the Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday and create this mundane mystery. It was a great idea and the kids just latched right on to it and we got to play so many different characters. Brilliant, brilliant idea. So much fun.

I started teaching and taught all the way through. I did a program online where I was teaching young people. Theatre that I just filmed in this crawl space in my basement where you see me now that I get to kick around in.

I’ve been very, very lucky. My partner Marjie has been working almost straight through. My two kids were lucky, and they’ve been working right through too. Everyone’s healthy. What we did was we took the pandemic seriously. The hardest thing: my two kids live outside the house and so they weren’t part of our bubble. We have been masking from the porch to see them. Their grandparents put a big heater in the garage for visits.

I can’t wait until we can hang out with our kids again.

Outside any theatre stuff, what have you been doing since the industry has been locked up tight as a drum?

I’ve been doing a number of interviews and have been teaching in the evening from 3 pm – 9 pm. My afternoons are full so I’m booking a lot of morning events. I’m also writing for Charlottetown Festival right now and also sorts of little things all over the place.

I didn’t realize I was going to be that busy. One of the things I did I took a writing course for ‘Writing for Television’. I decided I was going to take guitar lessons online. I’m in the midst of building a guitar. I kind of got heavily online.

We have three storeys in the house. Marjie’s got the upstairs level where she is teaching classes in an office space she has. Down here, this has always been my space. I come down in the morning, make a pot of tea and then get lost down here for most of the day and then realize it’s 6:00 pm. so I go upstairs for supper. Marjie’s been great because she does all the cooking. I’m a horrible cook.

Every day, Marjie takes me for a long walk. We got to know our neighbourhood really, really well. Every once in awhile we’ll drive to somewhere else and walk around that neighbourhood.

The late Hal Prince has described theatre as an escape for him. Would you say Covid has been an escape for you, or would you call this time something else?

This is definitely not an escape. I haven’t escaped theatre. I’ve escaped…this is an awful way to put it but I’ve escaped the audience. Unfortunately, they’ve been on the other side of this screen which is totally different.

As a theatre artist THIS (Herbie points to the screen where we are talking) doesn’t compensate for what the theatre does. There’s nothing like a live audience. Even when I did film and television, I was always performing for the camera guys or the lighting guys. I never thought of that little box recording all of that. If the crew was laughing, then this must be working.

I miss the audience. I miss sitting beside somebody and having that same effect as the person next to me.
I’ve been telling this story quite a bit. We know the audience’s heartbeat is synchronous while they watch a show so that all 150, 300 whatever number of people, their heartbeat beats at the same pulse during theatre.

That’s an amazing feat live theatre accomplishes. I love that.

What I’ve been doing is developing. I’ve been working really hard having stuff lined up here; I’ve been teaching classes. There’s going to be a group of students coming out of this pandemic hopefully more prepared. My writing: I’ve finished writing a native adaptation of ‘Tartuffe’ which is getting produced this year at Magnus Theatre at least.

I’m also doing an adaptation of ‘My Fair Lady’ in a native context as well. I think it’s really interesting how the white guy or the settler in that case is saying that your language isn’t good enough and what it did to the First Nations people.

And also preparing to get ready to take over Young People’s Theatre in Toronto in October.

I’ve been more busy now since I haven’t been travelling. What travel used to do to me was I could block off three weeks while I was directing in Vancouver and not take work since I was directing. Now I’m free so I can take work up until 230 pm. I’ll write that, direct that, teach that and there are days when I come out of my basement Zoom tired.

I’ve interviewed a few artists since the pandemic began who have said they cannot see live theatre returning fully (or what might some call ‘normal’ or ‘back to normal’) until at least 2022. Yes, there may be pockets such as what the Stratford Festival is proposing. What are your thoughts about this? Will live theatre return before 2022?

I think theatres will open. I think by September 2021 we’ll start to see a crack with public spaces being open. I think audiences are thriving to be together.

I firmly believe that. But…

Audiences will be a little afraid to get into a space with each other. That will happen. Certainly, we will know, not in my case with YPT, a lot of theatres rely on older audience members. They’re going to make sure they’re safe first.

But I think the audiences are striving for that feeling. I think we are a communal animal. I think we need each other. We desperately need each other, and people are missing that. That’s the big thing. A lot of people are willing to risk in order to be with human contact.

I’m hoping it comes back even stronger.

I fear for our film industry. I think our film industry, and we’ve realized we can watch most movies on our home systems because we’ve got these great tv screens and being able to hook them up with incredible sound systems which don’t need to be that expensive, but the more expensive the better the sound. You can build a theatre in your own basement now with very little money.

Superhero movies are the big blockbuster now. They aren’t making the great small screen stuff now. Our tv shows are phenomenal. ‘Game of Thrones’ would have had to be a movie 25 years ago. Now we can watch this incredible journey.

I fear for our film industry, but I don’t fear for live theatre because there’s nothing like being in the same space waiting for that production to begin and feeling the same thing.

I had a discussion with an Equity actor who said that not only should theatre entertain, but more importantly, it should transform both the actor/artist and the audience. How has Covid transformed you as a theatre artist and in your new role as we all move forward post pandemic?

It’s given me a huge respect for theatre, that’s one thing for sure. I miss it.

I’ve been working in the theatre for over 30 years now. It’s been something that’s been a part of me. We’ve all had goals to do film and television, and I’d love to do more film and television because it pays well, it’s lucrative, there’s the instant gratification of knowing who you are.

Whereas in theatre, you slug it out. Theatre, you’re a plumber. You go to work every day, put a satchel over your shoulder and walk into the theatre. Few people recognize you. Even after the show, you can walk past people out into the middle of your audience, and they don’t know who you are because they are not on that stage.

With tv, it’s the instant recognition perhaps in a commercial.

Yes, we do go into the arts in order to get recognized a bit.

Being without theatre and that fear of it never coming back, yes, it’s a little bit but it’s still there, it’s re-grown my love for the theatre. I love being with the audience. I love opening nights being unsure of what the product you’ve got, that edginess.

I come from an improv background. When you’re out on that tightwire, not knowing how an audience will react, it’s the best. There’s nothing like it.

The late Zoe Caldwell spoke about how actors should feel danger in the work. It’s a solid and swell thing to have if the artist the audience both feel it. Would you agree with Ms. Caldwell? Have you ever felt danger during this time of Covid, and how will this danger influence your work as we re-emerge from the pandemic?

Do I agree with Ms. Caldwell? I somewhat do. We’re going through a different time right now. I grew up in an era where actors who were constantly put in danger emotionally, psychologically (it’s like pushing the envelope and trying to get deeper and deeper into the character).

Now, when we’re training, we’re doing less of that. Safety first, everything is about your emotional well being. I’ve seen lots of trauma in the theatre. Many of the actors before and during me endured a trauma being misdirected or harmfully directed in that sense. We’re taking greater care now to ensure actors can get on with their lives as students and as people in the arts.

I think theatre should push as far as we can. I think emotionally that’s our job to take audiences on an emotional journey. That’s it. Other than that, any of the arts – music, painting -it’s not about painting inside the lines. Great painters don’t paint inside the lines, they colour outside the lines. When I see a certain painting, I might go ‘Wow! Okay! I don’t know why but that’s different than that.”

Same with music. Right now with all of these television competitions, I hear amazing voices. What I miss is the emotion attached to it. When Neil Young and Joni Mitchell sing songs, I go “Wow!” Levon Helm didn’t have the greatest voice, and you can’t hear ‘The Night They Drove ol’ Dixie Down’ without welling up. Or Rick Danko in ‘Makes No Difference’. You can hear the hurting and heartache behind the song.

So that’s our role. The actor must take the audience on an emotional journey and feel like there’s danger. I tell my students when I’m writing or directing in the theatre or acting, I want my audience to pay for the whole seat but only sit on the corner of it. I want the audience to feel like they can save the person who’s about to die on stage or to stop that woman from falling in love with that bad man.

We need to push the emotion, but we must also keep the actor safe.

How is it going to transform after Covid? I think we’re going to be surprised where theatre is when we come out of Covid. I think we’ve had an incredible amount of protesting that’s gone on in this time.

A crazy amount of change is going to happen. People on the fringe are going to be let in IN A HUGE WAY, and theatre will transform. We won’t throw the European framework away completely, but we’ll explore other forms of theatre and be able to welcome.

The late scenic designer Ming Cho Lee spoke about great art opening doors and making us feel more sensitive. How has this time of Covid made you more sensitive to our world and how will it impact your life when you return to the theatre in your new role as Artistic Director?

Marjie and I were talking about this the other day on our walk. There is no way that we cannot think globally anymore.

We have all been included in this pandemic and there are no borders and no walls. Those borders are false borders so it’s amazing how quickly the pandemic spread.

It makes me aware of countries in the world that are different than me and how I have to be aware of them, how I have to be open with them, and how I have to exist with them.

I’ve said this before: I don’t believe in a minimum wage. I believe in a maximum wage. I truly believe we should set up a system where you’re only allowed to make a certain amount of money, and once you’ve hit that level of money (and I don’t know what amount it should be) you have to stop working and travel the world so that you get to see it. And you hit those countries not the Riviera, not England or Hawaii, you go to countries that are desperate and I think you start to see where that cheap piece of clothing comes from or that electronic device and this will change your outlook on life.

Covid has made me aware of how much I need people, aware of the rest of the world and aware of how much I want to be a part of it.

And we’ve come full circle back to the late Hal Prince who spoke of the fact theatre should trigger curiosity in the artist and the audience. How has Covid sparked curiosity in you as an artist and what will happen with your curiosity as you return in your new role as AD of Young People’s Theatre?
Curiosity? I want to hear 100, 000 different voices. That’s my curiosity. As a teacher, I’m interested and want to hear the voices of young voices, BIPOC voices LGTBQ2 voices. My goal is to go into areas we haven’t tapped into yet.

As a First Nations artist, I want to go North and go into the communities in the North. I know, growing up on the reserve, young people had little to do. We were good at playing sports, and the fear of going outside that, especially in the arts.

We need strong people to keep the interest in the arts going. We need strong teachers and educators to keep that energy going.

Those are the curiosities I want to seek out. I’ve always been a curious person so it opens conversations and I want to be a listener in a big way as the Artistic Director of Young People’s Theatre.

I think I have a couple of years of just hearing what the world is saying. That’s going to be my job there to listen to what the world is saying and then try to pass it on to the next generation of young people so they are the changers, the movers and the shakers.

That’s it.

To learn more about Young People’s Theatre, visit;
Facebook: @YoungPeoplesTheatre Twitter: @YPTToronto Instagram: @ypttoronto

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