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Iain Moggach

Theatre Conversation in a Covid World

Laura Joy Photography.

Joe Szekeres

Once again, in Barrie, Ontario, I’m hearing more good things about the professional live theatre scene with Theatre by the Bay. And again, I’m grateful Artistic Director Iain Moggach was available for an interview for this column series. He is eager and highly open minded to see where the arts and Theatre by the Bay will be headed within the next ten years and with the lessons learned from this ‘pandemic’ year.

Iain humbly considers himself one of the luckiest people today and is appreciative of the opportunity he has been given to see the impact of the work of Theatre by the Bay and its connection with the audience whether through laughter or tears. In Iain’s own words, “Seeing the effect of the work of Theatre by the Bay fuels me to do more and to provide more opportunities to make as much theatre as I can.”

He is an award-winning director, producer, actor, and theatre educator, born and raised in Ottawa. Iain attended George Brown Theatre School from 2012-2015. He was an inaugural participant of Theatre by the Bay’s Indie Producer’s Co-Op and was asked to move to Barrie as the Executive Director of Theatre by the Bay in Fall 2015.

Since then, Iain has established himself as a central figure in Simcoe County’s theatre scene. With Theatre by the Bay alone, he has produced ten productions and five years of the annual gala, Stars Come Out. He performed in the critically acclaimed 2017 production, The Five Points as well as Assistant Directed the 2017 touring production, WE MUST HAVE MORE MEN! Iain also served as the Arts and Culture representative for the City of Barrie’s COVID-19 Economic Task Force.

Due to his body of work as an artist, and his leadership of Theatre by the Bay, former Artistic Director Alex Dault and the board of directors selected Iain Moggach as the company’s new Artistic Director in October 2018.

Iain has received numerous awards during his time with Theatre by the Bay including:

Barrie’s Young Professional of the Year 2019 (Barrie Business Awards); Barrie’s Tourism Champion 2019 (Toast to Tourism Awards); Barrie’s Best Theatre Instructor 2019, 2020 (Barrie Advance Readers’ Choice Awards)

We conducted our conversation via Zoom:

We’ve been one year plus without live theatre to attend. How has Theatre by the Bay been doing? How have you been faring during this time and your immediate family?

We have a couple of things planned. Right now, we’re just about to launch our Educational Programming that runs into the summer. However, we do also have plans for several outdoor events, several virtual events, and we have a show planned actually for the fall that we hope will be able to be presented obviously or presumably in a limited capacity that would allow for a live audience and for home delivery through live streaming and video.

Thank you for asking about me and my family. I’m doing okay. I’ve been very danger adverse because my wife, Marissa, is high risk. I’ve been very bubbled and made sure I’ve had very little interaction with others because it could put my wife in danger. Every day is a bit of a new adventure. Obviously, everything has been quite heavy but there’s a lot that has been keeping me focused and busy, and there’s a lot to look forward to so that’s beneficial for sure.

I’m fortunate in that all of my family is healthy, a little antsy to get out and explore but they’re all in good health.

As a creative person, I’m happiest when I’m creating, and I have a lot to work on right now so that’s a blessing.

Outside of theatre, how have you been spending your time since the industry has been locked up tight as a drum?

One of the biggest discoveries I’ve had about myself in the last year was just how burnt out I was. So, I’ve learned the importance of rest this year and have taken a lot of rest.

I’ve also taken this opportunity to learn who I am when I’m not making theatre and discovering some skills that I wanted to develop in myself. For instance, I’ve been learning Italian in weekly lessons with my dad who’s fluent with a little bit of practice every day.

In the last year, I’ve also discovered a love of archery. We’re very lucky that just outside of Barrie, Ontario, there is a fantastic archery range. I’ve been spending a lot of time just getting out there and enjoying being in the sunshine and having something to focus on.

This has been a good chance for me to learn and to do a lot of reading about the BIPOC community and what’s been going on with them. But also some policies such as Defunding the Police and learning about this, and it has been very eye opening.

All these things have made me feel more complete as a person and in doing my job more successfully going forward.

The late Hal Prince described the theatre as an escape for him. Has Covid been an escape for you or would you call this year long absence from theatre something else.

It certainly hasn’t been an escape. Theatre by the Bay has always been at the top of my mind, for sure. Because we’re a company that does almost exclusively new work, this has been a real opportunity for us to dive more into the works that we were developing as well as starting to plan for the future and the kinds of works we want to do.

So, no, it hasn’t been an escape. That being said, as an art form, theatre certainly has an escapist element to it but also because of the kind of work that we do that is so locally focussed, I see the theatre we make not as much of an escape but more AS A MIRROR where the audience and the community can see itself reflected back on them.

In my opinion our work is its best when this is done successfully and allows our audience to reconsider something about its own community that, perhaps, it hadn’t given before.

I’ve interviewed a few artists over this last year who have said they can’t see live theatre fully returning to what we knew it once was until at least 2022. Yes, there may be pockets here and there, but the theatre we knew of over a year ago will not be fully back until 2022. Some comments from you about this fact.

I think we will start to see a return in some capacity by the fall, that’s my expectation.

In terms of the days of 600 seat houses, that will probably be gone for a long time. That being said if you’re a smart theatre company, especially in the professional sphere, you don’t plan for 100% so that’s something to consider too.

I think by 2022 there will certainly be more increased audience capacity and more people will be willing to go out and see things as they had in the past. Going into this coming fall, it’s going to be those who are just foaming at the mouth to return to see and engage with theatre, but by 2022 we will see a return of those casual theatre goers according to the project and those safety levels.

Something else that we need to think about as a community is what has this time provided us in terms of opportunities, and I think live streamed and using virtual ways of reaching people is going to be part of the practice going forward. This could potentially expand audiences as all of a sudden you could have audiences from across the world engaging with your art at the same time. This is something very exciting that I don’t think we’re going to lose, and I personally believe we should encourage going forward.

I had a discussion recently with an Equity actor who said that theatre should not only entertain but, most importantly, it should transform both the artist/actor and the audience. How has Covid transformed you in your understanding as Artistic Director and where do you see transformation occurring moving forward?

That’s a big question…it certainly highlighted areas that Theatre by the Bay really needs to focus on.

As a company that does a lot of work about the community, I think it’s really important for us to ensuring the stories that we tell accurately reflect the community as it currently exists. I think that emphasis will really change the kind of art that we make going forward. I think that’s really exciting.

Of course, it took a year of a lot of heartbreak and suffering to get to this new understanding, but I’m very excited about the possibilities that come with that. In terms of our message, Theatre by the Bay and the way we impact our audience and our actors that engage with our work will remain the same; perhaps how that is delivered and what stories we tell is going to need to evolve to more accurately reflect our community and our times.

Zoe Caldwell spoke about how actors should feel danger in the work. She says it’s a solid and swell thing to have if the artist and the audience both feel it at the same time. This is a three-part question:

a) Do you agree with Ms. Caldwell?

b) Have you ever felt danger during this time of Covid?

c) Will this danger somehow influence your work in a post pandemic world with Theatre by the Bay?

In terms of the first question, I think it’s important that we distinguish danger from risk. Danger, I see as, is a sandbag on the lighting grid dangling a little too loosely, or danger could be exclusionary practices or practices that artists aren’t comfortable with that they haven’t felt the confidence to address in the room openly.

Risk, on the other hand, is a great thing. Risk is the types of shows that you choose, the choices that you make, the subject matter that you engage with, that is the most fertile ground for theatre to be created from, but risk requires a strong foundation of safety. For instance, if you’re a ski jumper, you want the jumper to know how far they need to land before the person can make the jump. Risk is can actors push themselves to soar as high as they can to get that maximum distance. That is a really important distinction.

Risk is great, rewarding when it’s pulled off. Risk is inspiring and awe inducing to watch.

In terms of the second question, certainly I’ve taken risk in terms of the work that we’re making. New work takes a lot of time. When the hope was that by 2021 we might be able to have theatre again, I created a season to hope for that. As the summer was going on, we had to abandon those plans and start from scratch, and that’s a very risky thing to do because new work takes time to breathe and to become the best that it can be.

I hope we stick that landing if we’re sticking with the ski jumper analogy. Otherwise, I’ve been danger adverse right now. Our Educational Programs were put entirely virtual to ensure all our artists were safe. We’ re going to continue doing a lot of virtual programming this year specifically the danger of audiences coming together is something I want to avoid.

Earlier when I mentioned my wife’s health concern, everything for me now is “Would I want to go and engage with that as an audience member?”

This is an important mind set I’ve had throughout the pandemic.

The late scenic designer Ming Cho Lee spoke about great art opening doors and making us feel more sensitive. How has Covid made you more sensitive to the world around you, and how will you take this sensitivity as you return fully to your position and to Theatre by the Bay?

A great question. It’s certainly has in a lot of ways made me sensitive in a lot of ways. One of the most memorable events in terms of the BIPOC community and movement in the last year was watching the Stratford panel with the black artists speaking about their involvement in the Festival. The way they spoke about the experience of exclusion, of pain, of people leaving the industry, the perception of white artistic leaders to just completely shut them out of conversations was very painful to hear.

That’s a horrible thing for anyone to experience.

It made me very sensitive to the fact that I am a white straight arts leader and that I stand on a history of oppression, of exclusion and that, going forward, it’s an absolute necessity that I break down those barriers within my organization, and that our organization as a whole is an inclusive place.

One of the big things from the last year was this continuous incendiary quality. One of the most important things I learned is that diversity and inclusion, that is the way we can start to break down those media silos. The funnelling of perspectives, the almost segregation of ideas needs to be broken down by having lots of people in the conversation. That’s how we do that.

Hopefully through the art that is made with this in the foundation will allow the broader community, the broader world to become increasingly more sensitive to the plight of others. That was a big takeaway for me and for Theatre by the Bay as an organization as well.

Hal Prince spoke of the fact that theatre should trigger curiosity in the artist and the audience. How has this time of Covid sparked curiosity in you as an artist and where you see Theatre by the Bay going in a post pandemic world?

My curiosity right now is focussed around how many different perspectives of our community are there. Because our work is so focussed on Barrie and central Ontario area, Simcoe County mostly, how many perspectives are there? How many stories are there? How many amazing artists that perhaps haven’t been given an opportunity to work with us yet that are from the area or live in the area are there?

How can we bring these individuals into the kind of art that we make? That’s really exciting to me.

About a year ago I presented a five-year plan to the Board of Directors of Theatre by the Bay and a lot of it had to do with expanding our network beyond Barrie and the immediate area but to Simcoe County as a whole. As soon as that perspective broadened, all sorts of amazing stories and source material started to reveal itself so I’m really excited by that, and curious to see what Theatre by the Bay will look like five, ten years from now having absorbed the lessons from this year.

To contact Iain via Instagram: @imoggach

To learn more about Barrie Ontario’s Theatre by the Bay:

Facebook: Theatre By the Bay; Twitter: @theatrebythebay; Instagram: @theatrebythebay

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