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Irene Poole

Moving Forward

Denise Grant

Joe Szekeres

It has been rewarding personally to watch artist Irene Poole in a variety of compelling roles over the last few years. First, I must make reference to the emotionally astounding production of ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ at The Stratford Festival in which Irene played the adult Jean Louise Finch who looks back on her life in Maycomb, Alabama. I know I’ve said it before, but that production left me in tears because it struck right at the very heart of my core and emotional being. Sooo good…..

Irene has also appeared as the ghostly Catalina/Katherine in Kate Hennig’s ‘Mother’s Daughter’ at Stratford. Other appearances include At Tarragon: The Little Years – Dora Award. Soulpepper (The Gigli Concert), Pleiades Theatre, Buddies in Bad Times (Manon, Sandra and the Virgin Mary), Stratford Shakespeare Festival (The Little Years, Three Sisters, The Taming of the Shrew, Macbeth, Romeo and Juliet, Phèdre), Factory Theatre (The Leisure Society – Dora Award, Bethune Imagined, Escape From Happiness, Better Living, Fighting Words, The Glace Bay Miners’ Museum, and Hockey Mom, Hockey Dad), Birdland Theatre (The Last Days of Judas Escariot – Dora Award), Citadel Theatre (God of Carnage), Alberta Theatre Projects (The Age of Arousal), Prairie Theatre Exchange (Hockey Mom, Hockey Dad), Theatre Aquarius (Wuthering Heights), Sudbury Theatre Centre (The Game of Love and Chance and The Attic, The Pearls and Three Fine Girls), Resurgence Theatre (A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Much Ado About Nothing, Talley’s Folly, Salt-Water Moon, Romeo and Juliet). Film and TV: Killjoys, Murdoch Mysteries, Carrie, Republic of Doyle, Breakout Kings, Rookie Blue. Other: Directed Canadian premiere of David Mamet’s, Romance, at Berkeley Street Theatre Upstairs.

She studied acting at Dalhousie University. We conducted our conversation via email and, from some of her responses, Irene gave me some ‘food for thought’ ideas on how she is dealing with the pandemic.

Thank you for the good conversation, Irene:

It has been an exceptionally long eight months since the pandemic began, and now the numbers are edging upward again. How are you feeling about this? Will we ever emerge to some new way of living in your opinion?

Throughout this pandemic I’ve felt very fortunate to live in Stratford where we’ve been relatively free of Covid, except for some outbreaks in LTC Homes. With numbers creeping up again though, and in this region, I feel it’s time for extra caution and patience. And perhaps a small, family Christmas.

With several vaccines on the horizon, I think we’ll be looking at some sort of normal within the year. For many of us though we’ll emerge from this experience with a more cautious approach to interacting with people and being in public spaces; with perhaps more walls around our personal space than we’re accustomed to as artists. I wouldn’t be surprised if masks and sanitizers continue to be a normal part of our lives, especially during the season.

How have you been faring? How has your immediate family been doing during these last eight months?

I’ve been ok. Trying to find the positive side of having so much time on my ands. That meant a wonderful summer with my husband and kids, 12 and 7 – lots of trips to the beach, lots of walks with friends, distanced backyard visits. We taught them how to play Hearts and Euchre (editor note here: excellent choice) and forced them to listen to music created before 2019.

But it’s been difficult to be entirely carefree with so many unknowns and worries about the future.

As an artist within the performing arts community, what has been the most difficult and challenging for you professionally and personally?

Well, beyond the obvious shuttering of our industry and the financial fallout of that, the most difficult thing has been feeling somewhat insignificant. That what I do for a living is so easily pushed to the side, and seemingly forgotten. While the government has been generous in taking care of people in the ‘gig economy’ I don’t feel there’s been many lights shone in the corners where we work. And we do work, and pay taxes – Federal, Provincial, Municipal, school. We carry mortgages and contribute to local economies. I wish there was little more effusive respect from our leaders for what we bring to our cities.

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 in rehearsal for ‘Much Ado About Nothing’ and ‘Hamlet’ and prepping for ‘Wolf Hall’ at the Stratford Festival. My understanding is that those productions may go ahead at some point but there are no immediate plans for their continuation upon reopening.

What have you been doing to keep yourself busy during this time?

I have been working on our house! I love home reno projects and luckily have this big old house to putter around in and fix up. It’s kept me sane. I’ve built railings and steps, repaired siding, rehung doors and painted everything. Since filming started up again in Toronto, I’ve also been auditioning and working.

And being a mother keeps me busy all the time!

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?

I’d say to recent grads, “Get yourself a really good agent and audition for film and television.” I’d also say, if you can write, write. If you can produce, produce. If you can direct, direct. Get experience wherever you can.

Also, and I say this with all respect for my chosen profession, if there’s anything else you love to do, develop those skills as well. I’ve been extremely lucky to have made a living as an actor, but the pandemic has left me bereft of any other employable skills.

To my fellow performers, I’ll say, “We’ll survive, and I miss you.”

Do you see anything positive stemming from Covid 19?

The time I’ve had to cement the important relationships in my life has been a real gift. I hope that we can seek a better work life balance when things open back up. Going from working insane hours (and trying to squeeze all the other important life moments into the remaining hours) to barely working (and having lots of time to focus on those other moments) has illuminated how unbalanced life in the theatre can be. And it doesn’t feel tenable anymore. I hope our industry leaders will recognize the importance of that balance and act on it.

Do you think Covid 19 will have some lasting impact on the Toronto/Canadian/North American performing arts scene?

Without a doubt. Theatres that manage to actually survive will have to make many changes going forward. Not just the obvious changes to health and safety but to programming an responding to issues highlighted during the time of Covid.

The break has allowed us time to ponder our place in society, our responsibility to the events happening around us, especially with regard to BIPOC conversations and inequities. There’s no going forward without more inclusivity and real change in all areas of production.

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?

I think artists should feel free to showcase their work however they want. There are no rights and wrongs about how to be an artist during this time. Let creativity boom and see what becomes of it. I did a Zoom reading of ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ early on and had a fantastic time learning and trying to connect with the cast. I’m not sure it was the most engrossing theatre ever, but it was an offering for those seeking a break from a very scary worldwide crisis.

Interestingly, we filmed our production of ‘Henry VIII’ last fall without an audience, due to the size of the Studio Theatre. I’ll be very curious to see if a play that has been rehearsed and lived in, then filmed can capture the spirit of the show, and audiences.

Despite all this fraught tension and confusion, what is it about performing that Covid will never destroy for you?

Connection, understanding, communication – with words, stories, colleagues, audiences. If I can’t have those connections in a live theatre I can seek them in other mediums – film and television, voice work.

Also the community I’m proud to be a part of, the deep lasting friendships are the result of work in the theatre, and they remain strong. Even stronger since the pandemic started.

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