Theatre Conversation in a Covid World
Jacob James is one extremely passionate fellow in sharing how this pandemic has ultimately transformed his life. I wasn’t able to include every single bit of information he shared with me during our hour-long conversation as one topic sometimes dove into another completely different question or topic that I hadn’t even considered.
But that’s okay. At one point, Jacob poked fun at himself by telling me that I would glean from our conversation that he loves to speak with others who are just as passionate as he is about the arts and about the state of live theatre as we all move forward post pandemic.
He is an actor, director, drama professor currently at Queen’s University in Kingston, and creator of the YouTube channel Theatre Curation Project. He has spent seven seasons with The Stratford Festival, five seasons with Drayton Entertainment, five seasons with Videocabaret (Dora awards), five seasons with The Thousand Islands Playhouse, and has worked with Theatre Kingston, Soulpepper, Neptune, Globe Theatre Regina, Charlottetown Festival, New York Shakespeare Exchange, Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park, Cleveland Playhouse...and more.
As a teaching artist, Jacob has taught at arts institutions across North America for over 20 years including Michigan State University, St. Lawrence College, and Queen's University. Please visit Theatre Curation Project on YouTube and subscribe, follow him on Instagram at @jacoboneilljames. Jacob is a graduate of The National Theatre School, Birmingham Conservatory (Stratford Festival), Second City Conservatory, and York University's Teaching Artist program.
Jacob adores his six year old son, Henry, and still finds time to consider new and exciting ways to keep interest in the arts going. I plan to check out many of his passion projects with the links included at the conclusion of his profile.
We conducted our conversation via Zoom. Thanks again for the lively discussion, Jacob:
The doors to Toronto live theatre have been shut for over a year now with no possible date of re-opening soon. How have you and your immediately family been faring during this time?
I must say that many people are talking about the waves that it goes in. Sometimes I feel positive, inspired and motivated, then the next day I’ll sit the entire day in my pajamas at the computer checking social media.
I was set to do my third of ‘Billy Bishop Goes to War’ this time with Drayton Entertainment. We were supposed to start rehearsals March 26. I was in New York at the time. I’ve been splitting my time between Kingston teaching at Queen’s and in New York where my son’s mother was based. It was a harrowing lifestyle for the going on two years I’ve been doing it. The numbers in Stratford are low right now, but we’ll see what happens in the summer. Henry, my son, is 6 and he’s doing alright.
All to say, yes, there was such a downfall from theatre becoming disenfranchised and yet, at the same time, it meant that I got my son safely back to Canada. My son’s mother and I, we co-parent relatively well and decided to locate to Stratford. I spent my 20s as an actor and she owns a house here. On the one level, I have felt totally disenfranchised but on the life level really grateful not having to split my week between Kingston and New York City and all that travelling. Having my son back in Canada and in one place is good.
I’ve had ups and downs, but it has forced me to get innovative and thinking about ways about what can I do to help. Theatre is being diminished through this pandemic and there is a real danger of it being impacted permanently.
How have you been spending your time since the theatre industry has been locked up tight as a drum?
That sense of stewardship started to rise within me as a result of this worldwide epidemic. I’m not the kid anymore and it’s my generation to make the initiative to preserve and to curate what past mentors had shared with me. I wish they were here because I would really like to talk to them now as I reflect back and wish I could ask them things now, but obviously I can’t.
That gave birth to something I created on the You Tube channel called ‘The Theatre Curation Project.’ It started twofold. I got thinking about all the mentors whom I’ve had in this business who have now passed away. My original mentor, Valerie Robertson, was in Theatre Five. She is one of the mothers of Canadian Theatre. Here at Stratford, Richard Monette was my major mentor and influence.
Well, there are a lot of people who are still alive and have these stories and lessons. Why not reach out to those who were influenced by those who may not be here? Why not reach out to those who are still here and are leaving their mark on the theatre scene? Kenneth Welsh is a veteran of our time, but who was his mentor for example.
To my surprise, this avalanched into 40 + episodes of ‘The Mentor Series’ I’ve curated. I’ve about 20 in the bank ready to go. The idea here is to preserve these stories for future generations and from being lost forever when I’m gone.
I got to thinking about the conversations we would be having in the rehearsal hall, and I’m a big ghost nerd. I get into these conversations of did anyone ever work in a haunted theatre and what was their experience. I discovered a lot of people share that same curiosity and interest, so I created a second series for the You Tube Channel ‘Haunted Theatre Stories’. The basic format is similar to the Mentor Series channel.
The next phase of the Theatre Curation Project is the beginning of an online theatre school. Right now, we’re beginning with an online component. Eventually, I’d like to buy a building when we can be physically back together with that theatre school graduating into a theatre company, an apprenticeship school where there is an opportunity of doing.
So, preserving the tradition and maintaining community are important.
The late Hal Prince described the theatre as an escape for him. Would you say that Covid has been an escape for you, or would you describe this near year long absence from the theatre as something else?
Yes, it has been an escape for me in good ways and in bad ways. Being in Covid has been an escape from hopping on a plane and going to New York to see my son or only seeing my son for half the time.
It’s also been deprivation. I’ve been fortunate to have done a bit of tv and film over the interim since that has kept rolling. It doesn’t fill the void.
I love editing and I wonder I might have become an editor for film and tv if I had gone a different path.
I’ve interviewed a few artists several months ago who said that the theatre industry will probably be shut down and not go full head on until at least 2022. There may be pockets of outdoor theatre where safety protocols are in place. What are your comments about this? Do you think you and your colleagues/fellow artists will not return full throttle and full tilt until 2022?
I’d say that’s a very safe bet. Again, there are a lot of variables that could take us further ahead that could accelerate the process but there are a lot of factors that could set us back.
Of late, what I’ve been coming to terms with is the struggle. Certainly, in Canada and Ontario specifically, the colour coded roles and the numbers, these two things are not working together in tandem. My mom is still in Kingston and I talk to her regularly. When Kingston was opened up, even though Toronto was in lockdown, people in Toronto are going to Kingston to the restaurants.
I shudder to say it: If we created a uniform set of rules for the province, we’d be in better shape. If we stayed in lockdown since Christmas, we wouldn’t be where we’re at right now. There’s always that tendency of “Well, if I visit this person, it’s just me not everybody.” When Trudeau said at the beginning last year, “It’s time to come home”, we still need to be in that tone, or nothing is going to be done. I get the fatigue of it all but…
In the end, what is it worth if we can’t see our family next Christmas? My forecast for all this? There will be smatterings of outdoor theatre going on this summer. My thinking if rules are set that 100 or more can be in a theatre to watch a show, masked and social distanced, we could start seeing those small, distanced audience numbers in the fall, okay that’s a start. But back to where we were before with full houses and sitting next to people shoulder to shoulder? That won’t happen until at least 2022.
I had a discussion recently with an Equity actor who said that yes theatre should not only entertain but, more importantly, it should transform both the actor and the audience. How has Covid transformed you in your understanding of the theatre and where it is headed in a post Covid world?
It's transformed me because empathy has been at the forefront of my mind because this is what is needed right now to help control this worldwide pandemic. If we’re not empathetic and care for each other and put ourselves in each other’s shoes, wear the masks, do the social distancing then it’s going to continue to be bad news.
I’ve been transformed because I used to be quite romantically optimistic about everything and had a lot of faith in humanity. I have to admit that the empathy is still there, but the faith in humanity has been dampened a little bit for me because it’s pretty simple. We’ve got a simple set of rules to follow to protect ourselves and each other, and yet there are people who are actively out to go against the grain. Here in Stratford, I’m seeing signs of NO MORE LOCKDOWNS.
I can’t wrap my head around it.
Where have I been transformed concerning live theatre? I’m all about theatre that engages as opposed to pacifies. Theatre needs to come from the inside out, not the outside in if it wants to be authentic and achieve any kind of vacuum quality acting level. The audience should feel like voyeurs, according to the late William Hutt.
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 actor/artist and the audience both feel it. Would you agree with Ms. Caldwell? Have you ever felt danger during this time of Covid and do you believe it will somehow influence your work when you return to the theatre?
I agree with Ms. Caldwell. We need to see a character begin somewhere and end up somewhere else. In order to do that, there must be conflict. The conflict is where the danger comes from.
It makes me think about an experience I had. I originated the role of Clown 1 in the Canadian premiere of ‘The 39 Steps’. I had a strange kismet with that play where I later played Hannay at Neptune in Halifax. When I got to New York, there was an off-Broadway production running and I was asked to understudy all three male roles. But then the show closed.
I assistant directed a Canadian production oddly enough with the guy who assistant directed the off-Broadway production and who I had been auditioning for in New York for the understudy job. Dayna Tekatch directed the Canadian premiere. She reminded us, excluding the role of Hannay, the characters can be as big and buffoonish as you want them to be, but they have to be rooted in playing a real objective to come from the inside out. They have to be real people and start as real people and not inauthentic lunatics. If these people are not real, there can’t be any danger. If there’s no danger, then there can’t be any stakes. If there are no stakes, then it becomes a bunch of silly gags and actors playing different characters. It needs to be that thriller.
If there is no danger in this particular play, it’s over before it starts.
I did a short film in Toronto over the last summer. It was the weird period of being in limbo between the first phase of the pandemic and not quite into the second phase. I remember thinking we are in this little window where we can do this. Productions have learned a lot since then; companies have learned a lot about how to do the protocols. We all had our tests on this film, but I was the stickler during the film ensuring that we would all be safe.
There are these stories about Douglas Rain, one of the original company members at Stratford. He got a bit reclusive in his last days. Apparently, he set up a little tent corner area when he wasn’t working. He didn’t want to talk to anybody. I was close to pulling a Douglas Rain on the short film I shot last summer. I didn’t want anyone to come near me because I did feel the danger in my being a stickler about safety on set. I was grateful to do a job but felt petrified the entire time. I went to length of during that whole shoot and the two weeks after, I isolated from my son.
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 sensitive to our world and has it made some impact on your life in such a way that you will bring this back with you to the theatre?
The thing I’m most keenly sensitive about from all this is we’ve all been experiencing some degree of trauma on the spectrum of trauma. I recognize that and have seen it manifested in myself and in others. It manifests in unexpected ways and it has heightened our reactions to so many things.
Being a parent of a six-year-old, there are so many undiscovered epiphanies. I’ve been keenly aware of the other two kids who are in Henry’s learning pod through school. For those kids who can’t articulate the trauma they’re experiencing or recognizing it, I’ve learned how to be more sensitive especially towards Henry. He’s happy here in Canada, his socialization is fine with a good balance of work and play.
There was a moment where something wasn’t right and just a moment out of the blue. Henry is a good kid. He’s funny, got a good sense of humour and is sensitive, there was a moment where he came up and sat on my lap, and cuddled up on me and hugged me and squeezed me.
I asked him if he was alright, and he just started crying. He said he just felt sad. For ten minutes he went through that. It was hard, heart wrenching but it was good because he was having an emotional release. That led to a conversation of saying it’s a good thing if you’re feeling sad to cry because you’re letting it out of your system. He doesn’t understand fully what is happening to him.
And it suddenly dawned on me that what I was telling Henry, I should have been telling myself as well. Sometimes you forget that if you need to take a day to be in pajamas and watch mindless movies or play video games, it’s okay to not feel the shame and to take the time to not do anything.
How will this translate into my work? With my students I was working on a couple of different Shakespeare monologues. I gave them something dense and challenging from Richard III. In working with them, we looked at the two different Richards. We saw the adult and the child Richard. How did Richard get to this point? It started me thinking what this would have been for him?
That level of trauma would probably have created some arrested development and to lead to insane behaviour and the shutting off of emotions.
Again, the late Hal Prince spoke of the fact that theatre should trigger curiosity in the actor/artist and the audience. Has Covid sparked any curiosity in you about something during this time? Has this time away from the theatre sparked further curiosity for you when you return to this art form?
The Theatre Curation Project and Channel have made me even more curious. I’m a big theatre nerd. Long before I studied at the Stratford Festival, I had the books about William Hutt and renowned at Stratford and I was a big theatre history buff.
But looking at the journey and legacy of how we got from where it started to where we are now is at the forefront. What I’ve been recognizing as we’re 40 episodes in with more to follow, the similarities, the patterns and the story forming from hearing the accounts of these mentors, I’m realizing and now starting to map together the foundations of Canadian theatre and the commonalities.
It’s prompted me to perhaps have these stories come out as special presentations. Ultimately, I want to transpose a lot of these stories into books and volumes so they can be in libraries of theatre schools long after I’ve left this world.
I got thinking about this idea of the architects of Canadian theatre. At this point, I can count on two hands specific people who started it all. Almost in a Bible format, I’d like to write the ‘Genesis’ history of the architecture of Canadian theatre, the creation of Canadian theatre. One volume for example might be called THE BOOK OF HUTT (with great respect to William Hutt) and the impact they had then and now.
My drama students at Queen’s don’t know who are Val and Gord Robertson. This has to change. They have to know these names of the greats of Canadian theatre some who came from Kingston.
Just in terms of life as well has made me curious. There is re-inventing going on because of the pandemic. Rather than being defeated by all this, what can we do in spite of all this. Not only to keep it going and preserve the stories, but I’ve said in some of the faculty meetings with the drama department at Queen’s to look at online learning as an opportunity and silver lining that perhaps what we are doing online now will augment the learning of the students when they return in person.
To learn more about Jacob’s passion projects, please visit:
YouTube Theatre Curation Project: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCLhEdMQ-NVs_WC61tHYw7yQ?sub_confirmation=1
Facebook Group: Theatre Curation Project https://www.facebook.com/groups/645544769451393/
Follow Jacob James on his Insta: @jacobonielljames