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James Kall

Theatre Conversation in a Covid World

Ted Simonette

Joe Szekeres

What an enjoyable conversation with James Kall who appears as Nick and others in the Toronto company of ‘Come from Away’. And I even got the opportunity to be introduced to his beautiful dog, Harper. Gorgeous looking animal.

James Kall holds an MFA in Acting from Yale University School of Drama. He has appeared in numerous TV shows, films and commercials, including "Schitt's Creek", "Suits", "Murdoch Mysteries", "Salvation", "Life with Judy Garland" and "The Christmas Market". He has over 100 professional theatre credits including "By Jeeves" on Broadway, directed by Sir Alan Ayckbourne and national tours of "Mamma Mia", "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee" and "Fiddler on the Roof".

He was in the original Canadian cast of the Tony Award winning musical "Kinky Boots”. James has worked at theaters throughout the US and Canada as both an actor and a director. He is a dual citizen of the US and Canada.

We conducted our conversation via Zoom. Thanks again for taking the time, James to add your voice to the conversation:

Many professional theatre artists I’ve profiled and interviewed have shared so much of themselves and how the pandemic has affected them from social implications from the Black Lives Matter and BIPOC movements to the staggering numbers of illnesses and deaths. Could you share with us and describe one element, either positive or negative, from this time that you believe will remain with you forever?

I’ve been mulling over this question for over a week since you sent it to me. I think I wanted to stay positive about it.

What will stay with me is that I realize how much I took for granted and how blessed I am in so many facets of my life not only professionally in terms of the privilege I had, the white privilege I had. There weren’t times when I worried, “Oh, are there going to be roles for white men in this business” whereas my colleagues do have to worry about that, my colleagues of colour.

Having been doing this for over 40 years professionally, it never really hit me like that until the BIPOC movement, and I thought how very fortunate I’ve been.

As far as the pandemic, I’ve been blessed that I have a home, I have food, utilities; I have companionship, and the things I took for granted like seeing my doctor whenever I needed or going to the dentist or meet with friends. I realize now this is eye opening for me.

I’m a fortunate human being and I need to appreciate it more.

Have you learned anything about human nature from this time?

What strikes me the most is that it seems like we are divided into two camps: first, those who put themselves first above all else, and the other camp: those who put others first which would lead to betterment for all of us.

I’m thankful to be in the second camp, and there are more people in the second camp which allows humanity to survive as long as there are more people in that second camp.

I’m a dual citizen as I can vote in both countries. To see what has become of the US and all of the selfishness that has risen to the top and formed a head in regard to masks, vaccinations, politics, white privilege, police violence, you’re either in the one camp or the other camp.

That’s what I think I’ve learned about human nature but there is quite a division right now.

I’m blessed to be a part of ‘Come from Away’ and its story of people helping others in the face of tragedy.

How has your immediate family been faring during this time? As a family, can you share with us how your lives have been changed and impacted by this time?

My family in the US has remained safe and healthy and have been able to continue working. My family here, the person I worry about the most is my mother-in-law. She’s 98. She’s in a nursing home outside Ottawa that was hit rather hard early on and half of the residents succumbed to Covid. She’s been good and we were able to visit her until early November because there were socially distant outdoor visits. It was great. We tried to see her every week.

Since then, we’ve had to rely on Zoom and virtual calls which has worked, but she has shut down a bit because of the depression of being alone. She has people around her, but not seeing her family has been hard. We try to cheer her up online and keep her going until we can see her again.

I’ve lost a few colleagues of people with whom I’ve worked over the years to Covid which is devastating.

Harper is fine, and my partner, Randy, is fine. We’re all good here; we’re healthy.

I know none of us can even begin to guess when professional theatre artists will be back to work. I’ve spoken with some who have said it might not be until 2022. Would you agree on this account? Have you ever though that you might have had to pivot and switch careers during this time?

My answer changes daily, if not hourly, for what I see on the news. I’m going to hold on to the belief that some theatre will come back this year, and I hope the Toronto production of ‘Come from Away’ does just that. We’re fortunate in that our production is sitting there waiting for us.

I don’t think we will return until it is truly safe. So that’s why I’m disappointed with the roll out of the vaccines here in Canada. Nobody has really stepped up to the plate to make sure that they’re fixing whatever is not working.

In the U.S., Dr. Fauci is quite pleased and believes even with the new strains of the new virus that, by April, anyone who wants to or should get vaccinated can be vaccinated. Right now, they’re doing groups, high risk, seniors. By April, I thought that’s pretty amazing. (Note from Joe: Mr. Trudeau is promising September. Thus, the reason why James’s point and why he is disappointed)

We need that up here. In talking to our producers from ‘Come from Away’, we’ve had a couple of Zoom meetings, they really don’t want to compromise the show. They want to do it in the way it’s being done in Australia, intact as written. There’s so much close physical contact in the show that we have to ensure safety with this ensemble of 12 actors. We’ve done the show as a concert, which we’ve done, but it doesn’t serve the piece otherwise.

So, I can there being far few audience members until it’s completely safe, but I do think the Toronto production of ‘Come from Away’ will return this year.

How do you think your chosen career path and vocational calling will look once all of you return safely to the theatre? Do you feel confident that you can and will return safely?

I do feel confident that we will return safely, I honestly do, because they have proven that case by re-opening the show in Australia, but Australia has handled the pandemic a lot better on their continent than we have here.

The producers check in on us constantly to keep our spirits up and to ensure us that we have a job waiting for us. The producers want that we won’t return unless it is truly safe for us. Having been working in television since the pandemic came about, there are ways to continue in this business. In the face of the pandemic, it’s easier in film and television, but I think there’s enough energy and enough people behind restoring the arts.

The arts are essential. I do believe we will return. I do. And it will be safe. I assume all of us will be returning. And I applaud my friends who have found other creative outlets to keep going whether jewelry making, design, teaching or sewing. I’ve been really impressed with the creations coming out of this pandemic.

This time of the worldwide pandemic has shaken all of us to our very core and being. According to author Margaret Atwood, she believes that Canadians are survivors no matter what is thrown in their path. Could you share what has helped you survive this time of uncertainty?

First and foremost, my dog, Harper. I have to get out of bed in the morning and take her out. And I love her for that. She keeps me active and sane. We’ve explored new parts of Toronto safely along with new parks whether we walk or drive to them.

Certainly having my husband of 25 years, Randy, I thought being trapped together that this could be interesting. Really, it has improved our relationship. I realize how fortunate I am that we are together. It’s the perfect fit because we have gone through this year with just us and the dog and come out better for it, I think.

I can’t imagine being alone during this. That worries me because I do have friends who are really struggling because they live alone. I try to reach out to those whom I know are living alone.

I’ve been keeping busy because I’m going to learn Slovak. I’ve been brushing up on my Spanish and reading a lot. One of my passions is baking as the cast would probably tell that I would bring in some new baked goods once a week that I’ve experimented with.

At first I was doing some baking to take to the nursing homes or to some of my neighbours. Can’t do that now, but I’m still baking. I may not fit into my costume but I’ll deal with that when we’re back at.

And the usual stuff too. I sing a lot, talk to myself a lot, I volunteer. I found this organization called VOLUNTEER TORONTO and they send out, sometimes daily, notices where they need help whether delivering food, giving safe rides, or delivering goods to people who can’t get out. I miss that terribly that umbrella from our show COME FROM KINDNESS outreach program we started.

I miss that. I miss what we’ve been able to accomplish over the last couple of years. ‘Come from Away’ has become more than just a show. It’s become a movement. I highly recommend volunteering. That’s what I plan to do along with baking and rescuing dogs and enjoying life as much as I can.

Imagine in a perfect world that the professional theatre artist has been called back as it has been deemed safe for actors and audience members to return. The first show is complete and now you’re waiting backstage for your curtain call:

a) Describe how you believe you’re probably going to react at that curtain call.

I think everyone in the cast could answer this. I will certainly be crying but have a big ass smile on my face.

I cry a lot. I have become a very emotional person and I cry at the drop of a hat. I cry during commercials, I cry if someone in the audience is crying and I can’t look at them when the show is going on.

b) There is a crowd of people waiting to see you and your castmates at the stage door to greet all of you. Tell me what’s the first thing you will probably say to the first audience member:

Ya know I'd say (in a Newfoundland dialect),

"God bless yer cotton socks for bein' here, b'y", or I'd say "Ďakujem" (Thank you in Slovak),
Gracias, Merci,

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