Jayme Armstrong

Theatre Conversation in a Covid World

Kevin Clark Studios

Joe Szekeres

I felt it was time after a month to continue discussion with professional theatre and performing artists to see how they’re doing. It’s now getting turbulent in Ontario and it has been the arts community so far that has helped us endure the emotional volatility of the pandemic. So I thought of a new title to begin new conversations.

But who to ask first?

When I reviewed Calgary’s Storybook Theatre production of ‘Annie’, I thought why not ask Director Jayme Armstrong to see if she would be interested and available to share her thoughts. And I was pleased she agreed.

Jayme’s zeal, enthusiasm, and love for and of the theatre industry was highly infectious, and that’s something I wish all of us would catch from her. She and I had a good laugh when I told her I remember her from her work on CBC’s ‘How Do You Solve A Problem Like Maria?’ where she made it to the top three finalists to play Maria in the Mirvish/Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber production of ‘The Sound of Music’ at Toronto’s Princess of Wales over ten years ago.

But enough living in the past for me.

Jayme has been one extremely busy lady as you will see from our Zoom conversation. She is a staple performer at Ontario’s Drayton Entertainment plus she has just received her master’s degree in Arts and Cultural Management. She and I both agreed that the production of live theatre, both at the professional and non-professional/community theatre is going to look so different when we emerge from Covid.

Thank you so much for the good conversation, Jayme:

In a couple of months, we will be coming up on one year where the doors of theatre have been shut. How have you been faring during this time? Your immediate family?

I will say that it has been a journey. As theatre artists we’re used to almost over functioning because we’re self-employed. Our level of busy generally exceeds what the average person’s level of busy is. Going from that to absolutely nothing was shocking. It was totally shocking almost to the point where a lot of artists didn’t know how to function.

One of the beautiful things that happened and that we saw, and I expected, were the artists who stepped up during this time. They were the first to step up online and provide the content, free classes, things to do. So many theatre creators and artists do so many other things. They wear many hats in order to sustain themselves as yoga, dance and art teachers. They draw on their bag of tricks to see what they can offer in times of peril.

I was really moved by all this because this is humanity to me. In times of struggle, we always see artists who step up. It is the most beautiful thing about the industry in which I work and, for me, it is one of the most addictive things about the industry. There are so many challenges about the industry and some things that work against my personality as I crave stability and consistency.

The theatre industry can be a bit tricky because you never know where your next job is coming from. Having that faith it will come, that it will be there and you’ll come across people who will see things the way you do can be tricky. The initial challenge of Covid was the unknown. When will it come back and what will it look like? And ironically here we are, approaching a year later, and we still have the same questions.

My immediate family has been doing well. As someone who is used to being incredibly busy I’ve had a lot of extra time to spend with my immediate family. My father has had a varied health existence over the last while. I lost my mom to cancer when I was 26 years old. The focus on family for me has been huge because as I’ve gotten older I’ve realized just how fast time passes. Covid has put a new influence in my life to focus on that which is important. Really, we’re so quick to overprioritize our work and our commitments and so many things going on in our lives. Simply put, the thing that we really missed were the people. The other stuff can go and the things that mattered were nearest and dearest to our heart.
I’m incredibly grateful to re-focus on the other aspects of my life that perhaps I’ve ignored in the quest for this career I’ve chosen and the sometimes-all-consuming thing I’m doing.

Scarlett, my dog, is doing better, thank you for asking, Joe, and for supporting. It’s so hard with animals because they can’t tell us what’s going on and what’s hurting or bothering them. They hide their pain from us because they don’t want us to feel it.

How have you been spending your time since the theatre industry has been locked up tight as a drum?

Well, I’ve directed a production of ‘Annie’ for Storybook Theatre in Calgary. One of the things I did very quickly was pivot my side business. My side business is ‘Enchanted Entertainment’ and we do characters for birthday parties and children’s events. It’s my labour of love. I started ‘Enchanted’ because of my mom. She was an incredibly charitable person.

When I really started starting to get busy in my career in my mid twenties, I found that I needed another outlet, something that wasn’t consuming me in the way the theatre world can consume artists. The theatre world can become innately obsessive as it’s something we really have to put ourselves into. And yes, at times, the theatre industry can be a little toxic for ourselves if we’re not careful and taking on self criticism and all of the doubt and uncertainty.

I needed an artistic outlet that wasn’t that.

I needed something that was happy and that had an opportunity to give back to others in the way I had been so lucky to receive.

The first thing I did when Covid started was I immediately pivoted and shifted things online. Not for the purpose of our benefit as our tiny company, it was for charity. What I knew would probably happen was that families would be struggling for so many reasons. Yes, we saw the effect on the elderly and senior citizens, but I also saw the effect Covid would have on the kids. With the kids, they’re at such an influential point in their lives to be without any artistic influence potentially for two years PLUS that is enormous. I thought in my own little way, this was my way to give back.

I partnered with companies like Hospital for Sick Children and Make a Wish Foundation to grant wishes to kids that weren’t able to have their Disney trips. With children who were terminally ill, we were able to do a Zoom call for them with their favourite character. My wish was to bring some joy to the kids in a very dark time. Getting to watch not only the kids but watch the parents seeing their child have that moment of happiness in this bleak, grey time, my life is forever changed.

If I’m truly being honest with myself, why I did this was simply for the reason I didn’t know what else to do. I didn’t know what to do with myself with the loss of everything in my life. It was my way of coping. As Covid went on and summer approached, things started shifting and there was a lot going on with Black Lives Matter here in Canada and the US. Everyone was thinking “I need to go to my own bubble and close the window for the summer and get outside”. We pared back for a bit in the summer as we got tired online and so was everyone else involved.

I’ve never experienced anything such as what we did for the kids. It filled my heart in a way that nothing else can. I’ve never experienced anything like it. Doing this totally for free, voluntary, and to see the expressions on the kids’ faces was far more important in that moment. It was a privilege what we do.

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?
(Jamie chuckled and then stated) This is such a loaded question.

Theatre is often described as an escape. That’s our job in the theatre – ‘to provide escape for people’.
In terms of Covid, it’s had periods of time as being as escape for me because life has looked so entirely different. However, the state of the world we’ve experienced during Covid, I don’t know if I would describe that as an escape. There are so many things in the world right now that have come crashing into our existence. I honestly believe for myself was Mother Nature’s way of correcting what was happening in the world – some of the selfishness, some of the unkindness, it’s been a chance for the whole world to stop and have things taken out of their everyday reality and examine the hardships all over the world. We needed to look beyond ourselves and the end of our own little nose.

Covid doesn’t discriminate. No one is immune. So, in terms of the escapism, yes, for me personally, I can recognize even as a self-employed artist (sort of the bottom of the barrel) that I lead an incredibly privileged life. I’ve been incredibly lucky. I’ve living a beautiful career; I’m one of the few artists I know who owns my own home, on my own. I can recognize in many ways as a Canadian, how privileged I am to live in this country, just to be born here. The fact that I was born here, into my family, my ability, my intelligence, my heart makes me privileged.

In terms of escapism, I can only say there’s been periods as the world has come crashing in at a few points. There has been some beautiful movement in my life in learning to relax, in learning to accept that as an over achiever, over worker and over thinker, I cannot control the outcome. It doesn’t matter what I do right now, I can’t make my industry come back. I can’t go back to work the way I want to. I just have to wait and be patient and there’s nothing I can do about that.

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 until 2022?

I will say that this is a very fair and accurate prediction that we won’t be back full tilt until at least 2022 for a number of reasons. It will depend on the roll out of the vaccine. From an arts administrative perspective, Alex Mustakas (one of my mentors from Drayton Entertainment), always says it is called ‘show business’ not ‘show fun’. Yes, it is fun and a privilege, but you cannot continue to do it unless you are making money doing it. That is how we sustain productions and produce and create more and satisfy our audiences while growing them.

Realistically it’s more like three to five years before theatre will come back. The majority of these theatre companies will produce less shows, smaller shows, less rehearsal time. They’ll be looking to pare down their costs because many of these companies are not supported by the government or external funding. They still have to continue paying their overhead and their staff to run so many areas.

The unfortunate reality for arts organizations is that they are suffering, bleeding and they are going to continue to do so until they can get back to a place where they are producing. That also is impacted by people’s expendable entertainment dollars. In terms of live performance, we’re in the fortunate situation that people will be ready to get out and do things and return to experiences that feed their heart.

I do believe that live theatre is a totally unique experience for that. Although I enjoyed directing Annie that I knew would be transferred to film, it’s not the same as live theatre. There’s an energy and magic at live theatre that you cannot replicate on film.

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?

The one thing that I was always taught growing up – if you want to remain in the theatre industry, you have to be a lifelong learner. There is always going to be somebody younger, prettier, more talented coming up behind you. And that can instill a huge sense of fear in you or it can light a little fire under your butt moving forward.

Keep growing and changing. Finding my way to Drayton put me in a situation where Alex Mustakas sees no limits in what you can do. In an industry where you’re often typecast into certain types and performers, Alex sees ability and then trusts the person and the ability. There’s no limits. As a result, I haven’t been typecast into anything.

I now play such a huge variety and it’s challenged me to grow. In playing such a variety of characters, now that I’m transitioning into directing, I’m now more in tune with what it’s like to play a variety of characters and to explain it to people, let alone the transition to directing which is difficult to begin. How do you convince somebody to trust you with their multiple thousands of dollars, and you arrive at that first rehearsal in a group of friends who now you are in charge of to ensure the show goes forward.

What I ended up learning was the only way to be myself. I wasn’t any different and my duty was not to try and be anything else. It was to just give everything in my heart that I was lucky enough to be a part of.

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 do agree in a sense about feeling danger in the work, but my phrasing would be a little bit different. Danger equates a fear-based mentality, and I really do my best not to lead through fear. There is enough fear generally in my industry to really put themselves out there and to remain incredibly vulnerable. I do my best not to equate things from a fear perspective.

Danger does equate to fear so that’s the first part to this question. Fear challenges us to function outside of our comfort zone, and that is something I am for. When we function outside of our comfort zone, it challenges us to change and adapt and that makes us grow as people, as performers and as creators.
On top of that great theatre should inspire great change in the world. That’s why we produce theatre to inspire change. It’s an interesting thing right now in terms of what’s happening in the world in general. We’re working hard as a society to correct and right some of the injustices, things that are wrong. But if we go back and change our entire theatre history, how do we know how far we’ve grown?

Isn’t great theatre also saying, ‘Wow, isn’t that something from 40 years ago?’ Have we come far enough? I get concerned sometimes that we just take things that no longer serves us and say that doesn’t exist anymore. But that’s a great barometer for change and whether we’ve come far enough.

The truth is we can always do more, we can always do better.

So, I do agree with Ms. Caldwell’s statement, but I would phrase it differently.

The late scenic designer Ming Cho Lee spoke about great art opening doors and making us feel more sensitive. 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?

I speak a lot about vulnerability now because the truth of it for myself is that I’ve discovered that I’ve had an enormous fear of vulnerability. That is the truth. I wouldn’t be vulnerable as a performer.

Eventually, through circumstances in my own life, I’ve learned that your greatest power is your vulnerability. As an artist, it is essential to be vulnerable. I would not have been able to make this transition to director if I did not discover my vulnerability as a performer. It is an enormous gift and power to share your vulnerability. It is not weakness.

Sometimes we are taught through the industry and other means that expressing vulnerability makes us appear weak. As female leaders, that’s definitely something we are shown – don’t be vulnerable, sensitive, weak.

My greatest power is potentially (and I’m discovering it in real time) learning to lead through female energy NOT through male energy.

To become the best leader and arts creator I can be, I need to trust in my vulnerability because that’s going to make me the best female leader that I can be.

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 interest 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?

We talked earlier about the trajectory of theatre and when it will possibly be coming back and realistically what it will look like. It’s another unknown.

I’m proud of the way my industry has adjusted given what Covid threw at it with limited number of resources. The curiosity I found in myself was through my experience in directing ‘Annie’ for Storybook Theatre, completing my Master’s in Arts and Cultural Management and discovering this art administrative perspective that I’m very interested in discovering.

This time has been very transformative in discovering these things for myself. Nothing is the same. The theatre industry is not the same. When it comes back, it will innately look different because it will have to.
And the way we produce. Will we go back to the way we produced things before? I doubt it because are used to being in their homes and having things accessible at their fingertips. There will be more variety made available online whether or not I personally view it that way or not.

I’m a purist when it comes to theatre innately, but to touch and reach people we’re going to have to figure out how to do that and what it looks like.

I’m really inspired by the growth I’ve seen in the short time. I know this will continue.

I have a new interest and curiosity in how to produce live theatre in sustainable ways to reach more people. Producing theatre is expensive and do people really realize this. You can stream Netflix or buy a $35 + for a ticket to a professional show. So why would people want to purchase such a high-ticket price?
Yes, there is magic in the theatre and it’s not for everybody. But that’s why the ticket price is a tad higher than Netflix.

In order for the industry to move forward, what I see coming out of Covid is that we are going to have to get very good at sharing resources and I’m curious how do we go about doing this. I tagged up with Storybook Theatre because I was curious in working with young people to ensure they don’t go without the arts in their lives for at least 2+ years now.

Yes, we realize that our seniors are our die-hard supporters of the theatre, but what are we doing tor ensure young people become supporters and subscribers as the seniors are? The seniors may be fearful upon returning and I’m curious how we accomplish to make the seniors feel safe plus ensure we begin to appeal to a younger audience.

Jayme welcomes connection to her social media accounts through Facebook: Jayme Armstrong and Instagram: jayme_and_scarlett

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