Self Isolated Artist
Born in Surrey, British Columbia, but having spent the last 30 years here in the GTA, Jeff Madden is one busy guy. He holds a BSc in Human Biology from the University of Toronto and a Master of Education in Curriculum, Teaching and Learning (OISE, University of Toronto). In between, he was taking private lessons in acting, dance, singing and audition techniques.
First time I saw Jeff on stage was during the long run production of ‘Jersey Boys’ for Dancap Productions in North York. He won a Dora Mavor Moore Award for Outstanding Performance, and most deservedly so, for his work as Frankie Valli. Jeff has also appeared across the country in numerous performances from Shaw out to Stage West Calgary and to Charlottetown. He has appeared on television in ‘Mayday’ on Discovery and ‘Murdoch Mysteries’ on CBC. Jeff was also nominated for another Dora award for Angelwalk’s ‘I Love You Because’.
Even though the theatres are now closed for the pandemic, Jeff appears as Kevin T. and others in the Canadian company of the smash musical hit ‘Come from Away’, a truly remarkable story of human kindness following the terror of September 11. I saw Jeff in this production at the Elgin Theatre before it transferred back to the Royal Alexandra. For me, ‘Come from Away’ is one of those musicals that still tugs at my heart strings because I know there are kind people out there amid all the world’s confusion. How we need stories like ‘Come from Away’ to keep reminding us that goodness still exists in our darkest moments.
Jeff is a busy family man as you will see from his answers, but I was pleased he was able to take the time for our interview via email:
1. It has been just over two months right now that we have been under this lockdown. How have you been doing during this period of isolation and quarantine? How is your immediate family doing?
Thank you for asking! First and foremost, everyone in my immediate and extended family and my circle of close friends has remained unharmed by the virus. But dealing with all the change right now has led to some mental health challenges. Luckily, my wife and kids and I are doing OK at managing those challenges.
2. Along with your work in ‘Come from Away’ were you involved in any side projects before the pandemic was declared and everything was shut down? Were you involved in the planning stages of any new projects? How has the cast been doing for the most part?
Most artists, even those fortunate enough to have long-term gigs like I have, are always hustling. Yes, I was working on a few ideas and projects – but nothing I can talk about publicly right now. At the time of the shut down, I was also teaching part-time in the musical theatre program at Sheridan College, something I’ve been doing since 2013. I love it tremendously. I finished that work about a month ago, which was great, but unfortunately my upcoming work in the summer semester was cancelled due to Covid-19, and my Fall semester opportunities are still up in the air.
The ‘Come from Away’ family is large and spread out, and honestly, this new crushing reality has hit us pretty hard. We got used to seeing each other six days a week for over two years, and then … nothing. Looking on the bright side, no one to my knowledge has contracted the virus, and it seems like the producers want to bring us back when it’s safe to do so.
We stay connected like everyone is doing these days - social media, group chats, phone calls, etc. We’ve also done a couple of rewarding group events, including a two-night cabaret fundraiser for Newfoundland’s Daffodil House and the Canadian Cancer Society that raised well over $12,000. If people want to re-watch the two nights, they’re here, on Greg Hawco’s Facebook page:
3. What has been the most difficult and/or challenging element of this period of isolation?
In a word - uncertainty. It’s there, casting its shadow in virtually every aspect of our lives now. I don’t think I need to elaborate – and even the thought of giving you examples is making me feel uneasy, so I’m going to just leave it at that.
4. What have all of you been doing to keep yourself busy during this time of lock down?
When everything came to a grinding halt around March 13th, I still had my teaching contract to complete. Sheridan College suspended classes for a week to figure out how to finish the last month of the term. I was fairly occupied for the first three weeks with lots of meetings and a couple weeks of teaching online. For the rest of the time, I was battling against that uncertainty. Following the news, but realizing that I can’t watch too closely… Being concerned about the crisis, but not giving into fear… Realizing that all I can truly control is the present moment…
But honestly, I’ve actually been very busy. I live in a 2-bedroom condo with my wife and two daughters, aged 12 and 13. My wife is in the midst of a long-term neck injury, so in addition to taking care of her needs, I am running our home. I do all the shopping, cooking, laundry and cleaning for the family. I spend a few hours every day helping my kids through their online schoolwork. We’ve also re-organized our living space about a dozen times to try to maximize the space. You name it, we’ve cleaned it out - cabinets, drawers, cupboards, closets, bathrooms, storage units. We rearranged our living room furniture to give us space to exercise, which we do most days. And we try to get outside every day to play together, too, which has been great. And at night, we’ve been watching a lot of movies together – some favourites from my youth, like the Back to the Future trilogy and Spaceballs, and thanks to Disney + we’re working our way through the 287 Musicals and Marvel movies lol. So, weirdly, time is flying by for me.
Career wise, I’ve been trying to stay connected to my craft and our business. I warm up and sing every couple of days, I’m playing the piano more often and even brought out my old trumpet and flugelhorn to mess around with. I’m listening to more music and thinking about the kinds of shows and roles that I’m beginning to age into. I’m watching some online content, some of which has been incredibly moving, some less so. Occasionally, I’ll talk with friends and colleagues about the present and future and ruminate on everything. Honestly, there’s so much inspiring art to watch, read, listen to, learn from, and it’s nice to have a little more time to do that.
5. Any words of wisdom or sage advice you would give to other performing artists who are concerned about the impact of COVID-19? What about the new theatre graduates who are just out of school and may have been hit hard? Why is it important for them not to lose sight of their dreams?
Well, firstly, I don’t think anyone can truly describe the impact that Covid-19 will have on our business right now. In time, we’ll be able to look back and see all the ways the business has changed. And, I’m not too sure I possess any wisdom or sage advice about coping right now... but for me, I try to avoid focussing on the minutia and instead look at the big picture of life.
I’ve always believed it’s important to be a well-rounded person with a few outside interests – family, health, relationships, nature, sports etc. In many ways, those are more important than our jobs. But of course, we are artists… we are creative, sensitive people and have hopes and dreams for the future. But I believe any day where we’re able to create art is a good day, whether it’s on a Broadway stage, a film set, or in our living room. We should remind ourselves that we knowingly chose to live a life that will have many highs and lows, and many periods of financial distress. Even right now, when we’re all facing the same brutality together, we have government subsidies to help us through.
For me, I remain optimistic. Society needs what we do. Look how everyone is turning to the arts to get them through this time! Music, streaming, shows, you name it have never been more popular. So I say, instead of dwelling on that which we cannot control, we should do things that bring us joy and inspiration, and remain diligent by practicing our craft. Because when that day comes and phone rings, things are going to take off again. I know that when things improve, we will all find our way in that new reality.
6. Do you see anything positive stemming from this pandemic?
Personally, I’m much closer to my children than ever before, which is a huge positive. But to answer your question in the broader sense, the cynic in me says that those with money and power will work hard to retain it and try to get things back to ‘normal’. But here’s what I hope - a lot of us have become aware of just how connected we all are as a society.
We are nurturing our relationships these days, and society will become more empathetic to each other. I think we realize how badly we need people, how important it is to have close relationships, to love and be loved. Hopefully this leads to a more giving, more charitable society. Like most people, I also have a ton more respect for teachers, health care workers, grocery store clerks … I mean the list goes on and on. Hopefully people are seeing where the good is being done and will work towards celebrating that which is truly important in life.
7. In your estimation and informed opinion, will the Canadian performing arts scene somehow be changed or impacted as a result of COVID – 19?
Yes, I believe it will change, but in ways we can’t know right now. However, I am positive that society needs artists to tell stories, to create and disseminate ideas and beauty and laughter and tears and context for what it means to be human. No matter what happens, there will be ways to share our craft and earn a living.
8. Many artists are turning to streaming/online performances to showcase/highlight/share their work. What are your thoughts about this format presentation? Any advantages to doing this? Disadvantages? Are you participating or will you be participating in this presentation format soon?
Yes, I’ve seen how they are gaining popularity right now. Personally, I’ve put together a couple performances on video. This one with my talented friend Chris Tsujiuchi was seen over 2000 times on Facebook (I just put it up on my YouTube channel https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jHZMrpEjNRw), our Come From Kindness fundraising Cabaret (I can be seen singing 2 songs on Facebook links in Question 2 above), and I also did a livestream appearance on Chris Wilson’s Big Girl and Friends that featured four live performances songs (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JDhU7-2RA1s). I enjoyed doing them, if only to practice and share my craft.
But online performances are interesting to me in a couple ways.
They’re great for right now, but I’m not certain they will have lasting power. If these types of experiences are going to be a large part of the future, then we’ll all need to better understand the technological requirements and the importance of quality electronics, software and hardware. There needs to be more options to artists for monetizing these events… and the big IF is will the public be comfortable with paying us to watch, rather than just sticking to free content provided elsewhere.
The other interesting aspect of this emerging trend is how it might be leveling the playing field. Whether it’s Lady Gaga, Lin Manuel Miranda, myself or anyone else, we’re easily compared now. This online content has no bells and whistles – they’re recorded on an average camera, with an average microphone, in an average living room; it’s often just a voice and a story to be told. Discerning audiences may be starting to understand that ‘celebrities’ or ‘stars’ may not have any more talent than the grade school teacher or nurse who went viral and, consequently, the value we place on them in society may diminish, while new voices may be catapulted up. I think this trend may place a premium back on actual talent… which is a good thing, even if it becomes disruptive. Anyway, lots to think about and time will tell.
9. I’ve seen your work on stage both in Jersey Boys and CFA. What is it about performing you still love given all the change, the confusion and the drama surrounding our world now?
I’ve been incredibly fortunate in my 22-year career to work with some of the world’s top theatre practitioners on a fairly regular basis. I’ve had a multitude of experiences in the performing arts, ranging from performing in front of 40,000 people to five people.
Ultimately, I’m an artist and collaborator by nature. I’ve worked hard at honing my crafts as an actor and singer both for my own personal fulfillment and for the enjoyment of others. Nothing challenges me quite like preparing for an audition - trying to learn the material and pinpoint the qualities within to bring to light. Nothing excites me quite as much as a rehearsal process - digging into a new or beloved old piece with a room full of passionate, intelligent artists. And nothing is more rewarding than sharing the result of those efforts with a room full of people six days a week. I’m eagerly looking forward to continuing these things when the time is right.
With a respectful nod to ‘Inside the Actors’ Studio’ and the late James Lipton, here are the 10 questions he asked his guests at the conclusion of his interviews:
a. What is your favourite word?
b. What is your least favourite word?
c. What turns you on?
d. What turns you off?
e. What sound or noise do you love?
An audience erupting together (positively, lol)
f. What sound or noise bothers you?
Jackhammers echoing off skyscrapers
g. What is your favourite curse word?
h. What profession, other than your own, would you have liked to attempt?
i. What profession would you not like to do?
j. If Heaven exists, what do you hope God will say to you as you approach the Pearly Gates?
“What took you so long? Come on in!”