Jennifer Walls

Theatre Conversation in a Covid World

Graham Isador

Joe Szekeres

Jennifer is one articulate artist who is most passionate about what she does. After our hour plus long conversation the other day, I got the impression that not even Covid can ever destroy her zeal for the arts.

Jennifer is a Toronto based actor, director, producer, and voice actor. She is also the host/co-producer of Singular Sensation Online.

A graduate of Sheridan College's Musical Theatre Performance program, Jennifer's diverse career spans almost two decades. She has been featured in the Globe and Mail and the cover of NOW Magazine for her work in Toronto theatre and gained critical acclaim for both her portrayal as Liza Minnelli in her solo show Liza Live! as well as her autobiographical rock cabaret Jagged Little Me, based on the music of Alanis Morissette. Before the pandemic hit she was slated to make her debut as a writer at The Victoria Playhouse Petrolia.

As a director, she led the teams behind Hart House Theatre's hit productions of Heathers the Musical and The Rocky Horror Show as well as Mandy Goodhandy's Just Call Me Lady. She was also the Assistant Director with Talk As Free Theatres' production of Into The Woods. As a producer she has worked with many Fringe solo artists including Rebecca Perry and Adam Proulx as well as with Tweed and Co., The Musical Stage Company, The Toronto Fringe, Pride Toronto and Second City Toronto. She was also a producer for the Sunday Cabaret Series at the 120 Diner which was forced to close its doors due to the pandemic. As a voice actor she is the voice of the Family Channel networks.

Currently, she is the host and co-producer of Singular Sensation Online, a live monthly musical theatre event (celebrating its tenth year this March) turned online performing arts talk show. Originally a live weekly event at Statler's on Church (now The Well) turned a monthly event at the 120 Diner for just over a year when the pandemic hit, Singular soon went online combining their live and online presence into an online show.

Since April 2020, they have produced 20 episodes celebrating the inspiring efforts of the theatre community during the pandemic with conversations, performances and sign-up guests including appearances by TSN's Michael Lansberg, Juno Award nominee Stacey Kay, Broadway choreographer Marc Kimelma and director/choreographer and advocate David Conolly. The show's mission is to continue to offer a safe and supportive platform for marginalized voices and make the world more accessible for the theatre community through new segments dedicated to self-care and world issues. Season 2 will be debuting in February of 2021.

We held our conversation via Zoom. Thanks again, Jennifer:

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

It’s crazy. I was at the gym and I was thinking, “Oh, that sounds scary.” And here we are. I guess we didn’t see it coming even though the signs were all there, and we still wonder where it’s going.

Like anybody, it’s been up and down and a bit of an existential experience. There’s been a lot of practices in mediating emotions.

To give you a succinct answer I’ve been doing okay, a bit of a roller coaster in dealing with an extreme loss in our entire community and world and trying to mediate everything’s that happening. I’m very lucky, fortunate and blessed my health is fine. I’m not special in my experience.

My immediate family is fine. They’re healthy. My mom works in long term care. She’s a PSW but there haven’t been any cases where she works luckily. I’m from a small town where I am now so I’m helping her out a bit. My mom’s really tired but doing well, thank goodness, and thank you for asking.

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

I’ve been really lucky to be out of the city for the most part which has been a blessing because it’s tough to social distance in the city when everyone is close together in Toronto. I’m based in Toronto. For the first weeks, it felt like a vacation maybe a couple of weeks, just a bit of hanging out. And then things started to shut down and lock up.

As of April, we took my show ‘Singular Sensation’ online so that’s been taking up the majority of our time. My partner and I co-produce the show together and it’s been a really uplifting way to spend our time. I’ve been teaching online. I’m a voice coach and learning. I also do voice work for The Family Channel.

I’ve been lucky to have some sense of normalcy which has been good but trying to re-examine what I’m doing with my life, so it’s been part normal and part existential crisis.

And listening to the conversation being held on what’s occurring in the world and re-discovering what the show is all about and using our platform wisely in a way that is conducive to working online. I’ve always wanted to be able to combine my interest in journalism along with my degree from Sheridan, so it’s been a gift to bring the journalistic aspect to ‘Singular’ and celebrate the work people are doing or celebrating the community hub of the show.

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 as something else?

I don’t think I’d call this time an escape, more a suspension of reality but we have to move forward. It was a bit of a vacation. I’d been burned out when Covid hit so yes, it was part an escape for a small amount, but it was also tough because my partner and I were on the doorstep of the biggest seasons of theatre in our careers. He’s at Stratford and I was about to direct and make a debut as a writer. You work so hard towards these milestones and then to have it taken away from us….. Wow!

I didn’t want to escape from this, but I was happy to escape from a joe job. Okay, it was an escape, but I didn’t want an escape from the milestone my partner and I were about to experience. I love what I do, and I didn’t want the summer off.

It’s hard with all this because I don’t know what direction to travel when everything was shutting down and we were thinking two-week shutdown? Three-week shutdown? Do I pursue a new discipline? Do I get a part time job through all of this and weather out what’s coming? How do you invest in your future when you don’t know what it is? It feels like treading water.

I’m grateful for the diverse skills set I’ve recognized that I’ve had so that’s been a good thing about Covid. It’s allowed me to work through this time, yes at a limited capacity as I’m not making millions, but I’ve been able to keep a sense of normalcy.

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?

Oh, Joe, if I had an answer for that I’d be making millions off it. (Jennifer started laughing and so did I) I wouldn’t need to work at theatre ‘cause I’d be rich.

I’m a big believer in manifestation and that makes it hard for me to be realistic. If I say 2022, am I going to manifest that? I struggle between my belief in manifestation and my rational realistic part of my brain.

I don’t know, I don’t know. We have this vaccine, and we have this one school of thought that by the fall things may look very different. It’s that suspended and I don’t know how to answer that and I’m afraid to have it placed here in print. I know this sounds ridiculous, but we hold on to whatever hope gets us through the day.

I don’t know. I think it’s really complicated as there are a lot of things to take into consideration from actors to audience to technical crew, it’s almost like four different industries in one.

Before it’s back traditionally in the way we saw it before, yah, maybe, that could take awhile. Yes, there might be pockets and new ways of performing theatre as you mentioned earlier, but the full experience? I think there might be some realism to that prediction, but God I hope it’s before….

My epidemiology degree is about as imaginative as my Tony that I received. (Jennifer has neither, by the way 😉)

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?

I understand it’s transformed me to needing a bigger pant size. My experience has been up and down. I’m running again so that’s a positive start for me.

This is an interesting question. We’ve done 20 episodes of ‘Singular Sensation’ and our goal is to chat with people about what they think will happen in the future and transformation of marginalized voices, inclusion, equity and creating the theatre these theatre companies want to see. I feel privileged to get to see these initiatives from the ground up through Singular Sensation.

This pause has given us a time to reflect from where we have come from to where we are going, and to what needs to change. This time is allowing us to look and see what are we doing, what’s the result and how do we move forward. And it’s obvious we need to do something different. The transformation is coming in the way we see traditional theatre – I’m a big fan of non-traditional theatre and this is a positive step forward.

‘Singular Sensation’ has been transformed in the way we see creation and performance. We can’t do open mic online, so we had to figure out how to go from open mic to online performance talk show that morphed into bringing on new theatre companies focused on perhaps marginalized creators, for example. When I graduated from Sheridan many years ago, it was either Mirvish or bust. Now, that has all changed as theatre companies are springing up.

At Singular Sensation, we have a platform that is safe and supportive to all artists and for all artists, but our goal is to show how the arts are transformative. We’ve had guests on from Broadway and from Mirvish, but we are also reaching out to the newer companies that did not exist when I graduated from Sheridan but have every right to have their voices heard.

To be transformed, we have to listen more to each other and to hear each other’s voice.

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?

Danger is a big word here. I wonder when she had said this because words and context can mean so much given what has happened.

This is a really tricky question. I would prefer to use the word ‘thrilling’ rather than ‘danger’. I feel danger has a real connotation to it whereas thrilling – movies are called thrillers, they’re not called dangers, but there is danger in thrillers.

This is a touchy subject for me to answer as the world we know right now is in danger of all sorts. In my understanding, I wouldn’t agree because we are in a time right now where we are examining verbiage and position. It’s too easily misunderstood right now. Thrilling feels more responsible to me during this time instead of using danger.

I’ve felt danger many times during Covid but that danger feels like that I might lose my home or will I be able to afford my home or pay for my taxes. If I claim CERB and yes we have to pay it back but this has real endangering consequences and circumstances for some artists. The time we’re living in now is dangerous, and theatre is supposed to be an escape but now, in Covid, why do I want to be reminded in a theatrical piece about danger if I know I’m living in endangering circumstances.

This is a polarizing question because I have felt danger during Covid because we went from seeing empty shelves at Walmart to many of us not taking this time seriously about wearing or not wearing a mask. We live in a world steeped in danger right now.

When we understood the world or some of it, then we could be enticed with danger since our world wasn’t in danger. I can see the want for theatre to feel dangerous when the world is not in danger as a general state of being. Right now, people want to feel nostalgia, comfort, and joy rather than be reminded of the danger. Danger has visceral consequences whereas theatre shouldn’t. That’s the polarity of the question for me.

When I emerge from this pandemic, my partner and I are leaving for sunnier destinations. (Jennifer laughs). Seriously, we’re focusing on ‘Singular Sensation’ right now as our immediate future. For us, we really want this show to stay past Covid in order to bring the struggle of the artist. If we aren’t able to understand what is happening in our industry, that is dangerous. Hopefully ‘Singular Sensation’ can offer a life raft and place things in a succinct platform to offer insight.

The danger in theatre is not evolving and when we come back, hopefully, we will be aware of those issues that might be troublesome or a potential hazard. The danger is being stagnant.

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?

To be completely honest, it’s what has helped ‘Singular’ in the resonance of our show, in our work, in having these conversations.

In the beginning we identified with the fact that yes we wanted artists to come on ‘Singular’, but we’re also cognizant of the fact that an artist will also be reminded of the fact he/she/they have lost work as well. It’s complicated and heavy and we never know where someone is at.

At ‘Singular’ we’re trying to be sensitive and cognizant and aware of the loss of the artist when they are invited; however, we understand everyone is at a different place so if the artist only wants to chat and not perform, that’s perfectly fine as well. No pressure. We are being sensitive in the way we conduct our show. That’s a big part of our mandate.

In having this sensitivity, we’ve been able to have 20 episodes of the show and not pressure artists not to be anything other than who they are at that moment.

In my producing, mentoring and coaching I try to be in tune with other artists. I have anxiety myself so I find that I’m extra sensitive to people’s needs because there are days when I struggle. It’s tricky. We’re going mental health shows right now which comes from a place of sensitivity. It’s important people feel comfortable and not have to present if they don’t have that desire.

We can’t be so product driven right now. We have to be sensitive to ourselves and each other. And I hope this brings us to a more compassionate and humane industry when we emerge from Covid.

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?

I’m very curious as to how all of this revolution will be put into practice. I feel we are coming up to this understanding of what is this renaissance going to look like.

We’re speaking out about things that don’t work, systems that are in place that do not work, so let’s fix that and how is it going to be applied.

I’m really curious to see how this is all going to be done. We’ve had so many glimpses of what that renaissance will look like through ‘Singular’, through conversations with our guests, even pre-conversations before recording.

How will this transformation, this pause, this new understanding be practically applied? And what kind of industry will we come back to after all this? I’m really curious about it, and how to implement it.

I think it’s needed. It’s going to change the theatre experience. We have the opportunity for more people to see themselves represented on stage which is so important. People are speaking up and are being brave and courageous.

What is the ‘Last Supper’ painting of the theatre industry going to look like? We have the potential to change the game and I hope we do. I hope Covid is not for nothing. I hope this pause is for nothing and to allow us to open our minds and hearts a bit more and go in a new direction where people feel safer, valued, included, heard and seen and that the audience feels valued in that.

To connect with Jennifer at Instagram: @jeniwallsto and the handle for her show Singular Sensation is @singular_senation.

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