Jessica B. Hill

Theatre Conversation in a Covid World

Ann Baggley

Joe Szekeres

I’ve seen some of the extraordinary work from The Stratford Festival in which Jessica performed: Mother’s Daughter, All My Sons and one of my favourites: ‘The Crucible’

Jessica is an actor and writer. She holds a BA from McGill University in English Theatre Studies and is a graduate of Stratford Festival’s Birmingham Conservatory for Classical Theatre. She has been a member of the Stratford Festival for the last five seasons. Performing lead roles in The Comedy of Errors, Brontë: The World Without and Mother’s Daughter, and appearing in The Crucible, Paradise Lost, The Changeling, All My Sons, and Bunny. When Covid closed the theatres last March, she was entering her sixth season with the Festival and preparing to play Lady Anne in Richard III and Helena in All’s Well That Ends Well.

Film and TV credits include The Boys, What We Do In The Shadows, Slaxx, On the Basis of Sex, and Hero: The Life and Times of Ulric Cross. She’s a recipient of the Mary Savidge Award that recognizes an actress who has shown outstanding dedication to her craft.

Fluently bilingual, she works both in English and French in theatre, voice, film, and television.

Her first play, The Dark Lady, is currently being co-developed with Shakespeare in the Ruins and The Stratford Festival, with support from the Manitoba Association of Playwrights and Shakespeare on the Saskatchewan. It imagines a modern take on Emilia Bassano, the woman who allegedly inspired Shakespeare’s Dark Lady sonnets. The idea began as an intertextual poetry reading put on as part of the outdoor Here for Now Theatre Festival in Stratford, last summer.

We conducted our conversation through Zoom. Thank you once again, Jessica, for the opportunity to hear and to listen to your voice about these important issues.

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

(a frustrated sigh first from her)…Let’s go with okay. I think we’ve been very, very lucky. My immediate family and I are healthy. We’re taking every precaution we can navigating through this. Of course, we get cabin fever, we get bored and sometimes depressed and frustrated but we’re getting better at dealing with it and helping each other deal with it.

Sometimes it’s as easy as, “Oh, let’s go for a walk”, and other times it takes a bit more time. It comes in waves; I think everyone is starting to feel that. It’s not always easy to stay focused or motivated but I feel very, very lucky that I have my family nearby here in Montreal. The curfew is still in place here. We’ve don’t have any real reason to leave the house after 8 pm here in Montreal so that hasn’t really affected us, but it’s more the idea of the curfew which is sometimes hard.

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

Oh, boy, okay. I guess I should start from the top. Well, the first few months of spring were terrible. We had been going full speed ahead in rehearsals at Stratford and suddenly it honestly felt like slamming into a brick wall. It was shock. It took a while to overcome and to get my bearings back.

What really saved me creatively was suddenly having to write a play on a tight deadline. The Here for Now Festival is based in Stratford. They reached out to me in June, I think, and asked if I had something I was working on they’d like to present for the small outdoor crowd in July. They were banking on the fact we could still gather outside, and I had nothing, but I said, Yes, anyway.

Whether it was Insanity, depression or yearning, and I spent a month pouring myself into an idea I guess I always been thinking about but never crystallized into a proper idea, but now I had the time to delve into the script.

It was a really interesting time because the Here for Now Festival in Stratford was probably one of the first outdoor performances coming out of lockdown, and everyone was still feeling quite tentative. We got to perform the script four times to this amazing and generous crowd of people, just the sweetest audience, so so generous.

I think that was the spark I needed to keep the fire burning for me. It reminded me of how important and special it was to gather, that magic of sharing an experience with an audience. I thought, “Well, just because I can’t perform doesn’t mean I can’t work.” This idea of writing and generating the work allowed me to work on my craft in an exciting new way and to develop as an artist even if I can’t perform. Just because there is no performance doesn’t mean there is no theatre.

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?

I wouldn’t call it an escape. A break from performance, but theatre, storytelling and ideas are everywhere all the time.

I use the word ‘reflection’ or in French we use the word ‘ressourcement’, the idea of returning back to sources of inspiration. Covid has given us a lot of time to reflect, to take stock, and to contemplate and replenish our creativity as much as we can. We never wish for this much time between gigs as we always have this frenetic pace in going from one job to the next. So, it’s un-stabilizing to have this much time and uncertainty.

Since we’ve been given this time, I can’t help but want to use it as best I can.

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 can’t make that call as I have no idea. I’d love for this to be wrong and to be pleasantly surprised.

If Covid has taught us anything, there’s nothing set in stone, right? I think it’ll be bumpy and lopsided as we return. We’re not all in the same boat, but we’re in the same storm. Because of the fluctuating protocols and case numbers and vaccine roll outs now, some theatres might re-open before others. There’ll probably be a game of stop and start as well, so I don’t think we can see it as a linear path just yet.

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?

Transformed is the word, but it’s a metamorphosis. It’s a feeling of the experience itself before it becomes wisdom (if that makes any sense), knowing something is important while it’s happening but not quite sure what part of the story you should be holding onto.

I feel like I’m a completely different person from whom I was last March, and I’m sure I’m not the only one who says that.

The most important coming out of this, for me, is a sense of responsibility. I’ve been thinking a lot about the stories we tell in the theatre and how we choose to tell them. What is that responsibility that comes next?

We’ve been given this time to re-imagine what theatre is and can be. It’s going to be transcendent.

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?

Well, the danger should be in the work, and not in the reality. For the work to be dangerous, we have to feel trust, security and safety in the rehearsal space. No good theatre will come out of actors fearing for their lives or for their loved ones.

This also ties into how do we come back with precautions on how to return as safely as we can. It’s going to take time probably to feel safe again.

I think the fear, the grief, the isolation, the frustration, that sense of danger you’re talking about, can’t help but make its way into an artist’s work, the ethos, I’m not sure how yet as we’re still in the thick of it, but I’ll have to see where and how it comes.

The optimist in me wants to think that all that danger we’re living through will help create the most extraordinary and electric and profoundly intimate art. After months and months of isolation, watching people connect on stage will be healing and exhilarating.

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 had trouble with this question….Hmmmmm….. There’s an openness that I felt; this willingness to just let the feelings do their thing – to be vulnerable, authentic, ugly, brutally honest. And it’s a realization, upon a realization, upon a realization that you can only really live in the present moment.

I keep thinking of Rilke’s poem: “Let everything happen/Beauty and terror/Just keep going/No feeling is final.” It’s all material; it’s all raw - the stuff of what you can build out of (if that makes sense). It’s all raw material that you can source from later on.

I’m already a sensitive person to begin with. I’m a hugger and I don’t just hug out of formality. I need to feel a connection to the other person. I need to feel that fleeting moment of a shared presence like, ‘Yah, that’s here.”

Hugs might be gone for awhile. We’re going to have to open ourselves for a new definition of theatre when we get back because it’s going to take time. Outdoor theatre is where it starts.

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 during this time? Has this time away from the theatre sparked further curiosity for you when you return to this art form?

Oh, hugely so because I’ve always wanted to write and I’ve never given myself the time to do so. The fall and winter has been developing my curiosity in my playwright’s voice. I’m developing a whole other side and artistic practice.

It’s all curiosity. It is what has been keeping me going and getting curious about connection between different art forms, about different sources of inspiration and letting ideas bounce off each other. Things that don’t necessarily connect are now interconnecting in ways I hadn’t thought possible which surprise me and excite me.

There’s so much baggage from Covid. It’s isolated us as a community, everything from meeting each other to practicing what we love. There’s so much time right now to get curious about things and that’s the silver lining to this whole thing of Covid.

When things get going again, I still want to hold onto that feeling of openness in being curious about other things. I’m back into drawing and sketching.

Follow Jessica on Instagram: @jessicabhill AND Twitter: @bhilljessica

Follow Jessica on her website: www.jessicabhill.com.

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