Joelle Peters

Theatre Conversation in a Covid World

Joe Szekeres

I’m pleased that a professional theatre artist recommended Joelle Peters be profiled for this series.

She is an Anishinaabe and Miami actor/playwright from Walpole Island First Nation in Southwestern Ontario. She now lives and works in Toronto. Joelle has performed at many different theatre companies and festivals in BC and ON. She is writing a coming-of-age play called Niish, co-wrote a TYA play called Frozen River with Michaela Washburn and Carrie Costello, and was recently selected as Tara Beagan’s protégé for the Siminovitch Prize which is considered one of the most prestigious awards in Canadian theatre.

Many congratulations for your work and recognition, Joelle, and thank you so much for adding your voice to the discussion of live theatre in a Covid world.

We conducted our conversation via email:

Next month, 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?

Time is weird. I could say “it’s already been a year?!” and “it’s only been a year?!?” and both feel right. In all honesty, yeah, it’s been tough. There were parts of 2020 that were really incredible and other parts that left me feeling so defeated and low.

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

While I wish I could say I learned to make bread, became a plant parent, did yoga and sat around doing puzzles, I did not. Wait, that’s not true. I did one puzzle. There were kittens in baskets and pink and purple flowers.

Before we knew how bad things would get, I left the city and went home to visit family…and then ended up spending most of 2020 there. I haven’t been able to spend that much time at home since high school, so it’s been a while. It took a lot of adjusting and adapting.

There were days (more than I’ll admit) that I moped around the house, upset that I couldn’t join video chats with friends, theatre discussions, livestreams, and had to turn down virtual theatre gigs (read: $$) because our Wi-Fi isn’t fast or stable enough. Those days were hard because I was craving connection. The world as we knew it was gone and it felt like I was being shut out of the new world my colleagues were creating.

My “new normal” was vastly different from my peers.

So, after giving myself time to be sad about being left out of the party, I did some more adjusting and adapting. I got more into writing.

In early 2020 Michaela Washburn asked me to become a co-writer on a new TYA play she was working on with Carrie Costello, and I learned how to write a play with co-writers in different provinces. I remember thinking around the end of 2019 that I wanted more time to focus on writing and well…it looks like I got exactly what I wished for.

I applied for Native Earth’s Animikiig Creator’s Unit and have been working with Falen Johnson as my mentor/dramaturg. Sometime in the fall, I managed to finish the first draft of my play Niish. That was a really huge accomplishment for me. Honestly, I wasn’t sure if or when that would happen.

And then I got a call from Tara Beagan saying she selected me as her protégé for the Siminovitch Prize! I’m still trying to wrap my head around everything that happened.
So, all that to say, I’m not sure I agree with the way the question paints theatre – it isn’t locked up. Not completely. There’s been people putting in the work, maybe on smaller scales, but we are still here.

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?

Covid allowed me to “escape” the city. It gave me the chance to breathe, think about what I really want to work on, and to feel okay about not having my next gig lined up for a while – that was a huge one.

I really resonated with Ali Joy Richardson’s words in her article for Intermission magazine – she writes about how she’s come to realize theatre isn’t #1 in her list of priorities anymore. Not to say she’s giving it up, just pivoting. And how “pivots aren’t failures.”

I think that’s a good reminder for all of us. Things change, and sometimes one step back is three steps forward in the long run.

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’m trying really hard not to predict the future. If I’ve learned anything, it’s to take it day by day. Situations are constantly shifting and there’s so much that’s out of our control. If we aren’t back in theatres until 2022…I’ll see you all then.

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 mean, sure. Yes. It would be great to be transformed by every show I see and am part of, but that isn’t always the case. Shows resonate with different people for different reasons and I don’t always love the super popular shows everyone else loves. There are times that I see shows that affect me deeply, but others don’t see it the way I do. That’s why it’s such a beautiful artform. It’s personal.

I’ve recently started wondering what kind of art we’ll see when we’re on the other side of Covid – will it be fluffy material? Shows that are just there to take our minds off the state of the world, to distract us? To make us laugh? Those serve a purpose too.

I watched Love is Blind with everyone during the start of the pandemic, it was a great distraction. We’ll have to wait and see…I’ll admit I am curious to see how many pandemic shows emerge. Does the limit exist?

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?

Without much context about what “danger in the work” really means, I’d say no. I don’t agree. If there’s any danger in the work, safety needs to be present too. Emotional and physical. If we’re creating danger, everyone needs to be on board and know what’s happening.

I’m thinking about fight and intimacy coaches and their importance to the work. I’m also thinking about shows I’ve seen where stage fights go wrong, and how that in turn ruins the show for me because I’m taken out of the world they’ve created and thrown back into reality, worrying about the performers. I’m also thinking about safety in the rehearsal hall and the importance of transparency and openness.

So…I dunno. Danger in the work doesn’t seem all that solid and swell to me, especially given how much danger we’ve felt and experienced over the past year.

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?

Absolutely. How can we not be more sensitive after this? Everyone has been impacted by this time in some way. In many ways. And as someone who is in the business of feeling…yeah. I’ve never been the kind of artist that can leave their baggage at the door – as much as I can try, there will likely always be bits that creep into the work I do that day.

That’s part of why I love theatre. It shifts. We can perform the same show 30+ times and still find new ways to play by closing. When we find our way back into real life rehearsal halls and projects, I think it’s important to implement more sensitivity and care into the way we work together and approach theatre.

I can physically feel the difference between projects where we go in, do the work and leave, and the projects where we check in with each other, acknowledge where we’re all coming from, take that extra time to learn how to be with each other. Those projects always feel more impactful to me. They’re more real.

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’ve been thinking about accessibility and inclusivity, particularly in theatre. For so many of us, this time was full of catching play readings online, taking in livestream discussions, etc. All of this online content is great – we can watch a play in our pajamas! We can check our phones without someone shaming us! But what about those that don’t have internet? Or those that have the kind of Wi-Fi that takes over 10 minutes to open an email? Or don’t have access to a computer? What about those that need captioning? Or ASL? Or what if they don’t speak ASL? Accessibility means so many different things to different people.

I commend the companies that have managed to pivot to online content – I know it hasn’t been easy. I just find myself thinking about all the people being left out. I’m feeling the limitations of online theatre. So, I’m curious about creating art that’s more accessible than it currently is, online and in-person. I’m interested in continuing to find new ways to work.

To connect with Joelle on social media: Instagram: @joellepeters.jpg Twitter: @j0ellepeters

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