John Jarvis

Looking Ahead

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Joe Szekeres

First time I met John Jarvis was many years ago on a Sunday afternoon during an ‘Open Doors Toronto’ where audiences got the chance to speak to several professional theatre artists who graced some of Toronto’s finest stages. The late Al Waxman (CBC’s King of Kensington) led a group of us around to the theatres. I remember sitting in the Bluma Appel listening to John speak about the history of The Bluma Appel and some of the actors who worked on that stage.

I can also recall some of us were given an opportunity to get up on the stage and ‘perform’ a scene with John. He was gracious and kind when volunteers came up on the stage and allowed each of us to have our ‘moment’ there on the Bluma Appel stage which I can recall as huge.

Since then, I’ve seen John’s work in several productions at Toronto’s Soulpepper Theatre including ‘Innocence Lost’, ‘Orlando’, ‘Spoon River’ and ‘Of Human Bondage’, both of which he had the good fortune to perform to great success in New York City. John has also taught acting at George Brown College. Television and film credits include Seasons 6 and 7 of ‘Suits’ and ‘Business Ethics’.

At this moment of writing his profile, I recall with much fondness John’s work in Soulpepper’s ‘A Christmas Carol’ which has become a holiday and Christmas favourite of mine. John has been the narrator in this production since its inception and plays the three Ghosts Scrooge meets on Christmas Eve. I let John know that perhaps we need a little ‘Christmas Carol’ this year to help move us out of the pandemic; ergo, Weyni Mengesha and Luke Reece – please take note this writer would love to see ‘A Christmas Carol’ on the slate again this year (provincial health conditions obviously in place)

John’s recent television and Film include ‘Stockholm’, ‘Suits’ (Season 6 and 7) and ‘Business Ethics’. He also has taught acting at one of Canada's premier theatre schools, George Brown College.

He studied at Montreal’s National Theatre School of Canada.

We conducted our conversation via Zoom. Thanks again, John, for such a quick interview and turnaround in time:

It’s a harsh reality that the worldwide pandemic of Covid 19 has changed all of us. Describe how your understanding of the world you know and how your perception and experience have changed on a personal level.

Initially, I was quite taken aback by the global community recognizing the existential threat of what this was. For probably the first time in the world’s history, so many communities of people agreed to shut down, to cut off, to retreat to their homes. I was quite astounded by that global group activity.

Then the fissures began, and people pushed back, and we’ve had such a very complex result. Friendships have been lost; family members have argued. While I was in Shopper’s Drug Mart today, there was a guy in front of me who was on his phone, and he was quite vehement in his call to someone saying, “No government is going to tell me what to do anytime!”

And I thought, ‘C’mon, it’s the dilemma of Me, and what I want to do.” Or it’s my shared sense of protecting everybody in the group.

I think the group is holding firm and, although we get attacked for being fearful coming to a power of government and this cultural war, I think people have found some strength in Covid that when it comes out the other end there will be a renaissance of ideas and activities. There will be a bursting forth of people wanting to come and see theatre and theatre artists in an expression of joy in wanting to get back on stage.

With live indoor theatre shut for one year plus, with it appearing it may not re-open any time soon, how has your understanding and perception as a professional artist of the live theatre industry been altered and changed.

What I have delighted in is that so many companies, small and large, have put out product of some kind. Profile has been maintained that the artists are developing some kind of theatre to keep the profile of the company in the public view.

But behind the scenes the money they will require to begin again to contract actors and designers and playwrights and the sheer enormity of producing a play, where is that dough going to come from? So far, we haven’t seen too much collapse of companies walking away. I know that some artistic directors have reached certain levels of exhaustion, and some have decided it was time to leave anyway.

I’ll be curious because governments will come to the plate to a certain degree. And for the big companies, where will they get the money? There’s all the will in the world but when a large company says a million dollars is needed, what’s going to happen next?

I haven’t heard the behind-the-scenes despair of the financial departments of theatre companies.

A year ago, many actors, myself included, didn’t have a sound studio or filming studio in their basements. I do voice over work as well, so I had to get an expensive microphone and all the other accoutrements where I now have to do self tapes of lighting and sound and cameras. All actors are their own production company and their own editing suite now.

It’s been active in television and film as there is a 37-page protocol that has allowed production companies to go ahead. It was always ironic that a theatre company was not able to rehearse and film a production of a play. But a film company could rent the theatre, come in and shoot a film or movie. It’s always been a head twister.

As a professional artist, what are you missing the most about the live theatre industry?

Well, it’s the flesh and blood. It’s the only card we have on the table that we’ve had for 2000 years.

It’s a piece of human breathing, audio flesh in front of us.

I’ve watched some Zoom plays and have tried to engage as much as I can, but it started to pull away because I just need to see the actors. I want to see the play and watch the spittle come out of their mouths.

My voice teacher said the Greeks had brass urns on top of all the aisles so that the human voice would ring through those brass urns and send pillars into the cosmos to hold the thing together. So, the sound of the human actor is holding it all together.

People will be hungry to hear that sound of a real, live voice.

As a professional artist, what is the one thing you will never take for granted again in the live theatre industry when you return to it?

I remember reading some of the profiles in this series, Joe, and some had some very funny answers.

I’ll never take for granted that the joy of being in front of an audience is a celebration rather than a paranoia of performance or the worry of how I’m doing.

I think all of that worrying now appears to be of little use, and that the chance to just be in front of people is a new psychological entity that I never really thought of, and I’m sure that’s what a lot of actors are saying that they need to be in front of people who will laugh and cry in the way that a story is told.

Because this commonality of Covid that the audience and actor have gone through together, we are equally as hungry to meet each other. Whatever the fourth wall, it will have been of little or no use to people because they know that I haven’t been performing in front of audience, and I know that the audience has been watching television, Netflix or listening to the radio, and that there’s a genuine humility to be with each other again.

I think that will be quite exciting.

Describe one element you hope has changed concerning the live theatre industry.

The discovery that theatre can happen anywhere; it can be on a bicycle zooming by, in a park, on your front lawn, in the driveway. Artists can go up to the balcony of your house; they can make an event happen anytime or anyplace and people will stop and be engaged.

It is interesting through this societal change of Covid with the politics and the social justice issues spinning and boiling, I always thought that the theatre was moving towards this change. Before, many other arts industries were always trying to draw in the diversity of the cities we live in. As a veteran actor myself, the glory days are shifting and there’s new blood coming in, and new energy.

If it takes telling the disparity and the dystopia, and the dilemma that the new culture is finding within the story, that’ll be the stories of the future.

Explain what specifically you believe you must still accomplish within the industry.

In the contemplation many of us have had to think about one’s career, one of the allowances of many hours of time that we’ve had during these last 16 months, you are as good as your last performance. There’s a new play coming up and you have to prepare for that audition and performance.

When Ralph Richardson at 92 was asked about his career, he said, (in a British accent) “Good God, ol’ boy, I’m only halfway through the fucking thing.” (Uproarious laughter from me).

I’ve much more to learn.

With that contemplation, I’ve a new degree of expression that might reveal itself to people and I look forward to seeing what did that year do to one’s emotional world and the capacity to express the worries, the fears.

During these last 16 months, I’ve read some of the great literature – ‘War and Peace’, ‘The Count of Monte Cristo’, ‘Our Mutual Friend’ that had no electricity in it and no sense of what was going to happen in the 20th century. So now that I’ve read about these incredible people in these incredible novels, what’s next.

Some artists are saying that audiences must be prepared for a tsunami of Covid themed stories in the return to live theatre. Would you elaborate on this statement both as an artist in the theatre, and as an audience member observing the theatre.

I was sitting with my family the other night, and somebody said, “Oh, I bet you when we go back to the theatre that somebody will enter with a mask, and someone says to take the mask off. I don’t want to see a play about Covid.”

I don’t want to see Covid used as a metaphor. I want this story of Covid to be over. I don’t want Covid to be a pivot point into a story.

I want something different. I want a new story. I don’t want anything as a reminder because we’ve all quite had enough.

I’m sure there will be a brilliant playwright who will find a brilliant way of incorporating the lonely person sitting in a basement trying to figure out what to do to tell a story or to engage.

The cultural dilemma of Indigenous Canadians, Caribbean Canadians, Asian Canadians, it is their time to find their stories and to share it with us.

Susan Coyne and Stewart Arnott delivered a beautiful two hander recently on Zoom about a virus. It was really quite beautiful, but we’ve seen enough about Covid. Susan and Stewart have already done it.

As an artist, what specifically is it about your work that you want future audiences to remember about you?

Ah……….

“John Jarvis did his best. He gave his all.” (He says with a gleeful grin)

In the quiet solitude of the basement, there are great days of remembering performances you loved and cared and gave it your all. And there are days where you think and remember for whatever reason you stumbled through maybe because you weren’t focused, and you know you didn’t give it your all that you should have done.

I would say that I poured my sense of life and my sense of humour, and my sense of joy in people, and I poured it into everything I did.

That’s what I hope future audiences will remember.

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