The Self Isolated Artist
I finally had the chance to play ‘Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon’ with Toronto based artist Jonathan Wilson. I’ll explain this connection in just a moment.
I remember Jonathan’s Dora Award winning work as Timon in Disney’s ‘The Lion King’ when it made its Canadian premiere at Toronto’s Princess of Wales. A wonderful show which made me feel like a kid again for a couple of hours.
Although I never saw the production, Jonathan penned a stage production ‘My Own Private Oshawa’ about growing up gay in the automobile city of Ontario. The play was also nominated for The Governor General’s Award. The film version of ‘My Own Private Oshawa’ was also nominated for two Gemini awards.
Jonathan has also been nominated for six Dora awards as a writer and actor, two Chalmers awards, and one New York Drama Desk award for his play ‘Kilt’. I also found out that Jonathan provided the voice for The Pillsbury Dough Boy and the voice of Crackle for the Rice Krispies commercials.
Not bad for someone who, at the age of fifteen, moved to Toronto. Eventually, Jonathan attended the theatre program at Ryerson as a mature student.
Now, for the six degrees of separation connection. Jonathan is the brother in law of my good friend, Randy, whom I have known for over forty-five years. Christine, Randy’s wife, and Jonathan are siblings. Jonathan has worked with many of Toronto’s finest actors and creative individuals, and it was fun to learn that I was only one to two degrees away from these artists.
We conducted our interview via telephone:
1. How have you been keeping during this two-and-a-half-month isolation? How has your immediate family been keeping?
Thanks for asking as my partner Freddy and I have been taking things day by day. It’s part of our narrative right now and we keep looking for the conclusion. We’re trying to keep things fresh, but trauma and grief have been part of this time.
My beloved niece, Jodie, passed away suddenly in January before the pandemic hit. My family and I miss her terribly and there are many moments when her absence hits all of us really hard. This quarantine and isolation haven’t helped either since we can’t all be together to grieve. It has been a struggle but, as I said earlier, we keep taking things day by day. Jodie brought so much joy and fascination to all our lives. She would have wanted us to keep moving forward, but there are moments when that is so hard to do.
Freddy and I also help out my mother by taking groceries to her, helping to keep her yard clean and tend the gardens, cut the grass, all the stuff that comes with owning a house.
2. Were you involved in any productions that were cancelled as a result of COVID? Were you in rehearsal or pre-production/planning stages that have been temporarily halted? If so, what will become of this work?
Yes, I was to have worked at The Blyth Festival this summer. I was scheduled to perform two plays in repertory. We had just been sent the scripts and the offers when the summer season was cancelled. I was really disappointed as I was looking forward to working on two shows in repertory since theatre is my first love.
The Festival was holding out for as long as it could before the notices were sent to us there would be no season. It’s completely understandable why it had to be done. I have this fantasy that in my mind that perhaps we might be called back to perform. It would certainly be lovely if that fantasy came true.
3. What has been most challenging personally during this time? What has been difficult personally during this time? What have you been doing to keep yourself busy?
The most challenging personal element is not being able to be with my family and grieve. Life has certainly put many things into perspective as I want to be there and spend time with my sister, but I can’t on account of the fact we can’t gather. A loss of this nature made my career become secondary.
I also lost my stepfather as well before all of this, a nice man, and not being able to be with my mother has been difficult.
I have been trying to keep busy in moving forward. I enjoy gardening, bike riding and helping to look after my mother as much as possible. I also set up a home recording studio and that was a huge task accomplished since I struggle with all that stuff.
I’ve also started to write a play, a silly little farce, but it’s something that is so very much needed during this time. I’ve also been developing a play over the last couple of years with Studio 180 so there’s a great deal of work going on there.
4. In your estimation and opinion, do you foresee COVID 19 and its results leaving a lasting impact on the Canadian performing arts and theatre scene?
Yes, absolutely as I’ve seen some streaming and online presentations that have worked extremely well. The salute to Stephen Sondheim was really done well as there were some excellent performances.
But there is nothing like live theatre. The concept of theatre will survive, but the paradigm may shift. Streaming and online presentations are another way of storytelling and artists will have to learn how to navigate this ‘new normal’ of presentation.
5. Do you have any words of wisdom to console or to build hope and faith in those performing artists who have been hit hard as a result of COVID 19? Any words of sage advice to the new graduates from Canada’s theatre schools regarding this fraught time of confusion?
I’ve been in this business for forty years as performer, producer and writer. I’ve been involved with some Fringe shows and provided voice work for animation. After graduation from Ryerson, I’ve also worked with Second City and really learned a good deal of the craft through participation with them. As an independent artist, I’ve learned to re-negotiate all the time who I am. So it really hasn’t been that different for me.
I can’t even begin to imagine the angst of those artists who have worked at Stratford or Shaw for a long time and how they are coping.
But as actors, we have to self care first. We have to be kind to ourselves first and foremost. If it’s any consolation, we will find ways to return to story telling. It may be in a new format or medium, but the need for story telling will always be there.
Any words of encouragement to the young theatre graduates – you will find a way. Generate your own work if you can. Don’t wait for any of the big companies to say yes they want you. When that occurs, that’s great and yes you go for those long runs to get that steady paycheque.
Remember, graduates, (and even the seasoned artist/actor) - You are in charge. Generate and make your own work. Don’t wait to be told to do it.
6. You Tube presentations, online streaming seems to be part of a ‘new normal’ at this time for artists to showcase their work. What are your thoughts and comments about the advantages and/or values of online streaming? Do you foresee this as part of the ‘new normal’ for Canadian theatre as we move forward from COVID 19?
Since I’ve had to set up my own recording studio for voice over work and in animation, what became apparent to me is the fact the young actors will have to learn the technology in order to generate the work for themselves. If the actors have friends or colleagues and acquaintances who know all about the technology, great, take advantage and use those individuals to help you generate your work. The key here, though, is to learn the technology.
Depending on the story the actor/artist wishes to tell, some of the media may work stronger than others. For example, I’ve been watching a lot of old movies and paying attention to the way they were filmed. I’ve also been listening to some of the radio dramas from the 1930s. Let’s not forget these radio dramas were all performed live. Orson Welles terrified people in 1938 on the radio with ‘War of the Worlds’. People at that time thought this story was actually occurring in real time
Don’t get me wrong, though, as there is also the live connection of the performer in a theatre with a live audience that can never be replicated when watching a streamed, online or You Tube production. Hearing the laughter generated from humour or hearing the silence as the story unfolds is also thrilling too.
7. Given all this confusion, drama, tension and upheaval about COVID, what is it about your career as a performer you still like?
It’s that pure connection a performer makes to an audience (whether live or not) in creating a character and overcoming the obstacles in telling a story that is wonderful in the making. Yes, laugher is wonderful to be heard (if live) but so is silence (if live) as an audience listens to a story unfolding in the theatre.
Learning new technology as a performer for animation and voice work allows the song to be sung in a new medium.
With a respectful acknowledgement to ‘Inside the Actors’ Studio’ and the late James Lipton, here are ten questions he used to ask his guests:
1. What is your favourite word?
2. What is your least favourite word?
3. What turns you on?
4. What turns you off?
5. What sound or noise do you love?
Laughter, joyous laughter
6. What sound or noise bothers you?
The Indy 500 race that some drivers feel they must accomplish on these now quiet streets on account of Covid.
7. What is your favourite curse word?
8. Other than your current profession now, what other profession would you have liked to attempt?
Architect or city planner
9. What profession could you not see yourself doing?
Police officer (although I have the greatest respect for the force)
10. If Heaven exists, what do you hope God will say to you as you approach the Pearly Gates?
“It went better than expected, you lucky bastard.”