2017 headshot by Sian Richards
Like most of the professional performing artists who were knocked sideways on account of this worldwide pandemic, several of them relayed to me in conversation they have had their good days and not so good days. What has kept these artists going has been a focus on the positive side of things while learning new skills.
National Theatre School graduate Jordan Pettle and his family have also experienced those ups and downs during these last seven months like all of us, but they have tried to remain positive. I’m pleased to hear this down to earth and decent man and his family have done just that because I am looking forward to seeing his work again on stage very soon. I quite enjoyed his work at Soulpepper in ‘A Christmas Carol’, ‘The Heidi Chronicles’ and ‘Betrayal’, but a quick look at his bio showed me how extensive Jordan’s work is both as an actor and director in Toronto, across Canada and in television.
When I interviewed Liz Callaway and Cynthia Dale several weeks ago, they were advising actors to find their entrepreneurial side during this grand pause from the theatre. I’m pleased to report that Jordan Pettle has done just that during this hiatus by making ice cream at his home. Freshly made ice cream sounds good to me.
For local neighbours and families where he lives, Jordan has come up with ice cream subscriptions. He relayed he is in the process of deciding upon a web site, Instagram account (and hopefully a Facebook account too). Jordan did tell me a possible name for his business, but I will not divulge it in case there is a change.
Hopefully Jordan will start expanding his ice cream service to many of the theatre goers who have seen his performances over the year. Once he has announced his business is up and running, yes, I will indeed take out a subscription and make sure I have some home made fresh ice cream in my freezer.
We conducted our conversation via Zoom. Thanks again, Jordan, for the conversation.
It has been an exceptionally seven long months since we’ve all been in isolation, and now it appears the numbers are edging upward again. How are you feeling about this? Will we ever emerge to some new way of living in your opinion?
Well, nervous about the climbing numbers, obviously. My wife, Shannon, and I have two kids in school now and they’re just getting back into the swing of things, so the thought of going into lockdown again is pretty hard given what Dr. Eileen de Villa was talking about today.
We’re coping well as a family but there’s so much uncertainty and some anxiety wondering about another lockdown. Every day is something new to deal with.
I do think we will emerge to a new way of living. I don’t know what it will all look like, but on some societal level it is strengthening us for the amount of creativity and how people are adjusting to all of this.
There’s resilience and adaptability people are showing. To me, I try to draw inspiration from that because humans are incredibly adaptable and finding ways to make work and stay healthy, and that includes psychically and emotionally. Things are going to change. Things will start to get local. In my particular community in the neighbourhood where we live, my family and I are getting to know our neighbours more than we ever have. We have a park by our house and there’s a community which has really grown there.
Depending on which day you get me, I try to remain positive no matter what. True, I do worry about the economy, my kids’ future, how my family is doing, the debt that our province and country will be in when we come out of all this. On my good days, I see strength and resilience on a societal level. I see it happening with my kids, their friends and the community here.
How have you been faring? How has your immediate family been doing during these last six months?
Ya know, overall, Joe, to be honest we’re doing well. We have a house, we have a backyard which has been a saviour for us. In the early days of the pandemic, we were out in the backyard a ton playing sports. I finally planted a garden that we’ve been wanting to plant for years.
My wife has a part time arts administration job that she has been continuing to do. She has been working from home. If we were talking April 18, things might have been different as we were on a different path at the time with so much noise in the house. Yes, there were some hard days in the spring. We were on top of each other all the time. We’re a good family, but like all humans we need our own individual space at times, and we weren’t getting that in the early spring when it was challenging at times.
As an artist within the performing arts community, what has been the most difficult and challenging for you professionally and personally?
The uncertainty about the state of theatre and its future. Job prospects for the next couple of years have just changed dramatically. Theatre was my bread and butter. I’m lucky that I do teach and that I do voice work as well, so I have been able to work throughout this. Theatre is my first love, my passion and where most of my work comes throughout the course of the year, so it’s very hard to see friends lose all kinds of work and all the anxiety that is coming out of our community.
On a professional level it’s been so hard to watch how all of the performing arts have been hit so hard.
Were you in preparation, rehearsals, or any planning stages of productions before everything was shut down? What has become of those projects? Will they see the light of day anytime soon?
I was supposed to have started rehearsal for Studio 180’s production of ‘Indecent’. It was going to be a co-production with the Mirvishes. Rehearsals were to have started March 30.
Right when all of this started, Joel Greenberg from Studio 180 started emailing all of us in early March that we were still going to go ahead; however, as the emails came more and it became clearer what was going to happen regarding the pandemic, the production was cancelled. That was my spring gig for a couple of months.
Luckily, the Toronto Arts Council provided some money for artists who lost work plus I also got the CERB money. I’ve been very lucky there has been support for us.
I had some singing lessons in preparation for this production as I was going to be singing in Yiddish. I was deep into preparation for this production, so it was really hard to lose work anytime.
I don’t know if ‘Indecent’ will see the light of day, Joe. I hope so. Who knows when but I know Joel was very passionate about the project and, if he has his way, ‘Indecent’ will go ahead at some point. We had a reading of it in early May, a Zoom reading, with all of us and it was very bittersweet. It was a chance to get a taste of where we were headed, where we would have gone with it.
What have you been doing to keep yourself busy during this time?
Well, besides being husband, dad and friend, I’ve doing a little bit of voice work. My wife is also a voice actor and we set up a voice studio in our pantry. She says it looks like a tsunami hit a duvet shop.
We’ve been wanting to do it for awhile and it was something that necessity forced us to do immediately. In the early days of the pandemic, our voice agents were saying if you don’t have a home studio you can’t work. We’ve both done commercials from our pantry right to Zoom. I’ve been doing lots of auditions from there. Voice work has continued. It hasn’t been a huge amount of work, like with every voice work it’s a bit of a crap shoot and audition for a bunch of things and some work does come in.
I’ve been doing some teaching as well. Graham Abbey and Dylan Trowbridge started GhostLight. Vanessa Porteous, former AD at Alberta Theatre Project, pitched this class to Graham and Dylan for GhostLight entitled ‘Building the Actor-Director Relationship’. She and I co-taught this class for GhostLight which was great on Zoom. It was the first time I was learning to teach online.
Vanessa and I taught an eight-week session over the summer with 6 actors and 6 directors. We built this structure where they would work on a monologue where I would have coaching with the actors and Vanessa would talk with the directors. We paired up actors and directors, they would come together, but the focus of the course was how to build that relationship between the two.
Now I’m teaching at Wexford Collegiate for the Performing Arts, a performing arts high school in Scarborough. I’ve been doing it for several years now. The school has been bringing me in as a guest artist. I direct the Grade 12 show and I was just working with the Grade 11s on scene study, some online. The teacher has been doing a great job keeping the students engaged during this really strange time.
I’ve also become obsessed with making ice cream. It’s my side hustle right now. I’ve started this ice cream business out of our basement. I make small batch ice cream and I’ve been selling it to friends in the neighbourhood. I’ve been using herbs from our garden, olive oil, rosemary. It’s been really fun. I’ve just wanted to experiment and create, and I love ice cream. I’m also learning and stretching my entrepreneurial muscles during this time.
Any words of wisdom or advice you might /could give to fellow performers and colleagues? What message would you deliver to recent theatre school graduates who have now been set free into this unknown and uncertainty given the fact live theaters and studios might be closed for 1 ½ - 2 years?
It’s a good question. I do some teaching at George Brown and I’ve been thinking about those students. I completed an online video clip to say congratulations to them at their graduation.
I can’t imagine how hard it is for them to be stepping into the world right now during this time. Where is the work? What am I walking into?
What I’ve been trying to tell the students is the work is going to be really, really important in the years to come. There’s going to be a lot of healing that is going to happen and to be needed. A connection is going to have to be made where people are going to see theatre. Seeing live human beings on stage is going to be really important.
Down the road once we get out of all this, we’re going to need storytellers about human connection. I imagine for a long time we’re going to be processing this entire pandemic as artists and playwrights, screen writers and story tellers.
Be patient and know that the devotion we give and do to actors is going to be necessary in the long run. It’s hard right now where there is so much uncertainty and so little work.
Do you see anything positive stemming from Covid 19?
The sense and feeling of community that has grown in our local park is one positive element stemming from Covid. Socially distanced music is happening in our park now which is another positive element. Resilience is another factor. Humans are adaptable and are resilient. We actors are also a resilient group too.
The strengthening of community, the bonds we’ve created in our neighbourhood, we’ve gotten to know our neighbours more than we ever have. I hope this will all continue, this sense of pulling together as a society, will continue.
Hopefully, some delicious ice cream will come out of all this. (side note: I plan to place an order with Jordan and hopefully readers will also place future orders)
My kids ask me if this pandemic will be in the history books 100 years from now or will people talk about it, and I believe this will happen. We’re living through an extraordinary time.
Do you think Covid 19 will have some lasting impact on the Toronto/Canadian/North American performing arts scene?
That’s a great question as I’m sure it will. It’s going to take awhile to make audiences feel safe about returning to the theatre again. The creativity that is already happening will lead to different forms of story telling. I think we’re going to see a lot of small cast shows probably for awhile. When we do come back, it’s going to be hard for theatres to take risks on big, huge cast shows for awhile. So economically, there will be some impact.
The majority of theatre goers at live theatres are an older audience. Is that audience going to be comfortable? My wife, Shannon, is an administrator for ‘Music in the Afternoon’. It’s a women’s musical club in Toronto and they do a chamber series of music, and they’re talking about how to keep audiences engaged and so are many of the larger professional arts organizations.
Once there’s a safe vaccine in place, people will be craving to go back into the theatre. They will want to see something live. There’s a need for live story telling. I have to believe that.
There will be small smatterings of live theatre socially distanced being offered, but I can’t foresee anything on a larger scale coming back until at least 2022.
Some artists have turned to You Tube and online streaming to showcase their work. What are your comments and thoughts about streaming? Is this something that the actor/theatre may have to utilize going forward into the unknown?
That’s a good question. I did watch some stuff early on in the pandemic. I saw some of the productions from Stratford.
To be honest, that’s not how I like theatre. I prefer my theatre live. As far as being an audience for streaming? I don’t love theatre to watch it in that manner. I would prefer to watch a good television or a great film, stories that are meant to be in that medium.
I understand people wanting to put their work out as it’s the only way we can do it at this time. I’ve been learning to teach online. It’s not the ideal way to teach, but that’s what we have at the present. We adapt and we do it. If people feel the need to adapt and do it, then by all means.
Again, I don’t search it out online. There are so many other things that I’m taking in right now. I don’t love it as a venue for theatre. Yes, some of the streaming has worked and some hasn’t, but I can’t imagine creating a project for myself that’s meant to be on You Tube or streamed. I’d rather put my creative energies in some other place.
And yes, I need to find ways right now to bring in an income. Depending on the streaming and You Tube, there’s little to no payment involved.
Despite all this fraught tension and confusion, what is it about performing that Covid will never destroy for you?
(a bit of chuckle) Well, I’ve loved acting for a long time now and that’s not going to go away. That’s not going to change on account of the pandemic.
It’s been one of the biggest passions of my life since I was a kid and will continue to be. I’ll act and find ways of doing it. I do miss going to the theatre and that experience and my friends’ work, but I’m in it for the long haul as I have been for some time.
I feel like this is big hiatus, a big pause in the trajectory of the performing arts. Other things will develop with the entrepreneurial side, but my love of acting is not going anywhere.