Kaylee Harwood

Theatre Conversation in a Covid World

Kristine Cofsky

Joe Szekeres

A big thank you to artist Kaylee Harwood who follows me on Twitter. I saw the National Tour performance of ‘Beautiful: The Carole King Musical’ in which she appeared. Kaylee performed for two years with the National Tour.

Other appearances include ‘The Sound of Music’ (Western Canada Theatre), ‘Radio City Christmas Spectacular starring the Rockettes’, ‘The Jazz Singer’ (Harold Green JTC), ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’ (Broadway/La Jolla Playhouse/Stratford), ‘Camelot’ (Stratford) and two seasons at Shaw Festival.

We conducted our conversation through Zoom. Thanks again, Kaylee:

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?

You know, it’s taken awhile to get to the point of surrender and the waiting and learning to look forward to things not surrounding the theatre, the openings, start of rehearsals, closings, tech days, all those things that have anchored my life for the last decade and have given it structure.

I’m doing okay, to answer your answer.

Everyone is well in health with my partner and I and our immediate families. I’m really grateful for that. My partner and I have been a bubble of two throughout this whole time. His family and my family are out in BC. I have family in Ottawa. None of us have seen our family in over a year. That’s not entirely unusual as we have chosen to live on this side of the country, and we don’t get back to BC that much. Months can go by where it adds up to over a year before we get back out there.

Knowing that we’re not being able to see our families has been hard.

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

As I was saying before about the structure of the eight hour days for the rehearsal period into the twelve hour tech days into the run of a show has been the run of the cycle for me for over twelve years now. I’ve grown really accustomed to this especially when I was on tour on a weekly cycle of moving every Monday.

So, this time has been a real 180 for me. At first when things shut down before we knew how extended this would all be, I certainly was in phase of tackling all those projects phase that I said I would always do. Early on, we bought paint and I painted all the things I said I wanted to paint everything in sight. It was becoming a bit of sanitorium in our apartment in Toronto because everything was white.

Once I ran out of paint, I moved on to crafting. My partner and I, we were supposed to have a spread out year from each other so we were using the time to enjoy being together, to watching our favourite shows. With the crafting, I was really into making embroidery which I had done as a kid. I used to craft a lot with my hands.

I then started making plant hangers, macrame plant hangers. My parents were around the first time the hangers were in vogue. I never got to see them the first time around. We had so many house plants in our Toronto apartment. We were really messy. It was like, ‘We don’t have surface anymore.”

So we started elevating the plants. I made so many plant hangers that I had to start giving them away. Then I started trading them in Toronto for many things. I trade them for household items that I needed. It started to pick up steam and then people were giving my name to other people. And then all of a sudden, I was selling my hangers and a couple of months ago I started a business of Retro Décor. (website at the end of the profile)

It has been a really fun adventure. I never had an actual product to sell before. I’ve always lived an artistic life, but I’ve never had something that people can purchase from me that I can give them. I’ve been mailing them all over the place. My business is called High Strung Retro Décor.

Early on, my partner and I were journaling daily because this is hopefully once in a lifetime experience. We took it seriously. In early March, I’ll never forget the feelings and sights of Toronto at that time and what it looked like to see these bare, empty streets. We lived right in downtown. It’s neat to look back on the journal now. We stopped doing it religiously a few months ago, but we took a page and looked at it and it’s neat.

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 say it’s been an escape. I think it’s been a tension in so many ways, a tension of holding on versus surrendering and expecting and disappointment.

You know, I also don’t agree that theatre’s an escape with all due respect to Hal Prince. The time of Covid has been a digging deeper rather than an escape. When I think of an escape, I think of a distraction and forgetting what you have at home and leaving it at the door. I don’t think that’s been Covid.

There have certainly been moments with the news of tragedy and disappointment has been so much that I’ve felt the need to escape. Whether that’s through the books I’ve read this year or the walks I’ve gone on and just leave the phone at home to experience life. I’ve had a bit of work during this time on Zoom and the practice of theatre, even in this strange medium when I’m in a Zoom room for eight hours a day, feels like an escape from Covid.

My practice of theatre is reminding me about community and about engagement in a way that it is not a constant reminder of the tragedy of the world that I feel Covid has just exacerbated.

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 won’t believe I’m back working in theatre until I’m taking my curtain call and bow closing night. That’ll be a sign.

I think I held on for a long time early on with the cancellation notices that were rolling out. With each thing that got cancelled, each heartbreak I had to go, “Okay, the curtain’s down on closing night I’m not going to believe I was in a show.” (and Kaylee and I both break out in laughter) Early on, it was by July (this was last year), by July certainly we’ll be back. And then it was early April cancellation notices were being given. And now we look back and think why would we have thought July or September would have been dates for us to return.

When I see any sign that theatre is coming back, I’ll be dancing for joy but as for me, even if a contract is signed, I’ll still be waiting to see.

I want everyone to be able to return safely and for audiences to feel welcomed but also taken care of. I don’t want to rush anything. Even though I’ve had to confront the injustice of how certain things can be open while others have to remain shut, I understand the motivations and financial interests, it just feels like artists get the rough go of it again.

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?

As for my understanding of theatre and transforming, my understanding of theatre hasn’t changed too much throughout this time. I still believe in the vitality of the stories that we tell and the reasons we tell them.

I feel there’s a refinement in my choices as a result of Covid. Nothing feels arbitrary anymore. I fear that I have been changed in a way regarding relationships in that I want to embrace the old way of things.

Just the day before shutdown I was in a workshop in Toronto. It was hugs, long goodbyes, talking closely and singing in each other’s faces and for so many obvious reasons we can’t do these things right now. At the news of all this, we still went out to a restaurant for drinks and food. By that point it just hadn’t hit.

I miss so many of these things. I miss even taking transit right now. I miss my gross dirty gym with loud people grunting, but I’m not going to be the first person to go back in and run on a treadmill surrounded by others.

I want to believe that I will trust again and be able to be in close proximity to people again. But right now, I haven’t touched another person except my partner for all these months.

We’re all going to need a moment when we are able to enter a rehearsal hall again, to hug and touch another person.

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?

I agree. I do think that danger is an interesting word to use. I don’t think anyone should ever feel physically in danger. Coming up in this industry, I’ve seen some of my favorite performers and shows teetering on the edge of unpredictability even though watching or working with them, I feel safe in what we’re doing for the environment that has been created already.

Danger is a tricky word, and I know what Zoe Caldwell is going for as I’ve felt it as an actor and theatre lover when there is danger in the work. I have absolutely felt danger during this time of Covid. I was supposed to get on a plane a couple of days after the shutdown to go work in Pittsburgh. I was supposed to go, and it didn’t get cancelled until far too late.

I didn’t end up going. I had the bag packed already but I was thinking it through, I thought it’ll be fine. And then the NBA shuts down. I still thought it’ll be fine. And then Broadway shut down. Well, I’m still going to go even through Broadway shut down. I can’t even believe I went through these series of thoughts.

I remember thinking that if I had to fly the day Broadway shut down, I probably would have got on that plane and gone. Not to say I would have become sick, but just the thought of how timely and lucky I had that cancellation before I got too far away from home. I have so many stories of people who were on the road or sublet their houses and are trying to figure out how to get home. I’ve absolutely felt danger but also grateful that it hasn’t been far more serious than it could have been.

I feel like in my work everything I’ve experienced informs what I do so yes Covid has influenced my work and who I am and how I’ll move forward. I don’t know how exactly that will manifest. I don’t think there is a literal way that it will. Certainly, the online work I’ve done this year, the noise of the BLM protests in downtown Toronto (I lived right on Bay Street) and the noise of the protestors moving up was incredible. To be in the midst of working on something with the noise outside, my heart was exploding from everything that was happening in the world. It as so present.

It wasn’t as if I could turn off the television or the news and it goes away. It’s everywhere. And it’s the people in the Zoom boxes as well because they’re all dealing with this in their own way too whether it’s someone they know who is ill, or someone fighting for their own rights or wanting to be marching. The pull of all this stuff going on, and while we’re on Zoom we’re making stories and we’re trying things out. We’re making each other laugh, and we’re crying and we’re empathizing and exorcising all these things that are coming up for us.

I think it’s inevitable Covid will influence us and our work no matter where we are in the world.

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?

Hmmm…. I want to continue being sensitive of everyone’s boundaries. That’s been a real learning process for me this year of setting my own boundaries and my own comfort levels. It feels so life or death in every moment, right, that I’ve had to feel and establish my own boundaries and respect others.

At the same time, I have to forge and refine my own feelings and thoughts and ways I want to live in the world. There’s been a real refinement for me in the things I care about, the causes I care about, and the things I will tolerate. I think in our business everyone’s voice matters, which it absolutely does, but the toleration of intolerance? I can’t stand intolerance.

I do feel like everyone’s voice ought to be heard, yet there are voices that are intolerant that I don’t want to continue listening to and give platforms.

Why tiptoe around these things? I don’t claim to know anything about anything but just my own life.

And yet, there ‘s been a honing in on the things I really care about in the last year unlike any other time before. I want to bring that into my work, into my practice, my daily life and continue that journey.

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?

Well, here’s where I agree with Hal Prince. I saw the In Memoriam Lincoln Centre tribute to Hal Prince. It was an extraordinary exhibit at the Lincoln Centre.

I do think my curiosity about human nature has really been piqued during this time. I’m always, as a performer and actor, curious about motivations and curious about other people’s lives and their journeys or stories. During this time, the curiosity for me has been about why does that seem like it’s okay to you, or why does that seem harmful to you?

We the people are making decisions and moving about the world and I don’t think there’s a ‘one size fits all’ solution for debates about issues that have surrounded Covid.

This is just a mind exercise and practice, but I try to take both sides in every debate to try it on for size. My curiosity has definitely been piqued to different people’s handlings of issues as a result of Covid.

When I return to the theatre, I don’t want to make any grand declarations as I believe I’ll carry this personal curiosity to my work as an artist. Not all of us are going to comfortable with certain boundaries, but that’s our responsibility to understand as we move forward. As artists we will have to ask in our curiosity what another artist is comfortable with, and re-establish those things for ourselves and in our workplaces.

So often on stage, in a traditional proscenium setting, we can think of the audience as one entity, as one unit. We also have to remember the unit is made up of so many parts, that every part brings their own experience. They’ve lost people whom they have loved during Covid; they’ve experienced their own sickness or frailty during this time. I want to keep that in mind as an artist as there are so many viewpoints.

To connect with Kaylee: @kaylee.harwoodTwitter @kayleeharwood.

Her personal website is www.kayleeharwood.com.

To learn more about Kaylee’s business ‘High Strung Retro Décor’, visit Instagram: @highstrungretrodecor OR visit SideBiz Studio at https://www.sidebizstudio.ca/store/high-strung-retro-decor/

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