Kelli Fox

Looking Ahead

David Cooper

Joe Szekeres

Although it was an early morning 9 am interview with Kelli Fox in Vancouver, B.C. (and noon hour for me in Toronto), she had me laughing so much during our 40 minutes.

It was heartening to hear how she is conscious of the good fortune she has had within her 35 year career, but you’ll see from some of her responses she (like many artists) have had their love of live theatre come to a crashing halt.

On her personal web page (which I will include at the conclusion of her profile), Kelli speaks of how her work is always centered on language. And that language was glorious to hear when I had seen her production of ‘Between Riverside and Crazy’ which she had directed at Coal Mine Theatre and her appearance in ‘Sweat’ for Canadian Stage.

Kelli has worked for 13 seasons at The Shaw Festival and 3 seasons at The Stratford Festival. She is the recipient of the Gina Wilkinson Prize in 2016 established to recognize women’s transitioning to directing in mid-career. Once again, make sure you access Kelli’s website to see samples of her work over her 35 year career.

We conducted our conversation via Zoom. Thanks again, Kelli, for taking the time and for adding your voice to the conversation:

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.

Wow! It’s so complex!

I’ve been ruminating a lot on the fact that, before this happened, I was feeling incredibly burned out. The last couple of projects that I did, I felt like I approached not as prepared as I wanted to be because I was just tired. I was longing for an opportunity to plant myself somewhere and not pack a bag for a few months. All of that was in my head.

And then this (Covid) happened, and I thought, “Oh, my God, what have I brought upon us all? What have I wielded into being?”

It’s been frustrating and scary and lonely, really. But I’m also trying to embrace the fact that I needed this rest. I needed to spend every night in the same bed for a year. And get a bit of breath and a routine happening in my life.

And now, a year in, and I’ve also been resistant, and I know a lot of people have been doing some incredible work online; people are keeping theatre companies alive, keeping themselves present in the virtual world. I’m so impressed and have such admiration of people who have been able to do it. And I just felt like I could barely keep up with the old way of doing things. I can’t start re-inventing the wheel right now. I’m too tired, too burned out.

And it’s not my world. I don’t understand it and don’t know how to operate in it.

And then this winter I was invited to take part in a reading of a play ‘An Acorn’ by Caridad Svich through Impel Theatre in Toronto and organized by a young woman whom I know is just remarkable. They invited me to take part in this, and I had said. “Sure, of course” as it wouldn’t require very much of me other than to show up on the Zoom webinar and read the play.

And the play spoke to me on such a kind of fundamental level, and for the first time in a year I felt like just being present with these other artists and reading these words, I felt nourished. I felt remembered what it was to be an actor again.

I’m now in very early stages of trying to figure out if I can work in this media. The other thing that is beginning to come clear now is that when we do come out the other side of this pandemic, what the world looks like then is going to include this digital theatre work. It’s not going to go away. It’s going to get folded into our practice.

So, I might as well start to get comfortable on how to work with it and what to do.

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?

Well, that’s the sad part for me.

I come from a city (Vancouver) where theatre has not ever, in my experience, been really centered in the cultural life of the city. That’s why I moved to Toronto 25 years ago because I remember the first year I moved out to Toronto, within the first couple of years. I saw the influence of theatre in the city.

A friend of mine, Corrine Koslo, was in a show at Tarragon. I called her up and said I’m attending the Sunday Pay What You Can and I’ll see you after the show. She told me, “Just so you know, the show was ‘Memory of Water’, it’s selling really, really well and when we do these Sunday performances the box office opens at noon, and you have to be in line by 11:30 am at the latest because the line starts to go around the block.”

I showed up at 11 am and the line was already going around the block and the people at the front of the line had lawn chairs and thermoses. I thought, “I’m in a city where people care about this art form.” These aren’t theatre artists who are lined up, these are theatre lovers and theatre goers.

I was so enthralled that it made me fall in love with Toronto. What’s making me sad now, a year in and it’s a complete erasure of the industry. We don’t hear a lot about it.

Not that I’m dissing any of these people who are also just trying to survive during this difficult time. We hear a lot about the restaurant industry, we hear a lot about sports and the teams, and how they and the athletes are going to be able to carry on.

It doesn’t seem to matter what steps people take to try make things safe in theatre. Even the film industry is somehow able to get an opening to move forward. It doesn’t seem to matter what the theatre does, nobody cares enough whether it survives to put a real political cultural will behind it.

That makes me sad if I think about it too hard.

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

Ooooo…..I miss, strangely enough, I miss sitting in an audience. I sometimes think back to previews of ‘Riverside’ at Coal Mine Theatre and sitting in that cramped little space with 70 other people, shoulder to shoulder, and feeling and breathing with other people.

And in that space, it wasn’t the blood and sweat of the actors, it was the audience too engaged in that.

I miss that jamming in of humans together into a shared experience.

I would call ‘Between Riverside’ my first mainstage directing project even though Coal Mine is an indie company, it’s one with a lot of profile. I knew this was one people were going to see, and I was nervous. I was just so in love with the entire cast of ‘Riverside’. (At this point, Kelli named each of them with a big heartfelt smile)

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?
Just the privilege of being a working theatre artist.

I think I’ve thought I understood what that meant. I know I’ve said to many people over the years I’m conscious of my good fortune, and that I’m one of the few that gets to make a living at this. I would never guess that 35 years in that a whole year would pass and I wouldn’t work at all. I’m not making a living at this.

I’m in fact now going to have to start thinking about some alternative way to get some income because I can’t. I’m not going to hold out much longer. And that’s been a bit of a shock to me as to how much I had taken for granted even as I thought I was being consciously aware and grateful of my good fortune.

Describe one element you hope has changed concerning the live theatre industry.
Well, this was already started to happen before the pandemic:

“The keys to the gates are in different hands” and that’s going to change what it all looks like and how it all operates. And I think that’s a good thing as it’s been a long time coming.

I don’t really know what to expect when that happens when we all do show up to work together again. It’s not gonna be the same old guard putting us back on the same track to do the same kind of thing.

It’s going to be different. And people like me are not going to be running that show so, I’ll see what the party looks like and who’s invited to it and what kind of work gets done.

It’s a conversation too, and that’s partly what I love working live is that it makes the conversation interactive. It feels like real questions get posed and people walk away with real and live conversations in their heads about what they’ve seen and heard. Those are going to be different.

I’m being a little bit cagey about how I’m wording this because I don’t want to get in to a too much detailed conversation about what we’re seeing. But what I’m seeing is a lot of change, and a lot of change at the gatekeeper level, and I think it’s good. I hesitate to talk about it too much because I don’t want to invest myself too much into a particular either-or form of outcome. I want to see what happens.

Even if you have no problem with what was going on at Soulpepper before Weyni Mengesha (Artistic Director), just the fact she comes with a completely different perspective and completely different set of curiosities and interests and wants to focus on different areas that would never have occurred under previous artistic leadership, that to me is incredibly valuable. We need that.

I’m so delighted that more and more of that is happening.

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

Ooooooo….. what must I still accomplish within the industry?

(Note: I stumped Kelli for a few seconds as I could see she was really thinking)

Apart from in the late 80s when I visited the Shaw Festival and saw the work and had a deliberate conscious idea that I need to work there, to work with that company. I want to be in that milieu. And I worked really hard to accomplish that specific goal.

And I was really pleased it worked out. I had a great time there.

But apart from that, I’ve never really made a plan. I got very lucky when I started to direct because I had enough of a track record as an actor that people went okay, sure, let’s see what you do with this show.

As things started to work out, people started to ask and that worked out. I asked Gina Wilkinson how she made that transition. And she said, “I just wanted to. And people let me.”

I thought that sounded great and good for Gina. And in turn that’s exactly what happened to me.

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.

(Kelly let out an Uuuugghh)…

I want to be surrounded by humanity and share in a live experience together. That’s mostly what I want.

But God, I hope we don’t get a whole tsunami of Covid themed plays. I see a lot of stuff on Twitter, and these are conversations I try not to get involved in too much, about I hope we don’t see that. Or when we get back to the theatre, people are saying we’re going to do meaningful work, meaningful work, and the company’s program is ‘Sound of Music’ or ‘Singing in the Rain’.

We just need to bring an audience back. And is an audience going to be a post World War 2 audience? We just want to see dance and a comedy. We don’t want to deal with death and destruction. We’ve had enough. We’ve been through a collective trauma, and it would make perfect sense for people to say, “Just do a tap dance. Please.”

I would empathize with an audience that wants music and laughter, and artists that want to work in that capacity. I just want to be in a room with people and share a laugh. That said, there’s going to be the need to have a conversation about what audiences want to see.

The important thing to me is that we get to a place where we’re comfortable. This is what worries about me about how long it’s going to take because we need to get to a place where people feel good about walking into The Coal Mine Store Front space and sitting shoulder to shoulder with 80 other bodies, and not feel concerned about that.

That’s where we need to get back first before we get back to the theatre. I feel that’s going to be a long time. We need to be patient with each other and take a little space, breathe, smile and have that conversation.

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

Wow!!

I think what would be most important to me is if people thought of me as somebody who centered the work over herself as an artist.

I think I’ve always tried. Obviously, I walk into the room with an ego, and all actors enter the room with an ego, and you can’t deny that. But I think, I’ve always consciously tried to say if I’m having an issue, is the issue I’m having about my ego or is it a problem I need to solve in the work.

I never wanted to be too concerned about what people thought of Kelli after they saw a play in which Kelli played a racist. I never wanted people to walk out of a theatre after ‘Sweat’ worrying about what they thought of me as a human being. I want them to look at Tracy as a human being.

To learn more about Kelli, visit her website: www.kellifox.ca.

You can also follow Kelli on Twitter: @KelliFox14 /Instagram: @nelsonsdotter

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