Theatre Conversation in a Covid World
Associate Artistic Director at Soulpepper Theatre Company, Luke Reece, is one highly charming gentleman who holds no pretentious airs about him at all. He is a very down to earth, humble and appreciative guy who shared some extremely funny moments during our conversation that I wasn’t able to include here for space.
Luke is an award-winning spoken word poet, theatre producer and playwright. Through his work as an educator and artistic leader within the national arts community, he advocates for engaging and nuanced storytelling that challenges audiences. He is one of Toronto’s most decorated slam poets and has represented the country internationally.
Luke currently sits on the board for the Professional Association of Canadian Theatres and the Toronto Poetry Project.
We conducted our conversation via Zoom. Thanks again, Luke:
The doors to Toronto live theatre have been shut for over a year plus now with no possible date of re-opening soon and day one of the Ontario provincial stay at home order. How have you and your immediate family been faring during this time?
I’m happy to say that with my immediate family, they’re all doing well. Staying in touch virtually and trying to check in with everyone. It’s funny because we’re starting to hear now people getting vaccinated and my family doesn’t always communicate to me what’s going on so I’m hearing from my friends how their grandparents are vaccinated, and I’m thinking, “I don’t even know when mine are getting vaccinated. I don’t even know what’s going on.”
I talked to my mom and she said they were vaccinated weeks ago, and I had no idea. Yes, that’s great news but could someone tell me so I’m not worrying about it or thinking I should be doing something. My grandparents both have their first dose of the vaccine. My Nonna just turned 92 this past Saturday.
As we enter this new stay at home order today, my first thought honestly, Joe, when they announced it was that we were legitimately low on toilet paper here. And I thought if we go out and get toilet paper, we’re going to be those people who are hoarding and stocking up, and we’re not. We really do need toilet paper because we’re out. So, trying to navigate that.
I’ve been good health wise, going for walks and doing yoga. Still trying to figure out when it’s my turn for the vaccine. I’m hearing mixed messages. Some people are saying we can register for it. Anyway, I will take care of it soon. I have asthma so I’m hoping I’ll be able to find out when I can register.
How have you been spending your outside time since the theatre industry has been locked up tight as a drum?
I’ve been doing a lot of writing, and that really picked up a year ago. I’ve always been a writer; I’ve always done it in the time that I’ve been able to find. I’ve always called myself a playwright since high school but wasn’t really able to fully step into that identity, I think, until the last couple of years just because I was producing a lot.
You know, Joe, I started producing because I wanted to produce my own work when I was in early university. As soon as I figured out how to do it, I felt selfish and then I wanted to produce other people’s work, so I stepped away from mine for the longest time. When things slowed down a year ago, I was able to find the time to write some more and also to remind people in the community that I’m a writer; I’m a spoken word poet as well and that form can easily be consumed online through performances and videos, so people started to pick up that I’m both a spoken word poet and a playwright.
I’ve got a few commissions underway and a few projects in development and being Associate Artistic Director at Soulpepper and owning that side. So, the switch for me is realizing all the creative work I’ve been doing outside my full job, I can bring in and enfold into Soulpepper now in my artistry.
I’m a big Raptors Fan so following the NBA is something that takes up a lot of my time when I want to step outside of theatre. (Luke then turned his computer camera around to show me a lot of his Raptors and sports memorabilia. He is a true sports fan outside of his work at Soulpepper).
I also play soccer, but too short for basketball team, but I still shoot hoops when I can. It’s tough to find spots on a hoop right now; I’ve just moved into a new area of Toronto, I’m out in the east end and I’m trying to figure out what time the courts and fields are busy so that I know when I can schedule.
I’m craving that time too to shoot some hoops for a bit.
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 think it’s been a partial escape. Covid has been around long enough that I have to segment it to answer.
For me, it was an escape from how I thought about my relationship to work in my life. I think people really started to appreciate family and loved ones. We’re seeing people lose loved ones; I lost an uncle early on, not Covid related, but it was right at the moment where we could not gather for funerals.
Early on for me was recognizing how interacting with our family is now different as they feel further away. So now it became a matter of how do I manage my time where I can speak with my family more, and call my grandparents more, organize picnics over Zoom.
I was at Obsidian Theatre at the time, ended up leaving Obsidian in August of 2020 and took some time off. I saved up some money and used that time to get things in my life sorted, so it was a bit of an escape in that sense.
I also went on a road trip to Whistler and back with my best friend. He had this mini van and we thought to have a mini van bubble, he and I, and we camped mostly along the way, save a few air bnbs. It was cold though as we went in September and October. Camping in Banff in September gets below freezing at night, so I had to buy some new sleeping bags. I was always first up in the morning to start a fire. We got to see some beautiful parts of the country. Driving across seeing the Prairies was also an escape too. I saw a lot of wildlife as well and that was cool because I love wildlife.
I’ve interviewed a few artists several months ago (Lucie Arnaz Luckinbill was one) 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 as in Stratford. What are your comments about this?
It's amazing she had the foresight then to predict 2022.
I remember at one point feeling so confident that we would be back in fall 2020. We weren’t cancelling shows in April because we thought it’ll pass by the fall. I think for the fact I could remember we were feeling so certain early on that we were coming back. Every time I felt certain we were coming back it’s been pushed further ahead.
I don’t feel certain about anything now (Luke says with a laugh).
I think, at the very earliest, 2022. Some companies are talking about doing stuff at the end of 2021 and I don’t see how you can. There are a couple of factors to it. Even as we progress and people are allowed back into theatres, the indoor capacity will be only 50 for awhile. So is this sustainable to do productions given this number, the size of the production.
Outdoor stuff we’ll see as at Stratford this summer. I was surprised at first and then thought what do they know that I don’t know. But that’s great the Festival is returning.
The next question is how comfortable will people be in returning. I don’t doubt people will be excited to return to the theatre, I also think people will take their time returning to the theatre especially now with the variants and the stay-at-home orders or lock down orders. We’re getting the first dose of the vaccine but now the second dose is being pushed back further and further so this is another factor to consider.
There are so many variables. I could say, “Yes, Spring 2022, we’ll be back full tilt”. Fast forward to then and it would be, “What was I thinking?”
It’s all up in the air as far as I’m concerned.
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?
Personally, it’s made me a bit more aggressive in seeking what I want in my life. Life’s short. It’s taking the time.
When my friend said we would be gone for 5 weeks road trip out west, I quit my job and went. This thing I want to do. This was before the second wave, so it felt like it wasn’t a responsible thing to do since we weren’t in a bubble. Looking back now, I went across Canada during the pandemic…aggressive decision but …
My partner and I just moved in together for the first time. I bought a barbecue. The things that I want to do, I don’t hold back. I’ve always been somebody who wants to find the joy in life and I think it’s connected to my role at Soulpepper because there’s a lot of work to be done. I have to approach it with the same attitude of having fun, working within my capacity, allowing space for myself to enjoy life. That’s always been inside of me and I know I’m more open about it.
Just to shift to Soulpepper and work culture, the staff has been through a lot together. Unlike Obsidian from where I came with a smaller staff, Soulpepper had a larger staff and they’ve had to adapt to the programming we’re actually doing with some cuts. We’re not producing full seasons, so the staffing has to adapt to reflect that.
The company has been through a lot together and what I love here is they are doing these weekly full staff meetings where we talk, go into breakout rooms where we have these focus questions and talk about the programming plus we get to know each other more in these break out rooms since we can’t walk into the building right now and say hi to somebody.
That camaraderie that we all experienced together a few years ago, let’s find a space where we can all come together and talk, decompress and unite. When the theatre comes back, Soulpepper and this team will operate in a way that it never has before. You can feel the energy in these Zooms.
Zooming out into the community now, what I loved at the top of the pandemic was the fact theatres were talking to each other in a way they weren’t before. They had to be open about the planning of shows for when and where and how. It became what the theatre should have been all along: We’re all making art together and we should share resources and knowledge.
I think honestly some of this is fading now, and I want to hold on to it. I want theatres to continue to talk to each other because yes we’ve all figured out a way for our companies to operate now, but we’re going to need each other when we do come back again. We’re going to need to talk, to strategize, to come back united not just for the sustainability of the companies but for the audiences, for the artists because there is the fact we’re the ones welcoming the artists and audiences. We need to all be on the same page as to how we’re doing that so there aren’t variant experiences.
If we weren’t thinking of making sure we are caring for our artists given all that’s happened socially over the last year, there is no excuse now. We have do this.
As an artist myself, Covid has transformed me by making me aware of the context in which I’m writing. That was always a big thing for me, and I think that came from being a spoken word poet who’s performing mostly at poetry slams where it’s a competitive form, and anybody in the audience can be asked to be a judge that evening. Knowing that anybody with any lived experience can come in and would have a right to critique my work, I don’t know this person, but I have a sense of the context of the world right now. And maybe I can’t speak to that specific person with my heart, but I can speak in the context and there should be some where in there to be able to connect.
We’re going to see this line of work that was pre Covid and work post Covid. Subject matter will be taught differently. The language we use to engage each other, to care. We have to be aware of this as an artist. What are the audiences bringing to my work that I already know because the world has changed a lot. Audiences are seeing the changes the same time I’m seeing the changes.
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?
Yes, I agree danger is part of the work in the theatre. When I go to the theatre, I want to be challenged; I want to be pushed; I want to feel uncomfortable.
I would lean more to the word ‘uncomfortable’ rather than danger because I think you can be uncomfortable but still be safe. If you lean too much into danger, especially going back now, audiences might just tune out and start to wonder about their safety. There is a hyper-awareness around am I safe where I am. If I’m walking on a busy sidewalk or going to Shopper’s Drug Mart, there’s always that question of ‘am I safe where I am?”
In order to get audiences to suspend their disbelief, we have to let them know they’re safe so they’re not pocketing that in their mind and so they can they be challenged and uncomfortable by the work.
I have felt uncomfortable during this time 100%. The most uncomfortable I felt was on the trip to Whistler. We were camping and we were fine as we were outside and lots of fresh air. My friend’s friend wanted to meet us for a drink. I thought, okay, doing something outside that should be okay. My friend hadn’t seen his friend for awhile, okay. We get there, it wasn’t outside but downstairs in a building where no one was masked.
Covid has also been a time of where we have taught each other that we have different comfort levels. My friend I was camping with out west is one of my best friends, so it was a challenge. I had my mask on downstairs in a bar, but I did feel scared. So, if anything, that time taught me the importance of sharing with even closest friends that it’s important that we all state our comfort level at all times.
As we move forward on a personal level in relationship with others, it’s going to be how do we communicate the feeling of being uncomfortable that is tolerable and palatable with friends in our community. Ultimately, it’s about being vulnerable.
As Soulpepper emerges slowly from the pandemic, it’s about finding safe ways to present the work where it’s still part of the art. If we’re sitting 6 feet apart, it’s not a part of Covid but part of the world in which we now live. There have been conversations on how to do that, but every time we feel we’re close to understanding then there’s a shut down or stay at home order.
Joe, I think about the first show I want to come back to, it’s a risk. Theatre is a chore for some people to see – going for dinner, drive downtown or take public transit, find parking, affordable tickets etc…and now we put another barrier the fact there might be an element of danger and feeling uncomfortable? We better be putting out some good work for audiences to see to bring them back. I want to put out high quality work even in these times of danger and feeling uncomfortable.
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?
I call artists more than I think I did before, just on the phone. I used to see people in the Obsidian office, and we’d chat about events. I like talking and connecting with artists to see how they’re doing. Some I went to school with, some we’ve just become friends over the years. I remember having to make the call of a play we were to have done at Canadian Stage, and there was a discussion on how to discuss with the cast over the decision that was made.
We had a group meeting over Zoom, and seeing the hurt, disappointment and pain. We had to contact them individually to sort out payments, and I volunteered to call many of them because I wanted them to be able to speak to me openly and me sharing with them, and for the artists to know they’re seen and they’re heard and that we’re thinking of them, especially when CERB payments began to roll out.
Off the top, a lot of the independent artists felt lost and forgotten. They were just left hanging.
For me, it was communicating with them openly as much as possible. Even now, that we’re seeing more opportunities comes, I’m on these journeys through the Academy and program with the city called ‘Awakenings’ and workshops people have to apply. People are applying because they want to talk to artists again and engage in theatre.
At Obsidian I also checked in with a lot of people to see how they were doing. It takes time to do that. Folks at Soulpepper are pretty busy but I’m taking the time to do that as part of this new role.
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?
I’m so curious as to how we take care of our audiences. I know I just spoke in the last question about taking care of our artists a lot, but I feel like I have a better handle because of what I just prioritized on how to take care of our artists. Taking care of our audience right now, that I’m curious about.
How are we at Soulpepper going to show our audiences they are safe with us? How are we going to show audiences they can escape with us in our productions? I think we’re going to see a lot of comedies as we slowly return, I hope, I hope a lot of comedies.
People need to come back and laugh, and I’m curious to see how we join in space together again. I’m curious to see how people handle consent after Covid, the ideas of boundaries and personal space.
Even though hopefully we will have both vaccinations when we return, as you know, Joe, there is this space in the theatre where we hug upon greeting each other. I think we’re going to see more of artists asking each other what they are comfortable with.
And I’m most curious about kids. Out of everything that has happened over the last year plus, I’m curious for 5, 10 years from now the results on kids. I know when I was a child, I loved hanging out with my friends, playing recreational sports and being at school, doing extra-curriculars. And I think about what that would be like if I didn’t have that in the same way, or if I was glued to a screen all day.
I worry about the kids who have gone through this and how it will manifest itself in the art they will create. I have no idea what the experience of the pandemic is like for them, and I can’t wait to learn it about it through them and their art.
You can follow Luke on his Instagram and Twitter: @lareece93
To learn more about Soulpepper Theatre Company, visit www.soulpepper.ca; Facebook: Soulpepper Theatre Company; Twitter and Instagram: @Soulpepper.