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Mark Cassius

Theatre Conversation in a Covid World

Courtesy of Victoria Playhouse: A Starbright Christmas

Joe Szekeres

Mark Cassius made his Broadway debut in the revival of Shenandoah in 1989. He was an original cast member in the World Premier of Ragtime (1996) in Toronto. Ragtime took him to Broadway for a second time in 1998. The third time’s a charm and he was on Broadway again in the revival of Jesus Christ Superstar in 2012. That production came out of his second season at The Stratford Festival of Canada in 2011. In his first season, 2007, his performance as “Mr. Magix” in My One and Only won him critical acclaim.

Mark was a cast member of many of Canada’s mega-musicals in the 1990s such as Cats, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat (with Donny Osmond), Miss Saigon, and Showboat (second replacement Toronto company with Cloris Leachman). And I’m pleased to say that I saw Mark’s performances in each of them when there was no need to travel to New York as we had top notch entertainment here.

Regionally, Mark enjoys performing in shows for D2 Entertainment – Hollywood Sings, A Starbright Christmas. And always feels at home in front of Drayton Entertainment audiences, - Damn Yankees, The Little Mermaid, Sweet Charity, Dance Legends.

One of the few times doing theatre in Toronto in the past decade, he received a Broadway World, “Best Actor” nomination, for his role in The Musical of Musicals (The Musical).

From 1997 – 2005, he was a member of world-renowned acapella group, The Nylons, touring with them extensively.

He has been a Kiwanis Musical Festival adjudicator, is a wildly sought-after vocal coach and has taught at the Randolph College for the Performing Arts and Sheridan University. He continues to mentor and support young performers and is passionately invested in and dedicated to the creation and survival of Art.

Thank you so much for this conversation, Mark:

In a couple of months, we will be coming up on one year where the doors of live theatre have been shut. How have you been faring during this time? Your immediate family?

I won’t lie to you – denial for the first two months. Nothing changed. I went back to school and just finishing my master’s degree in Music Composition at York University when this started. I had already suspended my performing to work on the degree even though I was doing a little performing throughout that. When it started, I didn’t feel the shutdown immediately and then slowly I needed to take time to finish my Master’s Research Project that it started to sink in.

After the first two months of being in my head and conjuring up an idea of what this paper was going to be like, the reality of writing the project became further and further away because I realized 1) the solitude was all of a sudden not finite. It was going, “When is this going to end?”

I live alone and the solitude of the pandemic started to get to me. It was about May when friends reached out and I started responding and there were more Zoom calls and Face Time of coffee or toast in the evening just to get myself socializing again.

It was disbelief first, then dismay, then disdain. I went through those phases and now, a year later, I’m starting to feel the creative bug again. I’m getting my paper finished and realizing this time hasn’t stopped me from being a creator and an artist and it’s great to be having that.

This is something that I didn’t realize alone. I’ve lots of friends who helped me realize this and we are moving forward and trying to create content. There’s no point in saying, “Woe is me, what do I do now?” Eventually there will be venues and places to showcase the work so, create the work.

My immediate family is good. I have an aunt in Pickering that checks in on me pretty much every day. I’m not a very big family here. I have an uncle in Montreal and cousins there. But I was born in Trinidad and that’s my mother’s side of the family. Since she’s been gone we’ve been trying to keep much more connected with more frequent calls and check ins.

It’s difficult but social media (even though I have my problems with it), I have to discipline myself periodically and shut myself off it. I was off Facebook for six months during the pandemic. And now I’m off Instagram for now. I’m giving each one a break and rest so I can have a fresh perspective when I re-join because my needs on social media are very specific. It’s an outreach and a way for people to know what I’m up to and what I’m doing. When it gets into all the opinions and expressions, I need to, as we say in tap class, time to do some pullbacks.

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

The Master’s program has taken up most of my time. I had my thesis statement and now it’s, “Wow, that was eight months ago when I thought that.” I’m doing revisions on my thesis because there are things about the world that have changed since then. I wanted to write about music in terms of my native country. A lot of what has happened in society is not yet a global voice. Before it becomes a global voice, the people who I want to pay attention need to do pay attention to the globe and listen to the other voices so there’s more of a consensus.

I just want there to be more listening than speaking. So I’m hoping from my small corner of the world to say, “This is what happened in the native history of my country and how music influenced us as a culture and how we influence music as a culture. Whatever, in Trinidad, the different cultures that came influenced something that we know all own. We talk about it in terms of Trinidad music, not in terms of African music.”

I think this is something the world can learn from because it speaks to a level of integration that happened through the arts, music and culture and learning from each other and not pushing people away. Holding on to this gives me a cohesive sense of what the world is supposed to be about.

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?

‘Escape’ is an interesting word because it feels like some sort of fantasy, and yes theatre is fantasy at times. But there is so much truth in theatre that it’s interesting that I don’t see it as an escape but as a necessary journey.

Sometimes you can’t believe what’s happening so the actual reality becomes like a fantasy because you’re in such disbelief of what this near year of Covid was really like. This year seems like an alternate reality, it just can’t seem to be real, but it is really happening.

So I guess escaping from something like that into theatre which is always better because we really get to explore the human condition through theatre when we get into the work. Even as an audience member people get to live out things by watching plays and musicals. As artists we never get to really know sometimes the effect we have on an audience. The story has to be told with such honour when we’re up there.

There’s always part of me thinking, “Somebody’s going to be moved by this.” This is going to have some relevance in ways I can’t even think of.

So, full circle, I think Hal Prince is right but certainly not escape in trying to run away from things. Sometimes it’s an escape to run into things and make discoveries. Life is very difficult right now and I want the escape to hear a piece of music or see something that may move me.

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?

Well, the logistics of it would indicate this is kind of accurate. I might not using back at all. I’m always moving forward into whatever is going to occur or be next.

For theatre to be what fully what it is going to be next, that’s an accurate prediction that it won’t be back until at least 2022. However, I don’t think in 2022 it’s going to be there. Absolutely not. I think there are going to be versions of it trying to creep in all along. That’s what I will add to that statement.

As soon as it is safe to do so, we’re going to have to try and make attempts to reach audiences because THAT is the relationship that makes theatre – the artists and the audience. We need both to make it happen.

The buildings might be a problem for theatre to return because I don’t know if I want to be in any room with a thousand people right now or anytime soon until we have real proof of the efficacy of the vaccine when everyone has it. We’ve got to start doing something, continue to do something and not lose faith and not lose momentum because that is what is going to get us to that 2022 projection.

I am looking forward to all the new discoveries and the re-discoveries of theatre because let’s face it – when things were being performed in the amphitheater by daylight or moonlight many, many moons ago, that was the only lighting plot we had. We can’t let our advancements and concepts now surround the piece and the people get in the way, we can’t let this happen. We need to find new discoveries to do things in live performance.

We’ve got to stop depending on all the electronics and amplifications that we have used as enhancements. Yes, they’ll come back but they’ll be the last to add once we have the buildings again and we’re inside again and people feel secure again.

Meanwhile we the artists and the audience have to be convinced that yes we still want to do and they still want to see.

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?

I cannot ever put aside the strong sense of responsibility that I now have. I always felt that there was a greater purpose than me just making people laugh. Yes, there is vanity in the theatre and great feeling on stage doing what we do.

I’ve got a stronger sense of responsibility for the mantle I carry, the body of artists actually, to tell these stories, to get these messages, to get things heard. The isolation has made me super aware of how, despite the fact we’re so connected by the Internet of technology, still how many people don’t get the messages or are not hearing the voices outside of their own realm.

There is a bigger picture for me than just the eight-show week. I’m not sure what exactly that is going to mean but I think I’m still in the middle of transformation of that. I honestly don’t know but it’s definitely put me in a place where I’m thinking beyond the next contract, or beyond realizing my voice isn’t limited beyond the 2 ½ hours on stage and what that’s going to make me do next.

My work as a writer is just beginning so that may be the thing that will fuel me now.

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’m going to speak quite frankly about my physical danger. I’m a recent kidney transplant recipient so physically this pandemic and things around it have been a dangerous thing for me. When Covid started I received all the notices that I had to be extra cautious so there’s that other level. I’ve adapted that extra level of caution to make me feel safe all the time so physically overcoming all that has been a huge part of my time during Covid.

There’s this danger on a philosophical level almost. We do so many things as humanity to put the structure of safety into our lives. We want to make ourselves and the people whom we love safe. And in a moment this thing that we have no control over sweeps in and devastates that plan. It’s doing raspberries in our face. That’s maddening to our sense of self-empowerment.

Yes, there’s been danger on many levels – society, the things we are seeing right now on a social discourse; Did it take a pandemic and the feelings and stresses to make this matter ooze out of us? With the danger comes the caution.

I am cautious now. I am cautious of the world and my world. Don’t take anything for granted. Be vigilant. Know that the job isn’t done. My mantra is “I believe everything is going to be fine” but I’m also thinking at any time I might be called to arms to defend that. If called, what am I going to do and what can I do? My place is as an artist so be prepared.

The danger is hovering, but I am thinking of ways to offset it. Dark times? Well, I have a lot of musical material to make things happy for myself and for others so that seems like a good counter.

So, Zoe Caldwell, there’s something in your comment.

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?

Oh, gosh, yeah. I’m going to get all dramatic here. If this was a bigger disaster, and we were looking at the end of days (or something prophetic like that) I would have really been caught off guard. I thought I was actually doing a good job of giving my all when I was on stage and not holding back.

I’ve been more successful on stage than I have been off. And that is something I am confessing and I admit it to myself and since I’ve been able to say that, I can now say, “It’s time for some balance. You need that presence in your life.”

Leading with love and joy instead of fear, that is one of the basics. Fear is a component and can’t escape it but I’d like to think I have a fairly conquering spirit and I can apply it to that particular demon. Sometimes I allow fear to spend too much time and I have to learn to tell it to take a hike. Sometimes fear is good. It can come in and have some tea and can tell me how it’s going to challenge me today. When it’s time to tell fear to go, I have to learn how to say to it, “Bye, bye. It’s time to go.”

I have to re-set the table for love and joy. That’s where I want to be and that’s what I want to tell my friends and to invite them to this table. I want to make sure my family knows without a doubt what they mean to me. I want others to know that I am engaged with them and others to know they can give me a shake when necessary, and I can give them a shake when necessary, all the while feeling safe with each other.

This is a lot of time to think and I’ve tried not to dismiss anything.

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?

Oh my gosh. As you know, Joe, I worked with Hal in Showboat for the second cast in Toronto when the original cast went to Broadway. I can say that I heard Hal utter these words in a room and that was so exciting for me then and when I read the question you sent me.

I had been doing Miss Saigon in Toronto and came in the second wave of Showboat. Hal used these words and it’s true. Truer words have never been spoken. Theatre should spark curiosity from everybody involved, everybody.

It’s a journey, every step of it, and the artists and the audience should be thinking, ‘What’s next and how do I participate?’

Covid has made me curious on a more esoteric and spiritual level. If I’m going to do something that is going to harm another person then I have to think and be curious about the awful implications behind that. Things like this have made me realize why I am doing the things that I am doing.

I like to believe I am a good person but this time of Covid has made me curious about our human actions and responses with and to each other. Hopefully this time of isolation, I know it worked for me, it’s about how much I appreciate interaction with others as I never have before. I’m an only child so growing up I was content to be on my own but now I appreciate interaction with others because I miss people.

Just simply that. I miss people. I miss the option of seeing them because it’s been taken away. This time has made me curious to be aware of who I am and what is my relationship to others in a positive way.

This time of Covid has made me aware to keep curious about our relationships with others because those people in your life is changing just as you are. Remain curious about them and don’t take who they are for granted. Maintain the curiosity that made you want to be that person’s friend in the first place.

You can follow Mark on Facebook and Instagram: @TheMarkCassius

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