The Self Isolated Artist
Liz Beddall Photography.
I’ve often wondered if professional artists who wear more than one hat as an actor might prefer one identity marker over the other. For example, there are those who are actor/director, director/actor, playwright/actor, actor/playwright…the possibilities are endless.
Since I’ve entered the Facebook and Twitter universe, I’ve seen Mark Crawford’s name appear under PEOPLE YOU MAY KNOW. I remember his play ‘Bed and Breakfast’ was a summer hit at Toronto’s Soulpepper Theatre where Paul Love described it as “adding a splash of fun to the dog days of summer”. In January, I reviewed a good community theatre production of Mark’s ‘Stag and Doe’ at Bloor West Village Players and really liked the story.
When Mark’s name appeared a few days ago again under PEOPLE YOU MAY KNOW, I threw caution to the wind and thought, “What the hell?” and sent him a message asking if he would like to be profiled. I was pleased he agreed. Just from our online conversation, I found him pleasant and affable and I hope I get the chance to meet him in person soon.
Mark studied theatre at the University of Toronto and Sheridan College. His plays which are published by Scirocco Drama have been produced across Canada and internationally. Recent acting credits include Stage West Calgary, Arts Club, Blyth, Centaur (Montreal), Port Stanley, Factory Theatre, Theatre New Brunswick and Thousand Islands Playhouse.
I’m not going to tell you here whether or not Mark likes to be referred to as a playwright or actor or both. I’ll have you find out:
1. How have you been doing during this period of isolation and quarantine? Is your family doing well?
Thankfully, everyone in my family is healthy. I’d love to go see them, but we’re being good and hunkering down at home.
As for how I’ve been doing…turns out pandemics are a real roller coaster ride! Today, I’m feeling pretty good. Over the past several weeks, I’ve had moments where I stand in the middle of the kitchen, staring into space, saying to no one: “What is happening?!” At this point in the game, I don’t think there’s any point in pretending this isn’t weird and hard.
2. Were you involved in any projects before the pandemic was declared and everything was shut down? What has become of these projects?
Yes, I was performing a play called The Outsider at Stage West Calgary when everything ground to a halt. We were about halfway through our run, so it was disappointing to stop when we did.
As a playwright, I had some productions that came to a standstill. Theatre New Brunswick’s Young Company was on tour with my play for young audiences, Boys, Girls, and Other Mythological Creatures. Neptune Theatre’s Touring Company had just started rehearsals for that play as well. The University of Windsor was about to go into tech with Stag and Doe. I’m hopeful that some of these productions will see the light of day again.
In the past few weeks, I’ve experienced the next wave of postponements. The Birds and the Bees at Port Hope’s Capitol Theatre has been put off till next year, Bed and Breakfast at the Charlottetown Festival is delayed as well, and I’m in the Toronto cast of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, which is also postponed till 2021.
So yeah. It definitely sucks. But there’s comfort in knowing that everyone in the business is in the same boat.
3. What has been the most challenging part of the isolation and quarantine for you?
The not knowing: not knowing how long this will last, not knowing when we’ll get back to work, and not knowing what life on the other side of this will look like.
Also, it’s been a challenge to not eat two weeks’ worth of groceries in four days.
4. What have you been doing to keep yourself busy during this time of lockdown?
I’ve been going on a lot of walks, using my actor training to balance the stage picture and keep my distance. I’ve been doing lots of cooking, lots of baking, and now that the weather is nice, lots of work out in the yard. I’ve given myself some big garden projects to work on this year. It feels good to get my hands in the dirt.
I’m reading all of the Harry Potter novels. I read the first two when they were fairly new, but then I got too busy in university reading The Canterbury Tales and ’Tis Pity She’s a Whore. Anyway, I’m halfway through Order of the Phoenix and loving it.
After weeks of not feeling able to write, I’ve started work on a little radio/podcast play. It’s different than anything I’ve written so far. It’s fun because the form allows me to dream up stuff I wouldn’t write for the stage.
In a few weeks, I start teaching an online play writing class for teens through Theatre Orangeville. I’m really looking forward to that.
But let’s be honest: I’m spending a lot of time staring at my phone, watching TV, negotiating how much news to consume, developing a love/hate relationship with Zoom, and lying on my yoga mat not doing yoga.
5. What advice would you give to other performing artists who are concerned about the impact of COVID-19?
Oh, jeez. I don’t know if I’m in a position to give anyone advice!
I’ll say this: if you thought you’d use this time to write your King Lear and it’s not happening, that’s OK. I saw a great tweet the other day that said, “It’s a global pandemic, not a writer’s retreat.” If you’re able to focus and create, more power to you. But if you sit down at the computer and nothing comes out, that is completely understandable.
Maybe instead of output, this is a time for input. Read some books, watch some movies, listen to music or podcasts, talk to your friends, fill up your tank. And by this, I don’t mean, “This is your chance to read the Riverside Shakespeare cover-to-cover,” I mean, “Absorb whatever you’re drawn to.” The finest actors and writers I know have wildly eclectic (and often pretty low brow) taste. Everything is grist for the mill.
6. Do you see any positives coming out of this pandemic?
Wouldn’t it be great if our society used this as a chance to look at some big stuff? It seems like the ideal time to address economic injustice, the minimum wage, a universal basic income, workers’ rights, health care, education funding, long term care, household debt, homelessness, poverty, climate change, I could go on and on…
On an individual level, I hope this experience makes us all a bit more compassionate, more patient, and more grateful for what we do have.
Who knows if any of that will happen? A boy can dream…
7. Do you believe or can you see if the Canadian performing arts scene will somehow be changed or impacted as a result of COVID – 19?
There’s no doubt that it’s already been impacted.
Sadly, I don’t think all theatre companies will survive this. Not all plays that were programmed or in development will go forward. New work opportunities will decrease as theatres try to salvage contracts they had to terminate. Worst of all, I’m afraid some artists will have to make hard decisions about whether or not they can afford to stay in the business. I don’t mean to be a pessimist here, but I think we’re all realizing the next year or two will be tough.
One positive way to think about it, though, is in ecological terms. When something dies and breaks down in the forest, it creates an opportunity for new life to emerge. Maybe out of these hard times, we’ll see exciting new companies form, young actors burst onto the scene in creative ways, and over scheduled directors and designers come back to their craft with a fresh approach. I sure hope so.
8. Many artists are turning to streaming/online performances to showcase/highlight/share their work. What are your thoughts and comments about this? Are there any advantages or disadvantages?
If you have the energy and the chutzpah to create something, I say go for it. I’ve been watching some stuff and it’s fun to see what folks are coming up with.
But for me, watching a play on YouTube or a reading on Zoom underlines the ways in which theatre is—at its very core—a live experience. The magic happens when artists and audience inhabit the same space, at the same time. Until that can happen again, I applaud any attempts to stay connected to an audience.
9. Mark Crawford is a playwright and an actor. Is there one he prefers over the other?
Nope! I love doing both. Acting and playwriting are challenging and rewarding in different ways, but they also inform each other. I find it funny when people want me to choose one or the other, as though wearing two hats is a newfangled fashion trend and not something people have been doing forever.
As a nod to ‘Inside the Actors’ Studio’ and the late James Lipton, here are the 10 questions he asked his guests at the conclusion of his interviews:
1. What is your favourite word?
2. What is your least favourite word?
3. What turns you on?
4. What turns you off?
5. What sound or noise do you love?
Waves lapping on the shore
6. What sound or noise bothers you?
Important announcements over a loudspeaker in which you can’t make out a damn word the person is saying.
7. What is your favourite curse word?
I’m a big fan of the curse phrase. For moments of personal frustration, a particularly evocative one I picked up in rehearsal a few years ago is, “Oh, fuck me with a rubber hose!”
8. What profession, other than your own, would you have liked to attempt?
9. What profession would you not like to do?
10. If Heaven exists, what do you imagine God will say to you as you approach the Pearly Gates?
“You did good.”