Mark McGrinder

Moving Forward

Trish Lindstrom.

Joe Szekeres

To chat with Studio 180 Theatre’s Associate Artistic Director, Mark McGrinder, was a lesson in learning and watching someone who is humble, down to earth, articulate and passionate about where he sees live theatre moving forward once we all find ourselves emerging slowly from this world wide pandemic.

Mark’s biography from the Studio 180 website states he is a co-founder of the company. Mark is an actor, writer, and artist educator. As a member of Studio 180’s Core Artistic Team, he coordinates Studio 180’s IN DEVELOPMENT program and works as a Studio 180 IN CLASS workshop leader. For Studio 180, he has appeared as an actor in many productions, adapted and directed, Love, Dishonor, Marry, Die, Cherish, Perish, directed Standing on Ceremony: The Gay Marriage Plays and a reading of The Arab-Israeli Cookbook, and worked as Associate Director for Blackbird (Metcalf Foundation Internship), God of Carnage and our 10th Anniversary reading of The Laramie Project.

He has performed in several reviews with The Second City’s National touring company and was a member of the acting company at the Shaw Festival for five seasons. Mark’s directing credits include the issue-based comedy Power Play and a workshop production of the musical Parade at the Shaw Festival. He has been head- or co-writer on several collective creations (Single and Sexy, That Artz Show and The Berlin Show) and his play MacHamlet was presented as part of the Alumnae Theatre’s New Ideas Festival.

Mark was the one who suggested he and I have a hybrid conversation. He took the first five questions, answered them and sent them back to me AND I transcribed the answers to the final five questions. Mark made me feel very much at ease and, at one point, I think I told him I could sit and talk to him about everything and anything but I had to get back on track and the reason for this conversation.

Thanks again for your time, Mark:

It has been an exceptionally long eight months of the pandemic, the isolation, the social distancing and now it appears the numbers keep edging up and down every day. How are you feeling about all of this? Do you think we will ever emerge to some new way of living in your opinion?

It's strange. In so many ways the outlook is bleaker than it's ever been, at least in terms of the prospects for live theatre, and yet I find everything much more liveable now. Maybe I've just found my groove or a sense of certainty in the uncertainty, but I think I've been able to normalize the day to day of it all. Perhaps that's just becoming numb, but I prefer to think that it's some form of adaptability.

I often hear people discussing whether we'll ever get back to "normal" but normal is just what you're used to. This, now, this moment we're in is normal. It's a new normal but it's normal. Actors talk a lot about being "in the moment" so maybe I'm leaning into that. I can't have every day be focused on hypotheticals or aspirational "what ifs". I've stopped living for what might be and am settling into what is. I don't see that as abandoning optimism. It's more a conscious act of embracing the moment and living for what we have and can achieve in the here and now. It's surprisingly freeing.

How has your immediate family been doing during these last eight months?

I'm fortunate to have two young children who staunchly refuse to believe that theatre is dead or that there's any sort of moratorium on live performance, so that's heartening. There's an opening night in our living room virtually every night, even if it's just for an audience of two. It's been tough otherwise and the return to school was fraught with anxiety but since they've been back it's made a huge difference in our collective mental health and well being.

We're a pretty tight unit and, despite the anticipated challenges of being cooped up in a finite space we were doing pretty well but I don't think we realized how much they missed their friends and we missed the space to focus on each other and our work. There's a lot more movie nights than there were a year ago and it's daunting to imagine the winter ahead but so far, we are getting by just fine.

As an artist within the performing arts industry and community, what has been the most difficult and challenging for you personally and professionally?

I just really miss the intimacy of working in person, of feeding off each other's energy. Whether it's in a rehearsal hall or a workshop we might be doing with high school students, I miss being able to feel the room. It's such an intangible thing and something I admittedly take for granted. Or used to. It only takes its absence to be felt deeply.

Theatre is such a live, embodied art form. It's about proximity and spontaneity and presence and, no matter how hard we endeavour to replicate or approximate it with online rehearsals or performances, it will always feel a bit bereft of something. Of magic. I'm not usually one to embrace that sort of vocabulary but that's what it is. It's finite and fleeting and it's at the heart of what we do.

Were you in preparation, rehearsals or any planning stages of productions before we fell into the pandemic? What has become of those projects? Will they see the light of day anytime soon?

There was a lot on the go, both for Studio 180 and for me personally. One of the few bright spots in all of this was the fact that we were actually able to complete our run of Sweat in the winter before everything shut down. That was such an extraordinary group, and it would have been heartbreaking for them to have had their run interrupted or to have been denied the experience of sharing that work with an audience.

Unfortunately, we were just about to begin rehearsals for Indecent, the second show of our season, that was cut short literally days before it was about to start. We invested a lot of time, energy and financial resources into that show so the hope is that it will see the light of day but it's a big, ambitious piece, the likes of which will be hard to contemplate when we eventually ease back into live performance. Still, I can't imagine a piece that better exemplifies theatre's capacity to create an intimate, communal experience. It's very much about our primal need to tell stories and endeavouring to find some essence of truth in those tales. I really do hope that we can share it with Toronto audiences in the not too distant future.

On the personal front I was about to head off to Montreal to be in a production of Oslo at The Segal Centre. I was really relishing the notion of being a part of another production of a play I knew so well through our own Studio 180 production. It's a pretty rare gift to get a second chance at anything and I haven't worked in Montreal for years, so I was really disappointed when that fell through. As with so many other projects there's a sense that, once things get back on track, we'll have an opportunity to do the piece, but I don't anticipate that happening any time soon.

What have you been doing to keep yourself busy during this time?

Surprisingly, I'm extraordinarily busy right now, which I recognize is a privilege not afforded to everyone in my field. We have really front loaded the work of our season and are creating digital presentations that enable us to connect with audiences and artists alike. My work over the last little while has been to put all the pieces together, and now we're in the midst of doing the work which is always the most rewarding part.

So much of our time has really been spent trying to figure out how to not only get by in the current climate but to also figure out how we can create practices and infrastructure that can become a vital part of our work when we return to live performance. So much of what Studio 180 does is about the conversations the work instigates and I'm so grateful that; even in the absence of being able to share a common physical space, we're finding ways to connect.

And grants. Lots of grants. There are so many foundations and funders that have created programs to support arts organizations, which is extraordinary, but there is a lot of writing involved in courting that support. What's terrific about that though is that it really forces you to articulate a vision and can help focus your planning for an uncertain future.

Any words of wisdom or advice you might /could give to fellow performers and colleagues? What message would you deliver to recent theatre school graduates who have now been set free into this unknown and uncertainty for at least 1 ½ to 2 years?

I don’t know if I consider myself one capable of giving sage advice, but my chief offering would be to be kind to yourself. It’s an occupational hazard of being an artist that a massive amount of your time is not spent being an artist. It’s the work and trying to find the time to share the art.

A lot of the time when you’re not working people can feel I’m not an artist. I think we just really need to be generous with ourselves and we need to say no. Just because I’m not in a play doesn’t mean that I’m not an actor. It’s incumbent on everyone to embrace opportunities to feed your artist self. Maybe your doing ‘The Artist Way’, maybe you’re just reading plays, maybe you’re just exposing yourself to art or contemplating art or finding ways to fill the tank. Maybe you’re memorizing monologues that you’ll never use but you’re keeping the engine going.

In good times, I’m still only working a few months a year as an actor. The possibility of performing keeps you going and makes it easier to say, “I’m an artist and I’m pursuing that work.” When there’s so little of the work, that becomes harder, that optimism and that belief in yourself as an artist.

Just because the work isn’t there doesn’t mean you’re not an artist. Be an artist. Believe in yourself as an artist. Maybe this is a flipside and perhaps a contradiction: It’s also okay not to be an artist. Let yourself be in the moment. Especially out of the gate when the pandemic hit, we all panicked, we had to reinvent ourselves, we gotta do this, we gotta keep doing the work. I’m devoid of meaning if I’m not sharing or writing. I think it took awhile but we did arrive at the point where we can contemplate our lives outside the treadmill of the busy, busy of trying to be an artist.

So believe you’re an artist, embrace that you’re an artist but at times it’s okay if you don’t do any of that for awhile but instead just ‘be’ in the moment. If you have to work at the LCBO on the weekends, don’t feel as if you are giving up on your dreams as you have to do that NOW in order to get to where you want to go.

Do you see anything positive stemming from Covid 19?

A few things coming out of it – sort of counter intuitively it’s been a time of re-connection especially for families and for me. This Zoom platform has been a joy and the bane of my existence since we’re all getting Zoomed out. I can talk and connect with people all over and Zoom allows us to normalize this weird interaction.

In terms of the doing the art, we’ve already had the opportunity to collaborate with artists in Toronto, working with people in Winnipeg and on the east coast. Zoom has opened up a lot of possibilities to work with so that’s been positive. It also means that our work can be enjoyed by people who are not here in Toronto area. The lack of live theatre has created a real recognition of how much we are missing that. I feel people are recognizing how special that is. When the opportunity does come, and I know it will be slow and people will be cautious, I think there will be a hunger for that authentic in person experience. I’m hoping that becomes a positive effect as we return.

Theatre has been a dying art for so long, (Mark laughs, as he is kidding) but it seems to always find its way back. It’s an act of communion and people need that. That’s why they go to church, to the synagogue, it’s our temple and we are going to gather again. I’m excited about that.

The other thing I hope for is that people will recognize the value of art in times like this. The numbers on Netflix and other platforms must be astonishing and that’s how people are getting through by watching films, reading books, listening to music. I’m not sure if people make the connection such as “Oh, wow, the arts are really important. They help us survive and feed our soul.” The arts is a vital piece of our society, even though it’s always an uphill battle.

Do you think Covid 19 will have some lasting impact on the Toronto/Canadian/North American performing arts scene?

I think it’s going to be significant. The effects will be seismic and will ripple for years, and the landscape will have changed. In some ways, it will be devastating as some companies will not come back after this. Non venued companies like Studio 180 are particularly vulnerable. We’ve been really fortunate to have so many great partners and so many venued partners, and that makes it easier to keep going.

The inverse and converse of all this is the teaching of a real resilience and a pull up the boot straps and a Mickey and Judy ‘put on a show’ to make something happen. For the young people coming out of the theatre schools, there’s a real resilience coming out of all this, a sense of purpose and wanting to continue the work. I think there’s a lot of innovation coming out of it. There are a lot of companies like us who are hesitant to dive fully into the digital realm, but then realizing it’s an authentic form of connection. For us, and a lot of other companies, it’s easy to be precious and sacred about the live space, but we’re already learning there are ways to supplement that live experience with online experiences.

When we come back and when we’re in theatres, we’ll see a lot more integration of online technology. I would love to see emerging out of this a movement in Toronto and Canadian theatres in general to accommodate real archiving of our work. That’s not something we have outside the Stratford Festival productions. Those are epic and cost a lot. You can go to New York and go to the library and watch a really high-quality video of an off-Broadway production that was done 10 years ago with close ups and angles.

Just because of economic realities and union rules, the only recording that can take place of one of our productions is a still camera at the back of our house. It is that. It’s a resource for understudies and stage managers, remounts and a lot of us are thinking maybe we can get permission to show our archives and that would be something people can enjoy while we wait six or eight weeks until we’re back on stage. But when we watched them, we saw how terrible it was.

We’re trying to figure out ways how to improve. We’re doing recordings on Zoom, try to get a few people in a large space and work with the regulations and create some videos together in the space.

Now more than ever I’m realizing how little capacity we have to archive the incredible work we do. If we have what they have in New York and London’s West End to archive clear and precise encapsulations of that moment and time, I would love to see a movement of that sort come out of this so our work can be captured, remembered and enjoyed going forward.

Some artists have turned to You Tube and online streaming to showcase their work. What are your comments and thoughts about streaming? Is this something that the actor/theatre may have to utilize going forward into the unknown?

Well, there are two different realms there. You Tube is one thing. My daughters do fake You Tube videos. They don’t have a You Tube channel. For some, You Tube becomes an encounter with the banalities of life. I’m certainly not interested in a You Tube personality. That maybe something for some people as it is a cultural currency right now. All the power to you if can exploit that medium.

That said, Studio 180 is sharing video and recordings of work we’re doing via You Tube/Vimeo and those platforms are good as they help to get the work out. Something important to us is that people are getting paid for the work.

It gets complicated because a portion of the work is Canadian Actors Equity Association work. As soon as you record and share it, it then comes under the jurisdiction of ACTRA (Association of Canadian Film and Television) union. That relationship has evolved and the rules on how you can disseminate the work have evolved. It’s been a real dance and a lot of paperwork balancing to make sure that the right channels are being followed and that people are being compensated properly.

I’m really grateful we’ve been able to embrace the platforms and create work that we are paying artists for. One of the things that has come up is the thanks for the opportunity to work which goes back to what I was saying earlier in our interview about feeling like an artist. I don’t mean to be cynical and having a You Tube channel and you’re not getting paid but you’re trying to make the most of that and get paid somehow. That’s no different than putting on a Fringe show. You’re not in the union and not working at Tarragon but you’re creating and getting out there and being entrepreneurial and seizing the opportunities out there.

Know the value of your work and don’t be taken advantage of in any form of streaming. There will be times when you’re doing it for free. But, if you’re going to engage in it, do it responsibly and make sure artists are compensated properly and embrace it and take advantage of it.

Artists, value yourselves and do whatever possible to be compensated for the work.

Despite all this fraught tension and confusion, what is it about the art of performance that Covid will never destroy for you?

I think it’s coming back to that notion of ‘aliveness’, of community. Theatre is something that you experience with other people. Covid has taken that away from us for the moment, but it has not killed the recognition or the desire for that and the hunger for it.

In our current climate and limitations, the two things that keep me wanting to do the work is the desire to tell stories. I see my own kids always wanting to write plays. They are constantly focused on narrative (which can be a dirty word in theatre). But my kids, artists want to tell a story and put a point across. If that story has a deeper lesson or meaning, that’s great.

It’s where we all start as kids playing, acting and telling stories. There’s joy in that. Maybe we can’t gather in a physical space, but we can still find joy in telling stories. I think it’s terrific to see the breadth of stories that are being told and that people are pursuing. I’m excited to be a part of that. Even though we can’t gather in a space, we can still create dialogue, meaning and I think we get cynical about youth and their connection to the theatre.

For some reason, theatre has become a stodgy old person event and form. I’m sure that’s true to a large degree, but Studio 180 is involved in a programme where it focuses on kids in high school and our work. It’s been challenging but also so rewarding on how hungry the kids are for connection to art and engagement around stories and ideas. Teachers are struggling to feed that in this digital platform. To be a part of helping in some small way to make those connections and to allow people to follow their creative impulses and tell stories is really special and heartening.

Drama saves lives in high school. So many kids are at a critical point in their lives right now and a connection to drama could be a make or break moment. That’s scary but the fact the kids still have an appetite for this connection is riveting and special.

For me, once again, Covid will not destroy that desire to connect and to participate is undervalued for audiences. Engaging in theatre is less passive than we think. It demands of you things that you can’t do when you watch television. It’s exciting on some small level to create those opportunities.

To learn more about Studio 180: http://studio180theatre.com; Facebook: Studio 180 Theatre; Twitter: @studio180.

To follow Mark on Twitter: @McGlinter

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