Michael Ross Albert

Looking Ahead

Megan Terriss

Joe Szekeres

Michael Ross Albert and I had recently connected through Instagram. I’m still having some issues with Instagram and how to use it. When I saw Michael’s name, I kept wondering where I had seen it before. And then it dawned on me.

Just this past summer, Theatre on the Ridge had staged a reading of Albert’s ‘The Huns’ about the corporate world which was a really interesting production given the restrictions of Covid. I remember speaking to Carey Nicholson, Artistic Director of Theatre on the Ridge, after the show and told her that I really hope she might consider staging a full production of ‘The Huns’ when it’s safe for all of us to return.

Michael Ross Albert is an award-winning Toronto-based playwright whose work has been performed across Canada, the United States, and the United Kingdom. He received an MFA in Playwriting from the Actors Studio Drama School and has been honoured to teach new play development as an instructor of record at the University of Waterloo.

We conducted our interview via email. Thanks again, Michael:

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

Thankfully, my immediate family and I have been keeping healthy, safe, and relatively sane. We’re all a little lonely, and a little bored, and some days are tougher than others. But that’s all. Considering the huge difficulties others are facing during this pandemic, I feel extremely fortunate.

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

During the first wave, I spent a lot of time doom-scrolling through the Internet and trying to find comfort in junk food, booze, and classic episodes of The Simpsons. But after a while, I realized those behaviours weren’t quite doing the trick, and I decided to completely change track.

With so much out of our hands, I’ve tried to focus on things that I actually can control, which these days, is mostly just my daily habits. So, I became a person that goes to sleep early and wakes up before sunrise. I deactivated my Facebook profile, which was one of the best decisions I’ve made. I’ve turned off a lot of notifications. I’ve been limiting my comfort food and alcohol intake. I’ve been taking long (and I mean long) walks in nature. I’ve started meditating. I’m becoming that guy. And you know what? It’s been pretty helpful.

I’ve also had the very good fortune of working on writing assignments that had tangible deadlines. The uncertainty facing our industry has cast a big, looming shadow over my writing desk, and my focus has been even more scattered than it usually is. But once I really got going, the act of writing was very pleasurable. And I’ve been meeting with the collaborators involved in these projects periodically throughout the year, where we’ve had great, daydream-y conversations about the future. Those process-oriented conversations gave all of us a really welcome distraction from, you know, all of this.

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’m not sure “escape” is the word I’d use. To a degree, I’ve found myself retreating inward more, which could be a kind of escape. And when I’m writing, I do sort of feeling like I’m absconding to a different world, a different set of people’s circumstances. But, overall, I think the pandemic’s been a magnifying glass. Which is, like, a real gift, eh? How many generations have really gotten this gift of time to examine everything?

Over this past year, we’ve had the time to put our industry, our artistic practices, our creative habits, our personal relationships, our values, our priorities, our commitments to our communities under a magnifying glass, and I think that’s going to lead to a lot of positive change.

Obviously, the disease spreads like wildfire; we’re all at risk of being infected, we’re all grieving, the majority of us are facing financial insecurity and serious anxiety. COVID’s not a good thing. But the conditions of the moment have forced people in all sectors, not just the arts, to really scrutinize everything, so that hopefully, we can all make significant improvements to our very flawed systems.

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?

We should be focusing on our health and safety. If that means the industry can’t come back in full force for a while, it is what it is.

Artists have to be resilient because the industry has always been precarious at best. If anyone can deal with prolonged unemployment, it’s professional artists. We have to get creative; we have to make adjustments, we have to stay creatively nimble, and keep doing what we do, in whatever small ways we can.

I do not envy artistic directors, or leaders of big cultural institutions, or folks running indie theatre companies right now. No one cannot predict the future, and theatre requires a ton of planning. With vaccinations underway, it does feel like there are reasonable grounds for hope that public indoor gatherings will be able to return (someday…), but we can’t really predict how long it will be before audiences feel safe returning to a theatre.

Unfortunately, I think we have to wait and see. And in the meantime, artists have to find ways to stay sharp, stay connected to their community, and stay curious.

The financial toll this will take on organizations is really frightening. And I think that, no matter when in-person performances can resume at full capacity, the cultural landscape will look very different for a little while.

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?

Honestly, I don’t know if my understanding of theatre has changed all that much over the past year. If anything, the theatre that I’ve seen during COVID, either online or outdoors, has reinforced some of my core beliefs about it. The work I’ve seen has really hammered home the fact that communal storytelling is an essential component of the human experience. That, whether they’re watching on Zoom or sitting in a lawn chair, an audience may be more willing to suspend their disbelief and go on the journey of the play if the stakes are high and the story is personal. This work has reinforced the idea that theatre should reveal a deeper truth about humanity while being extremely entertaining. And it’s proven beyond all doubt that theatre-makers are some of the most adaptable people on the planet.

As to where theatre is going. For a while, I think plays may get even shorter than they currently are. We may only see small casts on stages for a while. Technical designs will probably become a lot simpler. Theatre companies may start regularly offering online ticketing options, which would be great. They might also prioritize accessibility, which would be even better. Ultimately, despite the difficulties of rebuilding, I think the theatre will come back stronger than it was before. And after a few more months of lockdown, I think we’ll all be craving live, in-person experiences.

I know I am.

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 don’t think artists should put themselves or others in the way of physical danger in order to do their work. Emotionally speaking, though, I think art is most relatable when it addresses deep, uncomfortable feelings that we all experience but have difficulty talking about. In order to create a piece of theatre that truly explores difficult emotions like guilt, shame, fear of death, an artist needs to find methods to safely access a “dangerous” part of themselves.

This past year has certainly felt dangerous. I worry about vulnerable family members and friends. I worry that a stranger’s carelessness could seriously impact the life of someone I love. And I think this sense of our interconnectedness, the fact that we rely on so many people, even people outside our sphere of personal relationships, in order to not get sick and die will definitely influence my future work in the theatre. I’m not exactly sure how. But the stakes are life or death for everyone right now. And that’s definitely the key to excellent drama.

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 yeah. Early on in the pandemic, we heard one piece of rhetoric over and over: “We’re all in the same boat.” But it’s clear that’s really not the case.

As a dramatist, what I’m most interested in is the various perspectives of different characters, especially in the face of moral crisis. COVID-19 has shone a spotlight on individual circumstances, big decisions, heroic acts of selflessness, and flagrant disregard for other people’s safety. I’m endlessly fascinated with why people behave the way they do when faced with the extraordinary, and that fascination has only grown during the pandemic.

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?

You know, I am curious about human behaviour and why people act the way they do under pressure, and COVID has given me plenty to ponder about in that regard. But I think what I’m most curious about right now is… What story will we need to hear, after all this is said and done?

What will we-- artists and audiences-- need from the theatre, in order to help the collective healing process? And how do we make sure we carry all these important reflections from the past year into our artistic practices, and into our regular routines when the pace of normal life resumes?

For further information and connection to Michael, please visit his website: www.michaelrossalbert.com or his Twitter handle: @michaelralbert.

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