Before I interviewed Michaela Washburn this morning, I had to go back and see how many performances I’ve reviewed where she has appeared. I counted five and I think I might be missing a couple. Personally, I have never forgotten how powerfully visceral her performances have been on stage, particularly in three productions: ‘This is How We Got Here’ at the Aki Studio, ‘Almighty Voice, and his Wife’ at Soulpepper, and ‘Guarded Girls’ at Tarragon.
Michaela hails from Alberta and is a proud Métis artist of English, Irish, French and Cree descent. She is now based in North Bay, Ontario. Michaela’s expertise spans theatre, film, television, hosting, writing, spoken word, clown, improvisation, workshop facilitation, and stand-up.
An award-winning actor, Washburn also has multiple nominations - most notably, for the Ontario Arts Council’s Indigenous Arts Award and the K. M. Hunter Artist Award for Theatre. She has performed internationally at festivals and theatres in Wales, Aruba, and across Canada and the United States.
She studied clown with John Turner in 2001 and graduated (on scholarship) from the Second City Training Center in Toronto, in 2003. Outside of that, and various workshops along the way, the learning of her craft has been primarily experiential.
Her post-secondary studies in the late '80s were in nursing and, during the course of our telephone conversation, I discovered she had also been a high school guidance counselor.
It appears that after five exceptionally long months, we are slowly, very slowly, emerging to a pre-pandemic lifestyle. Has your daily life and routine along with your immediate family’s life and routine been changed in any manner?
Like many folks, I too have had my ups and downs during these last five months.
There have been days where I feel confident and hopeful about the future, and there have been other days where it has been almost impossible to feel anything beyond grief and despair. As my chosen career and the whole industry of live performance has come to a screeching halt, I realize now, that for me, it is a matter of acceptance, and adjusting to the situation by focusing what I can do versus what is beyond my control.
Were you involved or being considered for any projects before everything was shut down?
I was booked from March – December 2020 from Banff to Victoria to Winnipeg. It was to have been my first time in Banff as part of the Indigenous Playwrights Circle followed immediately by the Banff Playwrights Lab. There would have been an intersection with many international artists and the incorporation of several languages within the work. It was to be a highlight of my year, and unfortunately, all of that work is now gone.
I have a Great Aunt who is turning 94 this year, and so I also had plans to visit her in Vancouver and record an interview with her. She is one of the last of her generation and holds so much knowledge of our family’s history which I was hoping to capture on film.
Describe the most challenging element or moment of the isolation period for you.
I was living in a basement apartment in Toronto and was finding it incredibly isolating and increasingly difficult to get outside. I was often anxious, as when I was out for walks during the day, I began to notice less and less physical distancing and few people in the area were wearing masks. There was a small backyard but a family with a toddler lived upstairs. I understood completely that the backyard was the only space where the child could safely play, and I didn’t want to jeopardize that.
Since then, I’ve moved out of the city, which has helped a great deal.
What were you doing to keep yourself busy during this time of lockdown and isolation from the world of theatre?
I am one of the Ontario Councillors for the Canadian Actors’ Equity Association, and I serve on several committees as well. There is a great deal of advocacy work being done which has been keeping me busy during these last five months.
I was also one of the folks who recently stepped forward to help coordinate the online panel discussion and subsequent take-over of the Stratford Festival’s social media platforms for the Indigenous community in June. I felt proud to offer messaging reminding us all to be kind and patient with ourselves and one another as we navigate this extraordinary time.
Any words of wisdom or sage advice you would give to other performing artists who are concerned about the impact of COVID-19? What about to the new theatre graduates who are just out of school and may have been hit hard? Why is it important for them not to lose sight of their dreams?
For all performing artists who have been affected by COVID – 19 – remember that storytelling is intrinsic to our well being. It is a practice that has seen humankind through many a disaster before and we will find a new way to experience live performance once again.
To the new theatre graduates: Trust. Have faith in your dreams and in the gifts you carry within you. They are your medicine. Art is love, and love heals. If you have a dream and are driven to do it, then you’re meant to do it. Trust that. Dreams may also shift and change, and to lean into that rather than fear it.
All things happen for a reason. I firmly believe that.
Do you see anything positive stemming from this pandemic?
As I can only speak for myself, this giant pause has offered me the opportunity to re-evaluate what’s important and to examine closely the impact of my choices on my personal health and balance, that of my fellows, the earth, and all the creatures we share it with. It has revealed many areas that desperately require immediate attention, socially and environmentally, and has reinforced that we need to work together to practice more respectful, responsible, and sustainable ways of being. Identify the actions we can take, and then take them.
In your informed opinion, will the Toronto and North American performing arts scene somehow be changed or impacted on account of the coronavirus?
For sure. There is so much to consider for the safety of everyone when we return to our theatres from the actors and crew to the audience members. Safe social distancing will be paramount when we first return, and I believe that the inability to fill our houses will have a significant impact on revenue, and thus whether or not some theatre companies will even survive.
All artistic teams are going to have to get creative and innovative. In fact, several conversations have already begun across the country, to discuss how and what protocols and procedures will need to be in place, and who will be responsible for their implementation and maintenance.
But we’re creative folks! It’s what we do. dream and build and manifest..so I have total faith that we will find our way.
What are your thoughts about streaming live productions? As we continue to emerge and find our way back to a new perspective of daily life, will live streaming become part of the performing arts scene in your estimation?
I’m not personally interested in participating in live streaming, although I am happy for those who have found expression there helpful. I imagine that it may become part of the performing arts scene, and in fact, think that folks will continue to be creative in how they adapt their crafts. For me, I feel like what’s missing in live streaming is the conversation that is at the heart of live performance… sharing the same space and time together. I am happy for folks who are enjoying the online medium, but if I am to work digitally, my preference is to do so in film and television.
What is it about performing you still love given all the change, the confusion, and the drama surrounding our world now?
I love the transformation and resiliency which is the crux of being a good storyteller. We have the ability to adapt to whatever situation in which we may be placed, and we must hold fast to that and remember that these are transferable skills. As storytellers, I love that we are able to utilize life as a toolbox from which to build an imagined reality, and in this case, an entirely new one.
With a respectful 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:
a. What is your favourite sounding word?
“Chum” – not what you throw in the water to attract sharks. ‘Chum’ is the word I use to refer to most of the people in my life. It’s a term of endearment that I love to use.
b. What is your least favourite word?
Hate. I try not to use that word at all to the best of my ability.
c. What turns you on?
d. What turns you off?
e. What sound or noise do you love?
The laughter of children
f. What sound or noise bothers you?
Crying children whom I can’t comfort or the suffering of others over which I am powerless to help ease.
g. What is your favourite curse word?
What is your least favourite curse word?
In the spirit of my mom, I’d love to eventually surrender vulgarity altogether. I remember reading somewhere “The absence of profanity will offend no one” and I really like that idea.
h. What profession, other than your own, would you have liked to attempt?
I often miss the work I did with the youth as a high school guidance counselor, and many times have considered becoming a therapist. I would also like to become a skilled tradesperson, as I believe things like carpentry, painting, drywalling, and home repair are important skills to have.
i. What profession would you not like to do?
j. If Heaven exists, what do you hope God will say to you as you approach the Pearly Gates?
“You rose to your name, Shining Light, and left the world a better place for it. Now come, your ancestors are eager to dance with you.”
To follow Michaela, visit her Twitter: @themichaelaw Facebook: Michaela Washburn