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Mikaela Davies

Theatre Conversation in a Covid World

Mark Binks

Joe Szekeres

I am extremely thankful Mikaela Davies sent me a friend request several months ago as I admired her work in ‘The Last Wife’ at Montreal’s Centaur Theatre. Our Zoom call sometimes went off topic today as we found the questions below led to other questions and comments that I hadn’t even considered, and that was alright as Mikaela told me at one point during the interview to bring them on.

Mikaela Davies (she/her) is an actor, director and writer. She is a graduate of the 2020 CBC Canadian Film Centre's Actors Conservatory. She spent two years performing at Soulpepper Theatre and four seasons at The Stratford Festival where she performed the leading role in The Changeling. She is a graduate of the Soulpepper Actor’s Academy, Stratford Festival’s Michael Langham Conservatory for Classical Direction and Canadian Stage’s RBC Director Development Residency.

Davies is the inaugural recipient of the Jon Kaplan Canadian Stage Performer Award; she holds a Sterling nomination for Outstanding Comedic Performance as the lead in Miss Bennet at The Citadel and a META nomination for Outstanding Supporting Performance in The Last Wife at The Centaur. She has worked closely as a dramaturge with Robert Lepage and Jillian Keiley. She has directed and co-created a handful of award-winning plays with Polly Phokeev including How We Are, The Mess & Earth 2.0.

Thank you for the conversation, Mikaela:

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?

I’ve been okay. I’ve been really lucky that my family and friends have been healthy and safe so that’s brought a lot of peace of mind. I’m also pretty lucky that my partner and I don’t have kids yet so I cannot understand how difficult it must be for parents with young kids at home trying to do their work and help them through school. My hat goes off to them. So challenging.

Given my health and everyone around me and not having this extra burden, it’s been okay. It’s hard, it’s a hard time for everybody. I do feel lucky.

It’s pretty scary to hear of the numbers going up and down and up daily.

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

Well, when Covid first started I was quite lucky that myself, Hailey Gillis and Polly Phokeev, we were commissioned through Crow’s Theatre to work on a musical. We’re working on this adaptation of Mikhail Bulgakov’s ‘The Master and Margarita’, workshopped at The Stratford Festival. We were able to spend a good chunk of time just throwing ourselves into that so that was a really nice project to have.

Polly Phokeev and I, we also work on our own writing projects together. We’ve had a history of making theatre together and now we’re exploring what it might be like to make a tv series so we’ve working on the draft of a pilot about a mission to colonize Mars.

The other thing I have a lot of time for, which I’ve never really been able to do, is to take a breath and look around and breathe. I’ve always been a go, go, go artist and so in many ways this has afforded me a great pause.

I’ve spent some time camping with my partner. We were van camping. We were sleeping in the back of his van. When the cases were low, we went out to British Columbia to see his family and we drove back across the country staying in national parks. I’ve never done that. I’ve never seen those parts and parks of Canada. That was the highlight of my year for sure. It was magical.

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?

This is a good question. Speaking personally, Covid has allowed me to take a bit of a breath and a pause and to spend some time living and thinking about things, and as an artist I think that’s a useful thing to do. Sometimes we’re so caught up in making art, making art, making art, making art that we forget to live. I’m speaking for myself here.

I’ve felt very grateful for that aspect of it. The kind of escapism that I imagine Hal Prince is referring to in theatre to me is a very different thing than the really dark, complicated time that Covid has brought on so many of us. To me, going to the theatre is an escape. I’m reading this incredible book right now by Tana French. She’s an Irish mystery writer and that feels like an escape.

I’m thinking about these characters when I’m not in the book, my mind is going to them, I’m trying to figure out the mystery, that’s escapism. Covid is the opposite of this. Instead, it has shined a fluorescent light on the inequities of society, the drastic differences of the qualities of life of someone who makes $200K+ a year versus someone who makes $20K a year.

Covid hasn’t been an escape. It might have been nice if it was, but no.

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?

(Mikaela chuckles) Okay with the caveat that I’m not a doctor so I really have no business making any predictions on this …

I cannot imagine the theatre on an institutional level will be back to anything close to its capacity until 2022 or later. There’re two things to consider: a) when the theatre can legally come back in a safe way and b) everybody’s personal safety level. When will audiences feel safe to return because everyone will be at different starting points.

I think we’ve got a long haul yet, but I’d love to be wrong.

The question every artistic director asks is how to get young people to attend the theatre and become subscribers. Yes, our seniors make up a good deal of our audiences, but this may not be the case when theatres are legally allowed to re-open again.

Well, one of the first things is to mount work that young people can relate to. Ya know, sometimes we think of theatre as medicine that can become inaccessible to younger people. I remember my parents taking me to museums when I was a kid, and I was thinking, “Oh, God, I don’t know if I like this. I don’t know if I’m engaging with this.” It doesn’t mean the work wasn’t incredible, it just means I didn’t understand it at the time. It didn’t speak to me and what I was going through at that time.

The question is how to get young people excited about theatre and the answer is to program productions that speak to them and exploring and navigating so we can push those boundaries in their minds.

I had a discussion recently with an Equity actor who said that 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 was speaking with a director and how we might be able to put on this play through a Covid lens. We tasked ourselves with re-reading this play and imagining it in a Covid world. One of the things that struck me as possibly so exciting is seeing two characters come together and embrace and kiss each other and how electric that might be in a world where that’s not allowed if you’re not in the bubble.

Like anything that happens in our world and the societies around us, it can’t help but inform the way we see things. I imagine there will be a renewed sense of chemistry and intimacy in our work to come once we are safely allowed to put these things on. I think seeing two people from different families come together and give each other a hug or any sort of physical touch will hit us in a different way than it ever would have before since we took it for granted.

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?

This touches on tricky territory as we’ve seen through the #metoo Movement and the Black Lives Matter movement. Somebody’s idea of danger might be another person’s experience of abuse. I think it’s really important to say that you have to have everyone’s permission and consent to create that kind of environment. If you do, then I think it’s a fantastic thing to thrill yourself as an actor and for the audience and to seek that kind of danger as that’s the aliveness of theatre we all want to experience.

I had that feeling of danger in reading Arthur Miller plays and when I performed in ‘The Changeling’ at the Stratford Festival. An artist can feel when an audience is in the palm of their hands and that’s exciting.

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?

I certainly feel more attuned to everything around me. Not being able to see family or friends starts to wear on you and you have a greater understanding of mental health and anxiety.

I’m a highly sensitive person so noise, feelings, it’s all mixed up for me and this time of Covid has turned it up. God, I hope I do bring this sensitivity when I return to the theatre.

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 interest 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?

I love that. I love the fact he said theatre should spark curiosity. I think curiosity is the thing we need to build bridges in this time. When you can start to cultivate that in yourself with people who have radically different sets of beliefs than you do, you can be curious about them. You can begin to open doors and make those connections. I think that’s fantastic Hal Prince talked about the fact curiosity is one of the facets of what theatre should do.

I spent a lot of time being curious about the police to be honest and how those systems worked for some people and not for others. What does that mean about a society if we are to continue a system that is discriminating against any BIPOC person? That’s been a huge learning curve for me.

I watched this fantastic Zoom play reading by Ali Joy Richardson called ‘Dad’ through Studio 180. It was directed by Ann-Marie Kerr. It was so well done. One of the things I thought was so effective was it happened over Zoom but they utilized the platform of Zoom as part of the piece. In the actual play, Ali adapted it. This was a phone conversation just like you and I are right now, and we all got to be a fly on the wall during this conversation.

I love ‘fly on the wall’ moments so I’m curious to see how people have been able to adapt that even while theatre can’t happen in the live space they’ve been able to take this form and make it exciting, and present, and right now.

You can connect with Mikaela at Instagram: @mikaelalilydavies and Twitter: @MikaelaLily

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