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Mike Nadajewski

Looking Ahead

(courtesy of The Shaw Festival)

Joe Szekeres

Mike Nadajewski’s work has been extensive in the Canadian theatre cannon, and I’ve been pleased to have seen his work in the Stratford production of ‘Jesus Christ, Superstar’ before it transferred to Broadway. Other memorable roles include ‘A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum’ at the Ed Mirvish Theatre and ‘Harvest Moon Rising’ (Talk is Free Theatre, Barrie, Ontario). Recently, I saw Mike read the role of Nick in ‘The Great Gatsby’ for Talk Is Free’s Theatre Dinner A La Art. I’ve always liked the Gatsby story and hearing it read made me hopeful that a play may be in the works sometime in the future.

This summer, Mike will appear at the Shaw Festival. He speaks about his roles in one of his responses below.

You will see Mike’s wit clearly in some of his responses below. To me, it appears Mike is the kind of guy who would be willing to say, “Let’s go for a beer.” We conducted our conversation via email as Mike is in the midst of rehearsals right now for Shaw.

I do hope I get the chance to speak to him in person soon to say hello to him. Thank you for participating and for adding your voice to the series, Mike:

It’s a harsh reality that the worldwide pandemic of Covid 19 has changed all of us. Describe how your understanding of the world you know and how your perception and experience have changed on a personal level.

Well. First, I love these softball questions, Joe – nice n’ easy (!!!) What ever happened to, “How do you learn all those lines?” But seriously folks…

Everything I say will be an understatement, no doubt, and my colleagues have spoken far more eloquently in your column than I can. (And now that I’ve hopefully lowered your expectations, buckle up for what can only be described as some primo insight.)

When we were in the first months of this pandemic, I remember thinking how acutely I felt the loss of being able to gather. (See? Understatement.)

I have the benefit of living with my family – a completely different experience from those who had to endure quarantine in isolation – and I still was completely blindsided by the realization of how deep this primal-gathering- need goes. The loss felt was grief, of course. We are hardwired to gather together and share ... something! Whether it’s art, food, religion, sports – we want to do it together and experience it together.

What about those introverts, though?

Well, I know a few of those (I’m also married to one!), and a lot of them got pretty tired of people saying to them: “Well, you’re probably fine with this, aren’t you?” Yes, at first, they were fine, but it wasn’t long before they weren’t, because once the choice of ‘going to that opening-night party or not’, or ‘grabbing that drink with colleagues or not’ is taken away from you, the power of choosing not to be social, so you can claim regenerative time for yourself, evaporates.

I’m certainly not the first person to equate the gathering restrictions with feelings of grief. I often think, when it comes to any part of our quirky, uniquely contradictory and baffling array of human traits, “What’s the primal application here?” What purpose did grief serve our Cave-B&B ancestors when grief has the potential to shut you down completely? Of course, the other side of the grief-coin is love and attachment.
I had never given much thought about the love and attachment I had for, well, just people. My fellow humans! And certainly not in this ultra-specific way. I’m already an empathetic sort. I’m an actor and I people-watch, and of course (on the inside), I watch myself interacting with people while I people-watch, and I’m kind of always taking notes on behaviour.

And we all know what isolation does to people – it’s a form of torture and punishment in prisons, after all – so, within this context, I’ve been asking myself, “If contact is denied, is it an affront on our capacity for love?” Most of us have felt grief and heartache after a break-up with a partner, and when your heart is broken you grieve, and you’re generally not very interested in seeking out love again for a while.

The COVID crisis has had kind of a similar effect on me. A kind of erosion has taken place. I remember last year being quite keen to gather as soon as possible. But over time, that keenness has been chipped away. This paralyzing, surgically precise attack on our second nature of passing touches, handshakes, hugs, and proximity, has slowly and rather insidiously eroded my desire to want to interact with people. Again, I have my family at home, and we get a lot of what we need from one another. In many ways – and please know I say this knowing that this has not been everyone’s experience – we have been incredibly grateful for this time as a family.

But in other ways, it has turned me inward.

I know we’ve all experienced this fatigue to some degree. I shudder to think of how our kids will be affected in the long run. I’ve got one of those (kids, I mean), and I think/hope mine will be alright – but what about the little-ones who are in their formative social-skill-building years?

When it’s safe again to do so, it’s going to take time, along with some conscious effort, to find my way back to wanting interaction, even though I know I need it.

With live indoor theatre shut for one year plus, with it appearing it may not re-open any time soon, how has your understanding and perception as a professional artist of the live theatre industry been altered and changed?

My understanding and perception actually haven’t changed much, I’d say. Art finds a way. I’ve always known it could do this, but to actually witness and participate in this phenomenon has been pretty incredible. Artists will always find a way to make their art.

I still think being able to congregate with a live audience and share stories together is an essential human experience and it’s not going away anytime soon (theatre has been dying for 4,000 years, after all). It wouldn’t be hyperbolic to say that our very humanity is centred around story-telling. Isn’t it funny that our TV’s are always desperately trying to evolve to become more and more “life like”? Higher definition, 4K, 8K, 12K, HDR, 3D, 50”, 75”, 85” screen sizes – this is technology jockeying to essentially replicate an immersive live experience.

That’s not to say I don’t love story-telling in all mediums – film, television, video games, etc., but ultimately, at least for me, these are all placeholders for the real thing. What’s better than hearing your favourite band on your speakers or headphones? Seeing them LIVE! What’s better than seeing your favourite actor on screen? Seeing them LIVE!

It feels as though LIVE shared experiences do something to us at the cellular level – or something. I don’t know! Dammit, Joe, I’m an actor not a …!

By the way, have you noticed that everyone is obsessed with the arts? I’m not sure the greater population truly understands (which means our leaders probably don't understand) how artists touch everyday lives. All people want to do with their leisure time is read a book (written by an artist), listen to music (written by an artist), see a play (written and performed by artists), watch a film (created by artists), look at photographs (taken by artists), look at paintings (created by artists), read magazines (about artists) … this list is infinite. Art is how we survived lockdown!

If I may indulge in a sweepingly general “our society” rant: Our society discourages, mocks, and dismisses its artists – these aggressions are received directly, indirectly, and systemically as well (you need to look no further than how the provincial government has abandoned the LIVE sector with confusing and unspecific guidelines for reopening). We even doubt our own worth: artists frequently discourage the next generation, telling them to, “Do anything else if you can”.

I know this impulse comes from a good place, trying to give an honest reality check with statements like: “As an artist you will be underpaid, unappreciated, deemed expendable, a dime-a-dozen, seen as a free-loader, endure volatile income, it will be difficult to get a mortgage, better to have something to fall back on,” and so forth.

I’ve heard them all. I’ll never forget the actor that came to my high school on Career Day. She basically said, “Don’t do it,” and that she was leaving the business. It was … really super inspiring (Can you see my eyes rolling? No? Cool.).

But it’s not our fault that we feel devalued and feel the need to play the role of Dream Crusher to those hoping to make their way as artists. We need governments who understand the fundamental role artists play in our society. We need to seed long-term value in the arts. We need to foster the next generation of diverse artists from birth by funding access to the arts in all schools, including lower-income and diverse neighbourhoods.

How about government funding for our major arts institutions that is on par with the support other arts organizations enjoy all over the world? I’m tired of artists needing to constantly shout from the hilltops, “ARTISTS ARE ESSENTIAL!”

If you want a healthy, functioning, thriving society, ARTISTS ARE ESSENTIAL. Preaching to the choir here, I’m sure.

As a professional artist, what are you missing the most about the live theatre industry?

I miss the spontaneity of art popping up where you least expect it: a reading at someone’s house because they’ve just finished their play and need to hear it read out loud; a coffee concert, a grassroots project some folks are just throwing together, catching that show that’s only open for a weekend, an exhibit at that gallery. You know – Living Art.

As a professional artist, what is the one thing you will never take for granted again in the live theatre industry when you return to it?
Well, I’m lucky. I have already returned to theatre with outdoor rehearsals for Charley’s Aunt and Sherlock Holmes and the Raven’s Curse c/o the Shaw Festival in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario. It is a well-known fact, but always bears repeating, that the Shaw Festival's handling of the crisis last year under the leadership of Tim Carroll and Tim Jennings (and the remarkable team behind them) was absolutely LEGEND – they managed to keep all of their artists employed throughout the entire summer by creating the Education and Community Outreach Specialists (ECOS) program.

Many have also benefited from the mastermind running Talk Is Free Theatre (in Barrie, Ontario), Artistic Producer Arkady Spivak, who kept artists working throughout the winter months with a variety of innovative online projects.

But to answer your question, what will I never take for granted?

‘Leaders who value artists.’

Describe one element you hope has changed concerning the live theatre industry.

I feel like just before the pandemic hit we were beginning to see a shift in the culture with regards to providing theatre artists with a better work/life balance. I first began to see the change with Talk Is Free Theatre’s shorter rehearsal days and two-day weekends (a weekend!? — *gasp* — just like a real person!), as well as supporting artists with families by supplementing child-care costs, among other ground-breaking initiatives.

I’ve noticed the Shaw Festival has endeavoured to give ensemble members a two-day weekend during rehearsals whenever possible, which is a terribly difficult thing to do, given how complex The Shaw’s repertory schedule is.

It’s also worth mentioning that The Shaw has occasionally made allowances for artists to “call out” of a show to attend a loved one’s wedding (this was unheard of in the non-profit theatre world not too long ago!), as well as being able to attend funerals for people not directly connected to the artist’s immediate family (all of this with the caveat of having a rehearsed understudy, of course).

I hope this trend continues – this holistic approach will only benefit the art in the long run.

Explain what specifically you believe you must still accomplish within the industry.

What I must still accomplish?

Well, before I can answer that, I first need to acknowledge my position of privilege. Talking about this is tricky – I’m not looking to explain away my ‘benefitting from being a white dude in the arts’ by just saying I’m aware of it (this is one of the many, MANY reasons why I keep off social media, because saying anything like this can often be interpreted as virtue signaling and performative – but here I go.)

I’m a white dude in the arts. I’ve worked at Canada’s major theatre festivals for the majority of my career. And yes, work ethic, yes, talent, yes, handsome … (Anyone? Anyone? No? Cool.) … yes, drive, yes, yes, yes – but I still have to acknowledge the fact that I will never fully understand the degree to which white privilege has played a role in my success in this industry because it’s so deeply baked into the DNA of everything I touch!

Learning that I’ve been unknowingly complicit in upholding systemic biases by merely participating in this industry is mind blowing – another devastating realization afforded by this pandemic. But I own a home. I have a family. I live in a safe neighbourhood. I often have work to look forward to. I can even look back to my early beginnings in high school when I was first cast as the Emcee in Cabaret – I remember being told I looked like Joel Grey! I looked the part. There is no denying that I am a white artist who has benefited.

So, what do I need to accomplish?

Well, I am not an activist, and I am not an outspoken person in the room, it’s just not my nature (if anything, I am more peacemaker than instigator), but I want to be an ally. So, I need to do my part, however small, to help facilitate the deconstruction of systemic biases that are inherent in the system.

By doing what? Well, I’m not always sure.

As actors, we don’t have a lot of agency, but I need to actively look for opportunities to nudge things in the right direction, including (but not limited to) recommendation requests, seeing and supporting diverse artists with my ticket purchases, educating myself, educating my son, and a healthy dose of listening. I also hope that someday I get to be in plays that tackle this issue head on. I may not have the words to express it, but I know some brilliant artists who do!

Some artists are saying that audiences must be prepared for a tsunami of Covid themed stories in the return to live theatre. Would you elaborate on this statement both as an artist in the theatre, and as an audience member observing the theatre.

Isn’t it fascinating that there wasn’t a “tsunami” of stories after the last pandemic 100 years ago? I wonder if the feeling back then was, “No one wants to see or hear about that anymore!”

I suppose the one big difference between then and now is, well, we have therapy. We know the value of healing through talking about things that are hard to talk about (yes, oversimplified).

And truly, who could ask for a better backdrop to tell their story than this shared, visceral experience we’ve all endured together? A fascinating exploration for those on either side of the footlights! I cannot wait to hear all the unexpected stories about the times we’re living in.

As an artist, what specifically is it about your work that you want future audiences remember about you?
My curls. I don’t know. Who cares about me?

As my friend and colleague Mike Shara says, (an actor I’ve admired greatly ever since my early days at The Shaw), “No one knows who the hell we are!”

I love to make people laugh, I love to sing, and I love to act in compelling, potentially moving stories that hopefully resonate with people in profound and/or carefree ways. If I’m remembered for any those things: Aces! If not, then, sure the curls.

To learn more about The Shaw Festival, visit Facebook: @shawfestival
Twitter: @ShawTheatre.

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