Mitchell Cushman

Moving Forward

Dahlia Katz

Joe Szekeres

I’ve recognized Mitchell Cushman’s name from several years ago even before I started writing reviews for On Stage. I had heard of the play ‘The Flick’ but had never seen it before. When I saw it at Toronto’s Crow’s Theatre, I was gob smacked at such an outstanding production with nuanced direction by Mitchell combined with three solid performances. Mitchell and I spoke for a few brief seconds about the first time he saw the production in New York City off Broadway.

Mitchell is a director, playwright, and founding Artistic Director of Outside the March, one of Canada’s leading immersive theatre companies. His work has been seen on stages as large as the Royal Alexandra Theatre, in spaces as intimate as kindergarten classrooms and living rooms, and in locales as far flung as London, New York, Whitehorse, Edinburgh, Munich, Finland and Japan.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, he has been working to explore new possibilities for live performance, co-creating projects like internationally-acclaimed telephonic adventure The Ministry of Mundane Mysteries (OtM), and the “Grand Act of Theatre” Something Bubbled, Something Blue (NAC/TIFT/OtM). In 2015 he and Julie Tepperman co-created the award-winning Brantwood as part of Sheridan College’s CMTP – Canada’s largest exploration of immersive musical theatre.

In 2018, he co-created and directed the intercontinental three-day immersive experience, The Curious Voyage. Recent Directing Credits include: The Tape Escape, The Flick, Dr. Silver, Jerusalem, Lessons in Temperament; The Ex-Boyfriend Yard Sale; TomorrowLoveTM (Outside the March); Treasure Island, Breath of Kings, Possible Worlds (Stratford); Hand to God; The Aliens (Coal Mine); Merrily We Roll Along (YES Theatre); Hand to God (RMTC).

Mitchell has been the recipient of the Siminovitch protégé award, a Dora Award for Outstanding Direction, three Dora Awards for Outstanding Production, and his productions have received 14 Toronto Theatre Critics Awards. He holds an MFA degree in Directing from the University of Alberta, and a Combined Honours in Theatre and English from the University of King's College and Dalhousie University.

What an honour to interview an incredibly talented and down to earth individual. Thank you so much for the Zoom conversation, Mitchell:

It has been an exceptionally long eight months since the pandemic began, and now the numbers are edging upward again. How are you feeling about this? Will we ever emerge to some new way of living in your opinion?

I’m feeling many different things. I’m navigating it first as a member of the community and second as an artist. As a member of the community, it just all feels surreal and there’s such a difference between when this felt new and now the fact it doesn’t feel new any more and feels familiar and more unnerving. One of the things I like about being connected to the theatre community is the extended web of hundreds of people who inspire me whom I’m used to brushing up against on a semi regular basis where we all find ourselves in the same dozen lobbies over the course of a normal year. Relationships take a lot more upkeep right now because there is a happenstance, and you have to plan every interaction.

As an independent artist I think people who have been bearing the most brunt of the slowdown of the industry are independent artists and actors, designers and stage managers whose careers are based on stringing together a number of opportunities in order to sustain a living. I feel lucky that my full time is running the theatre company ‘Outside the March’ so I have still have some stability and some structure
But the flipside to that is that I feel very, very grateful to be part of the more immediate circle of artists and collaborators many of whom are my closest friends. We’ve all kept each other as sane as possible during the pandemic by finding ways to create and collaborate during this time. The silver lining has been in the maintaining of these creative relationships.

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

My long-time partner of ten years, Amy Keating, and I have been able to spend a lot of time together. In more normal times we both end up travelling a lot for work. This pandemic has been the longest period of time that I’ve spent in Toronto in about ten years. Amy and I have both worked at Stratford but never during the same time, so it’s been great to spend this time with her.

Our immediate families are okay. Amy’s are in Edmonton and mine here. Our parents are in the age bracket where they all need to be really careful. I’ve spent a lot of time with my parents over the last eight months and it’s been almost all outdoors. As the weather starts to turn, I think we’re all getting nervous about that.

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

I would say that the loss of community that I talked about before and also the loss of direct connection with an audience. I’ve worked on a number of projects during this time and a lot was shared digitally or over Zoom live, but there’s no laughter, no applause or feedback mechanism with the audience so you can feel a little more disconnected for whom you’re creating work.

What’s also been challenging is the awareness of so much hurt travelling through our world and our community right now exacerbated by the pandemic but also powerful inequities which have further come into the spotlight. You can feel a helplessness in the face of that for sure. I think it’s easy to feel helpless during these times.

It’s all intertwined within all this. It’s easy not to feel like you’re in very much control in this industry even in the best of times.

Were you in preparation, rehearsals, or any planning stages of productions before everything was shut down? What has become of those projects? Will they see the light of day anytime soon?

I had six or seven productions that were delayed or fell away that may see the light of day sometime. It makes me grateful when a production like ‘The Flick’ clicked well and came to fruition. ‘The Flick’ was two years in pre-production. It’s an example of a play that has to be shared communally.

I was in tech for an immersive production of ‘Sweeney Todd’ that was supposed to go on at Davenport and Dupont in these two abandoned buildings produced by Talk is Free Theatre. It was really shaping up to be something very special. It’s actually a show we’ve done once before in the United Kingdom and were going to bring it here.

There was an exceptional cast of actors for ‘Todd’. I’ve done a lot of site-specific work but the kind of access to large, abandoned space that is often very hard to come by, and that was really tough not to share the show in that form. It was an intimate staging for thirty people inside the blood, gore and music of it all.

I’ll always remember March 13 when we knew it was going to be our last day when all of lights were hung. We did one stumble through, run through and filmed it because we kind of knew that’s what we were going to be able to get. In those last few days of rehearsal, it felt like a race against the clock.
I have faith the production of ‘Sweeney Todd’ will come back in some form, probably not in that same building because that building will be demolished.

Theatre is always so temporal so you really can’t recreate something a year or two after the fact. I had some projects in pre-production, a show called ‘The Ex Boyfriend Yard Sale’ that was supposed to be presented with Soulpepper. We had done it in the past and we were going to do it last May. That is a one woman show that is a little more complete as Hailey McGee will play it so I have a little more faith.

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

Amy and I have been streaming a lot of tv. I’ve never seen ‘Schitt’s Creek’ and she loves it. She’s never seen ‘The Wire’ and I love it, so we’ve embarked on binging these shows.

There was a period of time where we were playing games with some friends over Zoom. We’ve been trying to get together with some close friends outside. We went on a really nice hike over the Thanksgiving weekend. It takes a lot of creativity to figure out.

The main project I’ve been involved with over this pandemic is ‘The Ministry of Mundane Mysteries’, a telephone based theatre piece, and we’ve done over 800 performances entirely over the phone in over 200 cities over the world. There are also international collaborations of Mundane Mysteries all over the world.

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?

It’s daunting. One of the bright spots during the pandemic is I’ve been doing a lot of teaching. I directed a show on Zoom at Sheridan in their CMTP New Musicals called ‘Living the Dream’. That opened a couple of weeks ago.

Now I’m working with two groups of students at the University of Windsor directing a show called ‘The Stream You Step In’ which plays over the Zoom.

All of these opportunities working with students on the cusp of graduating into the unknown have been so valuable and inspiring as to what I’m getting from them rather than the other way around. I know that sounds cliched to say, but I’ve found these students to be so versatile and adaptable. Such a remarkable ability in these students to gravitate towards these new forms and pick up new skills. For example, in directing the show at Sheridan, all of the cast overnight had to become their own audio producers, recording their own tracks and learning all of that really quickly.

I guess the advice out of all this – if you forge a path for yourself in theatre, you really need to be adaptable and hungry to wear a whole bunch of different hats. Have a variety of tools in your toolset but also clarity around what it is you vitally want to bring to the table. Hopefully there will be space for this.
The pandemic is only further illuminating that. We’re seeing a real levelling and spinning of the wheel. Our industry is going to look very different a year from now than a year ago, there’s a lot of hardship within that but hopefully a lot of an opportunity for new voices.

Do you see anything positive stemming from Covid 19?

I think Covid is making us stop as an industry and community and do some deep reflection. All of the vital conversations we are having within our industry around equity, where resources are going, and who has what seat at the table and how to properly support and elevate previously marginalized voices in the community is vital.

The acceleration of these conversations following the murder of George Floyd were able to be amplified further because of the pause of the pandemic. Sometimes as an industry and community, I think we struggle with being so consumed by whatever fire we’re actively trying to immediately put out, it becomes harder to zoom out and look at the bigger picture and vital work that needs to be done.

I have more belief and more of a sense of personal accountability in relation to those important themes than prior to the pandemic. Connected to this, I’ve felt more a member of a community with other artistic leaders in the city. We’ve been doing these bi-weekly artistic director meetings, myself and 40 artistic directors within Toronto. Weyni Mengesha and Brendan Healy started these groups and we’re going to find a new form for it in the new year.

I’ve been more in touch with collaborators across the country and outside of Canada. Like minded collaboration with other collaborators outside the country was not on my radar prior to the pandemic. I’m hoping we can still maintain these outside of the country collaborations once we’re able to return to in person collaborations and interactions which I’m very much craving.

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

I think we’re very much in an adapt or die time not just in relation to Covid but also in relation to making sure as an industry we can hold ourselves to a much higher standard in relation to the voices we are elevating. Eyes have been opened to things that can’t or shouldn’t be closed.

We’re already setting ourselves up for some big shifts in Canadian theatre and to how much change there has been in artistic leadership not just in Toronto but across the country. I’m so excited about the newer and younger people who are in these positions of leadership in our institutions. We’re seeing more women in these leadership roles, people who come from an independent theatre background will be more in touch with independent artists. That gives me a lot of faith in that we have independent and dynamic thinkers.

The venued companies have been dealt the most challenging blow.

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?

The monetization piece of it is really hard and certainly a lot of industries have been dealing with that a lot before us – look at online journalism. This mental block we all seem to have to have about paying for something on our devices. We just think about commerce very differently in relation to digital content.

For ‘Outside the March’ in one form or another, we’ve charged for all the experiences we’ve done during the pandemic. Art is a value, and I think it’s important that people resource it as such or it will diminish in quality and ultimately disappear. I think the tradeoff - the work we done at ‘Outside the March’ is still live. Whether or not you are experiencing it on your phone or over your device, anything that is pre-taped breaks the implicit bargain of theatre.

We couldn’t give away ‘Mundane Mysteries’ for free because so much work and preparation had gone into the process as it was anchored between performer and audience.

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

I think we’re all burning out on screen time. It’s definitely hard to imagine a crisis that is better designed to attack the things that theatre is. We’re seeing film rebound because it involves in person gatherings to make the work but not to share the work.

And the fact theatre implicitly gathers the moment of manufacturing with the sharing all at the same time all gathered together, and how do you go forward?

But I also like to think optimistically that is the very reason why there will be an increased and accelerated hunger for what theatre can offer going forward once we’re out of this pandemic.

Once we can have personalized theatre again, I think there’s going to be a hunger for it. We need to keep theatre sustained and vibrant in the meantime so we can ultimately meet that moment when we’re all out of this. There will be a necessity of theatre in the rebuilding process.

That’s what I’m holding on to. We’ll get there through incremental steps along the way. It might be 2022, but I don’t have a crystal ball so it’s hard to plan right now.

To learn more about ‘Outside the March’, visit www.outsidethemarch.ca.

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