Just hearing about all the accomplishments of Mitchell Marcus within the professional performing arts community makes him a mover, shaker and leader within the theatre industry.
Recently named to Canada’s Top 40 Under 40 (2019), he is the founder and Artistic & Managing Director of The Musical Stage Company – Canada’s leading and largest not-for-profit musical theatre company. Over sixteen years, The Musical Stage Company (previously Acting Up Stage Company) productions have been recognized with 105 Dora Award nominations, 23 Dora Awards and 19 Toronto Theatre Critics’ Awards and programming partnerships have been built with Mirvish, the Elgin Winter Garden Theatre Centre, Canadian Stage, AGO, TIFF, Massey Hall, Obsidian Theatre Company, and the Regent Park School of Music amongst others.
Outside of The Musical Stage Company, Mitchell was the Associate Producer for the inaugural six years of Luminato, producing over 100 productions for one-million attendees annually.
Mitchell has twice been the Creative Producer for the Hilary Weston Writers’ Trust Prize as well as the producer of the Dora Awards. He organized four years of It’s Always Something, working with a team that raised over $500,000 annually for Gilda’s Club Greater Toronto.
He is active on committees that service the arts community, serves as an advisor to the Metcalf Foundation for its Creative Strategies Incubator program, a member of Sheridan College’s Performing Arts Committee, a member of the Dora Eligibility Committee, and a member of the Advisory Committee of the Canadian Musical Theatre Writers Collective. Mitchell has held positions in the arts management departments at UofT and Ryerson University.
Mitchell is the recipient of the 2017 The Leonard McHardy and John Harvey Award for Outstanding Leadership in Administration, a Harold Award, and was a finalist for the 2018 Roy Thomson Hall Award from the Toronto Arts Foundation recognizing contributions to Toronto’s musical life.
I am grateful and thankful he took the time to participate in the conversation via email:
It has been an exceptionally long six months since we’ve all been in isolation, and now it appears 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?
Without discounting all the sadness of illness, destruction, injustice and loss, I have loved watching and participating in a global demonstration of resilience. There are, of course, so many things we are no longer able to do, but it’s been astonishing how quickly we can pivot as a species, adjusting to working-from-home, moving our lifestyles to the beauty of our outdoors, and adapting our thirst for global adventure into one more local.
More importantly than the resiliency and speed of adaptation, I’ve loved seeing how many of us have found silver linings in this new routine which has forced us to challenge our expectations of what we thought life would bring and return to a simpler, more true sense of self and aspiration.
In that regard, while I am certainly feeling scared about the increase in COVID-cases and frustrated by the barrage of human injustice that makes headlines every day, I am actually feeling quite optimistic and content. It’s fascinating to witness a historic moment of change like the one we are in. And I’m hopeful that what we are learning and reflecting upon during this time is going to lead to something very special on the other end.
Look at how much we are accomplishing and look how much change feels within reach. If we can do that during social distancing, imagine what we are capable of once we have the freedom of movement and connection once again.
How have you been faring? How has your immediate family been doing during these last six months?
I’m very proud of how my family has navigated this time so far. We’ve really stayed optimistic and made the most of each day: I absolutely loved being a part of my kids’ education during the Spring in a hands-on way; We used money from cancelled vacations to rent a farm near Orangeville for a month in July and organized family colour-war events and daily swim lessons; It’s the first time in my life that I have been home every night of the week for dinner and been able to tuck my kids into bed; And each weekend is now filled with lots of hiking and bike riding. I don’t mean to be painting an overly rosy picture – there have been many nights of deep worry and anxiety. But there has also been much joy in togetherness.
Personally, I’ve been digging more into mindfulness during this time. I’ve been practicing meditation for nearly four years, but it’s gone into overdrive over the last six months. My nightstand is stacked to the ceiling with books on anti-racism and books on mindfulness/spirituality. I’ve loved getting to learn new things and to dive deep into the philosophical exploration of imagining what the universe is telling us in this moment and how to apply it to my life.
As an artist within the performing arts community, what has been the most difficult and challenging for you professionally and personally?
The most difficult part of the last six months has been mourning the loss of live theatre and recognizing the immensely devastating impact it is having on independent artists. I feel enormously grateful and also enormously guilty for having a full-time job in the arts. I am deeply thankful for the existence of CERB and relieved that it will be extended in some form. Our team is doing everything we can think of to keep work flowing and money going out the door. But it’s very heavy to realize how many people in our industry, in our community, are struggling.
At the end of the day, I often have to shut off all technology and curl up with one of those mindfulness books and a glass of wine and retreat into my own Zen place. But I also recognize the luxury of being able to shut out the pandemic and the privilege I’ve been afforded when doing so.
The biggest challenge has been trying to stay in the present and not plan into the future. I am a planner by nature and my skill as a leader has been to keep our focus on multi-year strategic initiatives that make change. But it’s impossible to plan for a future we don’t yet understand. So I’ve had to work really, really hard to not get too far ahead and keep all of us at The Musical Stage Company focused on how we want to respond to the challenges and needs of today, abandoning past plans and paths that no longer feel relevant, and avoiding drawing too many conclusions for the future before we have a full understanding of what future we are planning for. But as someone who always likes to have the answer immediately, it’s been a real exercise in patience.
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?
When we shut down, we were a few weeks away from the world premiere of KELLY v. KELLY by Britta Johnson and Sara Farb. We’ve been working with Britta and Sara since 2014 and we’ve been deep in development for KELLY v. KELLY for a couple of years, so this was a particularly painful project to not see materialize. It was also going to be SO good. I’m rarely confident about a production – especially a new work – but this show was in such great shape with a team that was firing on all cylinders.
We also lost major milestones this season including UNCOVERED: DOLLY & ELVIS which was to play Koerner Hall in November, and the Canadian premiere of NATASHA, PIERRE & THE GREAT COMET OF 1812 that was to open at the Winter Garden Theatre in January.
Without question, KELLY v. KELLY will see the light of day as soon as it is safe to do so. Thankfully we were able to postpone before we had spent too much of the money earmarked for the project. We put all the funding for it aside, not to be touched until it can be revived. So, it’s in the uniquely positive position of being ready for production with the funding to get it there.
We’ll have to see about everything else. More than ever it’s important to me that the stories we tell are relevant and resonant for the moment in which they are being shared. The projects that were the right “why-this-project-why-now” in the old world may not be the right projects in the one that awaits us. That’s the funny thing about programming – you are often responding to an indescribable energy in the zeitgeist. If we want theatre to matter when we return, we need to make sure not to cling to what was and be hyper aware of what people need on the other side.
Having said that, our commitment to new Canadian musicals is unwavering. We have run 17 workshops for new musicals since COVID hit and have no intention of slowing down. That is the joy of new material. The writers are naturally infusing today’s emotions and thoughts into the works. They are living, breathing stories being developed during a global pandemic. So even though none of them are about living during or after COVID-19, their ongoing evolution will ensure that they are necessary and healing in the world that awaits us.
What have you been doing to keep yourself busy during this time?
Working and raising kids! Honestly, it fills my days completely. Work has not really gotten much quieter even though we aren’t in production (turns out navigating global pandemic is more work than producing theatre). We produced 80 concerts this summer, we are in production for an UNCOVERED film, we are running workshops, our youth programs are going national, etc. By the time I’ve completed a day of Zoom meetings, cleared an inbox of emails, and spent some time with my kids, I’m ready for bed.
But the weekends have been quieter than normal. There are no readings to attend or shows to see. And my kids’ programs have all shut down. So, I’ve loved the pace of my weekends. We’ve just been outdoors as much as possible, biking, hiking, and camping.
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 given the fact live theaters and studios might be closed for 1 ½ - 2 years?
Here’s two of my favourite quotes from Pema Chödrön:
“When there’s a big disappointment, we don’t know if that’s the end of the story. It may be just the beginning of a great adventure.”
“Rather than realizing that it takes death for there to be birth, we just fight against the fear of death.”
I don’t mean to be cliché, answering your question with inspiring quotes, but I really believe this is the only way forward. Something has died. We have to take the time and space to grieve it. But we also have to open ourselves to the exciting possibility of reinvention and rebirth that comes after an ending.
In that regard, I guess my advice for recent grads is to recognize that this death has levelled the playing field. None of us know the way forward, and the most senior arts leader doesn’t have any better strategies for the future than a recent theatre grad (who may in fact have more objectivity on what could be possible). We are all now pioneers building a more equitable, more sustainable, more relevant theatre.
Seize this once in a lifetime chance to be a part of the rebirth by charting your own course and helping to mould the industry that awaits you.
Do you see anything positive stemming from Covid 19?
I think it has taught us to slow down. I think it has taught us not to take simple connection for granted. I think it has removed some of the allure of ruthless ambition and replaced it with a focus on empathy and equity. I hope these lessons stay with us.
Do you think Covid 19 will have some lasting impact on the Toronto/Canadian/North American performing arts scene?
It absolutely will. Hopefully COVID itself will succumb to a vaccine and we won’t have to have the distancing and health measures in our lives forever. But I hope we will forever be impacted by what this time has taught us about equity and treatment of people. And I hope that audiences are so hungry to gather together again that they race to the theatre in unprecedented numbers!
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?
For me, producing theatre has always been about serving and enriching an audience. It is about giving a willing group of people something that their souls needed that they didn’t realize was needed. Ultimately, the medium doesn’t matter as much as the power of the message and the unbridled attention of an audience. If this exchange is happening successfully on YouTube and via online streaming sites, may it live forever!
I am skeptical however about how well this is working. There is a sense of ceremony when we gather in person and devote our entire energy to a story. I fear that we haven’t yet figured out how to permeate the digital fourth wall in the same way to achieve the same outcome. But this is definitely the ‘trial and error’ phase. I have no doubt that artists will successfully navigate this new medium and make it into a powerful mode of soul nourishment.
Despite all this fraught tension and confusion, what is it about performing that Covid will never destroy for you?
My heart knows the power of hearing the exact right piece of music to capture a moment or emotion. It is like nothing else. And no pandemic can keep that magical experience from happening each time I witness it in a theatre, outdoors, or online. It will withstand the test of time.
You can follow Mitchell on his social media handles: @mitchellmarcus and at Musical Stage Company: @musicalstagecom.