Theatre Conversation in a Covid World
Wade Muir To connect with Wade, visit https://wademuir.ca .
Again, I’ve recognized Nathan Carroll’s name when I had seen he had read and liked some of the profiles I’ve been compiling throughout this pandemic. I was wracking my brain in trying to remember where I’ve seen him perform.
And it’s wonderful when the artist sends me their bio and I can then say, yes, I’ve seen that particular production.
Nathan has performed on stages across Canada, from Vancouver to Charlottetown. His credits include: Next to Normal (Musical Stage Co./Mirvish) (saw this one), Hook Up (Tapestry/Theatre Passe Muraille), Vimy (Western Canada Theatre), Once (Mirvish) (saw this one), and The Book of Esther/Bordertown Café (Blyth). A graduate of George Brown Theatre School, he has been a member of 3 Dora Award-winning ensembles. Nathan lives in Toronto with his dog Henry.
We conducted our conversation via email. Thanks, Nathan, for your time:
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?
It has been a rollercoaster, and I feel for anyone who has had to deal with my rapidly shifting moods. The lows have been low. But the highs have been, surprisingly, high!
The week the pandemic was declared, I came down with another virus that laid me out for a month and continued to make me sick until November. Add a bad living situation and the evaporation of every industry I was working in at the time, and I went dark quite quickly. I remember recoiling at the very idea of participating in online theatre.
Things turned around in the late spring when I developed a more positive POV, kicked out my freeloading roommate, and felt the summer coming. Forced to be alone with my thoughts (terrifying!), without the validation of work (I live for the applause, applause, applause), and dating a couple of flakey guys (fair in a global emergency!) combined into an intense period of personal growth. It sucked at the time, but I’m grateful for it now.
I am fortunate that my family has been healthy. They’ve all experienced their own challenges, from my brother’s endless Zoom meetings my older sister taking care of 2 teenagers, but we’ve so far been spared the loss of anyone close to us.
How have you been spending your time since the theatre industry has been locked up tight as a drum?
I’ve oscillated between (short) periods of intense productivity and (longer) periods of ennui. I have also tried to change my relationship to the ‘less productive’ periods and get out of the mindset that says I have to accomplish things to have worth.
After those dark first few months of the pandemic, I realized I needed to change my daily routine to try and pre-empt a more serious depression. I, with extreme reluctance, tried to do something physical every day (doing yoga in a basement with low ceilings did not inspire joy) and threw myself headfirst into a few creative projects.
I’ve never been able to work slowly and consistently on personal projects. But I do well when I give myself deadlines, writing challenges, and to-do lists. I scheduled a Zoom reading with some actors who have been generously helping me develop my play Cenotaph. This forced me to finish a draft worthy of their talents and watching Yolanda Bonnell, Aldrin Bundoc, Graham Conway, and Michael Chiem read my silly play lit a much-needed fire under my ass to keep writing.
After 4 years of procrastination, I finally started a YA novel about an experience I had being gay at a Baptist church camp.
And my good friend Fraser Elsdon had the idea to co-write a Christmas rom-com which we outlined together on video calls, providing some much needed social engagement at the same time.
Though I famously have no attention span, I decided quarantine might a good time to try and watch more films. I made a list of movies I’d never seen, like The Royal Tenenbaums and 9 to 5 and Breathless, and made watching a movie the ‘thing I was doing’ each evening instead of just listlessly wandering around my apartment wondering why my dog wasn’t laughing at my jokes.
Of course, I couldn’t keep up with the freakish expectations I set myself for longer than a few weeks, but it did help kick me out of my funk.
Since then, after a summer I spent selling cookies and hanging out at Hanlan’s Point, I’ve been working on a few different things. I started as Assistant General Manager with the Paprika Festival in the fall, the workshop facilitation I do with Canvas Arts Action has shifted online, and I’ve been teaching guitar lessons through Project Humanity’s CAPP program. Commercial and film/tv auditions have picked up a little, and I’ve been working on developing some of my own projects in that medium.
But mostly I drink coffee, spend a lot of time on Twitter, procrastinate doing my daily yoga, and hang out with my dog!
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?
I hesitate to describe this year as any one thing but, sadly, this year has felt like an escape in some ways. The theatre industry is dysfunctional, and there are aspects of our industry I’ve been relieved to take a break from.
It’s been nice to get away from the hustle. From being underpaid (it was hard to realize how much more financially stable I felt on CERB than I have on most of my theatre contracts). From being looked down on by a large segment of society. From nepotism and bullying and sexual harassment.
Start talking about racism and shadeism and misogyny and fatphobia and transphobia and femmephobia and ableism, and that dysfunction becomes even more clear. Yes, we appear to have begun to take some of these things seriously, but I can’t imagine someone who has experienced these forms of discrimination not experience some reprieve when the industry paused.
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?
I decided early on that I wouldn’t try to predict the future of the pandemic or when we might be able to perform live theatre again. Even epidemiologists don’t know for sure.
I’ve never been particularly good at staying in the moment. I’m always planning ahead, setting goals and then working towards them. Sometimes I even have a hard time doing something as simple as drinking my coffee in the morning. I literally wonder if I’m ‘enjoying it enough.’ And it’s impossible to enjoy something if I’m wondering if I’m enjoying it……. It’s amazing how my brain can invent problems where none exist.
As terrible and depressing as the pandemic has been, I’ve taken it as a forceful reminder that I can’t predict the future, and that I can always do a better job of living in the moment, even if the moment is feeling pretty shitty. I’ve tried to practice being present, and ok with not thinking months in advance like I’m used to.
It may not be a popular take, and I’m certainly not suggesting that others should take the same approach, but I decided early on to assume that I’ll never act in live theatre again. I knew that having expectations to be back onstage in a month, 3 months, a year, or 3 years—and then experiencing the disappointment of another cancellation—would be hard on me, so I moved forward with no expectation that I’ll get to perform at any point. My mom is a therapist, and one of the things she’s taught me is that imagining the worst possible outcome and accepting that possibility can curb acute anxiety. I often feel more stress imagining the bad things that could happen than I feel when the bad thing actually does happen. Imagining my future without theatre and accepting that possibility has stopped me from the stress that comes from guessing and predicting and worrying.
But I know how fortunate I am to have had 10 years of experiences as an actor and feel intense sympathy for artists at the beginning of their careers.
Do I actually think theatre won’t come back? No. I know we’ll get back to it at some point. I am just trying hard to stay present and enjoy the time I’m being given to explore other paths my life could take.
I had a discussion recently with an Equity actor who said that yes 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 think we’ve made ‘entertaining’ a dirty word in the theatre industry. I don’t agree that it’s more important for theatre to ‘transform’ the actor and the audience than it is for theatre to entertain. To be honest, I don’t exactly know what ‘transform’ is supposed to mean.
Maybe the fact our society doesn’t value entertainment as something worthy of investment and respect has made us shy away from the idea of entertainment being enough. But it is enough that theatre is entertaining.
COVID has made us realize how important entertainment is. People are getting through this time by watching TV and films and stand-up comedy and Zoom panels and listening to podcasts and reading books and laughing at tweets and Tik Toks.
Many of my favourite TV shows, like Broad City and Key and Peele and Arrested Development and RuPaul’s Drag Race, aren’t necessarily ‘transformative.’ But that doesn’t diminish their value. They are—to me—just as essential as shows that aim to be profound.
Similarly, many of my favourite theatre experiences, like School Girls: The African Mean Girls Play, Urinetown, and Mr. Burns: A Post-Electric Play, have been entertaining above all else. They’ve also been indelible, but they wouldn’t have been so if they weren’t first and foremost entertainting.
And I don’t think COVID has changed my understanding of theatre or where it is headed. I think the powers-that-be have always known theatre should be more inclusive. It just hasn’t been in their own best interest to make those changes. Theatre has always needed to appeal to a younger audience. Part of that is making sure theatre is entertaining and another part of it is giving opportunities to new and younger voices without waiting for them to be ‘established’ or a ‘safe bet.’ COVID didn’t teach us either of these things, it just gave us the space and time to think more about them.
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 to the theatre?
I actually picked up a copy of Zoe’s autobiography during quarantine. I’ve looked up to her since I was a teenager. Though I’ve never seen her work, I was obsessed with the history of the Stratford Festival as a kid. The Michael Langham-directed Antony and Cleopatra with Caldwell and Christopher Plummer was, by all accounts, one of the biggest touchstones of Stratford’s ‘Golden Age,’ alongside Langham’s Love’s Labour’s Lost, the Robin Phillips Measure for Measure with Martha Henry and Brian Bedford, and the John Hirsch Three Sisters with Henry, Maggie Smith, and Marti Maraden. I ate up every story I could find about these productions and dreamed of working there.
I’m not sure that I agree with Zoe. I don’t know that danger is what we should be aiming for. The best work requires risk, absolutely. Making the choice that isn’t obvious, that will surprise the audience, that might not work. But danger makes me think of fear.
I’ve done some of my worst work as an actor when I’ve been afraid. A lot of this was in theatre school, taught by people who had worked with these directors from Stratford’s ‘Golden Age.’ And instead of challenging me to produce work filled with boldness and risk, their techniques scared and humiliated me into creating work that was stifled and small and terrified.
Because the shadow side of those Stratford tales I didn’t read about included bullying, abuse, fear, and manipulation. I know this because actors have told me what it was really like, and the danger that accompanied the idea of speaking up.
And yes, actors like Zoe were fortunate to thrive in those environments and produce iconic portrayals of Shakespeare’s great characters. But I know what other actors and stage managers endured at the same time. And I think Zoe would have been brilliant as Cleopatra without feeling danger.
I’ve been lucky not to feel real danger during COVID. However, the perspectives from artists who have bravely shared when they’ve felt in danger at work (like the #InTheDressingRoom hashtag and the Black Like Me: Behind the Stratford Festival Curtain discussion) have shifted and augmented how I will approach the work when we are able to return to it.
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 can’t conceptualize a more sensitive way I’ll approach theatre as a result of the COVID pandemic, though I do think I will bring a new gratitude to the work when I’m able to return to it. I’ve learned a lot about society and the world during this time, but COVID didn’t mark the start of the learning.
Some of the issues that we’ve seen come into the limelight since the pandemic began—like racial injustice, police brutality, inequity in the healthcare system, anti-Indigenous violence, and the ultrawealthy profiting while the most marginalized struggle—have existed for centuries. It’s great to see people engaging with these issues, and there is always more for me to learn, but I know it’s been exhausting for some watch people ‘discover’ their existence during this time.
By no means am I trying to brag about my own ‘wokeness’, I just think these things have been visible for a long time, and it’s been weird to witness a sudden interest from the majority of people around me in something I’ve seen marginalized artists speaking loudly about and trying to bring attention to for a very long time.
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 curiosity 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’ve become curious about a lot of things in the past 10 months. COVID has granted me more time to watch film + tv, I resubscribed to the Toronto Star and have the time to read the Saturday and Sunday paper throughout the week, and I inhale hours and hours of podcasts while I walk my very active dog.
I started dating someone from Azerbaijan in the Fall, and through discussions with him and some articles and podcasts I became curious about the history of both Azerbaijan and Armenia, as well at the history of the region, from the Ottoman Empire to the Soviet Union. Being able to admit that I had hardly heard of Azerbaijan before I met my boyfriend, it’s been a good opportunity to become more aware of both the history and current affairs of the Caucasus.
Probably my favourite tv series I’ve watched since this all started has been Veneno, about the life of Cristina Rodrigues Ortiz, an iconic trans woman who rose to prominence in Spain in the mid-90s. I’ve become incredibly curious about her life and the lives of other women in her orbit since watching the show, and am also fascinated and inspired by how the series was made, with a commitment to cast trans actors in trans roles—including the actors who did the English dub.
One of my favourite books I’ve read in quarantine was The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead, which was awarded the Pulitzer back in May. Because it’s based on a real school in Florida, it sparked my curiosity and led me to do research on the real-life situations the book was based on. There are some horrific parallels between this school (the Dozier School for Boys) and the residential school system in Canada, which I’d read about in books like Seven Fallen Feathers and Indian Horse. These books, along with a long article about youth detention centres in the Star, led me to research the Sprucedale Youth Centre in my hometown—where my friend’s father worked and where we even held our elementary school track meets every year.
But the biggest area I’ve been curious about, and the direction COVID has specifically encouraged me to move in, is towards film + tv. I have great admiration for the artists who are exploring what live theatre looks like in a pandemic, but I am personally using this time to learn more about screenwriting and how to produce film. I’ve been chatting with some incredible young filmmakers, have a few projects in development, and am learning as much as I can about the medium in the hopes that I can find a way to bring the skills I’ve acquired as a producer and theatre artists to the world of film + tv.
To connect with Nathan, Twitter: @nnncarroll / Instagram: @wademuir