Nigel Shawn Williams
Self Isolated Artist
I’m sure each of us will remember certain productions of plays that have touched our hearts over the years. For me, this would be the Stratford Festival’s engrossing and moving production of ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ in 2018. I reviewed the final preview as I could not make the opening. It was a school matinee and there were several groups there.
I remembered over the years being in audiences where there were students and wondering how they would respond.
Like me, many of the students around me had tears in their eyes at the conclusion. Most of these kids were on their feet at the end to give the actors a well-deserved standing ovation.
It was an honour to have interviewed the director of this production, Nigel Shawn Williams. During our Zoom conference, he let me know just how appreciative he has been of the compliments he received in 2018. Nigel explained how there are certain opportunities one gets as an artist and director to create change. What made ‘Mockingbird’ so successful for him was to show the contradiction in the story of the human being and to bring out the racism and misogyny in the story. Nigel thrives in telling stories like this.
I certainly hope that I will get a chance to see future productions directed by him again once it is safe to return to the theatre:
1. How have you and your family been keeping during this nearly three-month isolation?
I know, it’s been nearly three, three and a half months. We have a contract as citizens with our community and our country to remain isolated. It’s a responsibility. Yes, sometimes it’s inconvenient but not overwhelming but it’s how you put it into perspective. We’ve been okay, but in the grand scheme of things historically, Joe, this is not a big deal. Being asked to do what we’re asked to do. It’s not overwhelming as it depends on the perspective in which you put it. This contract we have with the pandemic – it’s something we have a responsibility for.
On a very personal and blasé note about my family, we still have a great sense of humour. We’re able to spend a lot more time with each other. We laugh and joke. We get out in the forest and walk. So, it’s been okay.
2. What has been the most challenging and difficult for you during this time personally? What have you been doing to keep yourself busy?
I guess, it’s a focus. Taking away the industry of film and television and theatre where the hardest thing is waiting for something that I don’t know what I’m waiting for. I’m very work focused and agenda driven, and this not having any sense of work on the horizon or not knowing what that’s going to be has created a sense of unease. I’m a husband and a father and so there’s the concern of financial security of keeping the house, the car running, not going into debt, making sure there are groceries. We’re not in debt, but like every other Canadian there’s a finite amount of savings, if you have savings at all.
To keep busy around the house, the list around the house is pretty much nonexistent. Every project around the house from windows which have no mould, they’re re-caulked, everything that’s needed to be re-painted or sanded. My deck’s re-finished. I could put this baby on the market right now. It’s staged.
These two parts of the question go hand in hand. I need a project to do. This isolation and quarantine have allowed me to not look outward but to look inward to look inside my home, inside my family, helping kids with their online learning. It’s trying to stay buoyant but at the same time honest with our kids and the reality.
I’ve been working around the house and trying to make sure that everyone around me whom I love is as buoyant as possible.
3. Were you involved in any professional projects when the pandemic was declared, and everything was shut down? How far were you into those projects? Will they come to fruition sometime soon?
I had just finished a project. I directed the Canadian premiere of ‘Controlled Damage’ by Andrea Scott at the Neptune Theatre (Halifax). ‘Controlled Damage’ was the last full production staged by the Neptune. My company was able to finish the run at the end of February and then just after that everything hit. So, I was very fortunate. My project was completed.
On the other hand, my wife was in a run at Theatre Aquarius that was cut short. I know many colleagues, acquaintances and friends who had their contracts cut short, but I was very fortunate that my company family was very fortunate to be able to finish their run.
4. Some actors whom I’ve interviewed have stated they can’t see anyone venturing back into a theatre or studio for a least 1 ½ to 2 years. Do you foresee this possible reality to be factual?
Well, yeah, I do. Whether or not I like to admit it or not, I think the live performing arts of orchestra, opera, dance, narrative theatre will unfortunately and probably be one of the last industries to open up. I know there is a lot of conversation with Artistic Directors, PACT, and Equity on how to do this safely not just for our patrons but also for our artists. It’s a difficult task. There are theatres in this country not being supported by this government as much as any other countries around the world, it’s difficult for them to sustain themselves on a 30% house. Self isolating an audience is difficult.
What I’m concerned about is that we start programming for only one-act plays so we don’t have intermission. We don’t have to worry about how the audience mixes and mingles, but I’m afraid that this is going to be a reality. I think it’s not just the logistical reality of how to have patrons in a theatre or how to have your artists safe in rehearsal or stage management, and your designers safe; it’s also giving the audience, the patrons and the general public the confidence and the want to come back into the theatre. And this is going to take time.
The audience does want to take part in that community and to hear and see stories and to share that same energy. Audiences do want to come back, but it’s going to take confidence to be built around the sense of gathering.
5. In your estimation and opinion, do you foresee COVID 19 and its results leaving a lasting impact, either positive or negative, on the Canadian performing arts scene?
There will be an impact financially. In the larger ideological sense of what I believe theatre to be, theatre will always come back. Theatre was our first newspaper and it will be our last. The sense and the culture and the need for story telling will always be there. The shared experience of energy between performer and audience is something that we’re all just connected and wired to and we need that, and I don’t think that will ever go away.
The impact of what we’re going through right now is in danger of jeopardizing a lot of smaller independent theatre companies and mid size theatre companies that don’t have the donorship and stakeholders that the larger ones have. I’m very fearful of a lot of our theatres right now staying financially healthy through all this into next year.
It’s a many pronged answer to this question. Of course, it’s going to impact the writing that is going to come out, the creative process and sense of creation, and how we go back into rehearsal and how we create in that cozy environment is going to change itself. I think it’s going to circle back around to the power of storytelling that is community, and there’s a necessity to tell stories about love. And it’s very difficult to tell stories about love when you’re six feet away.
Hand in hand with the confidence that we, as a society, have built up to get back into the theatre, so will the confidence be regained telling the stories as is necessary.
6. Do you have any words of wisdom to build hope and faith in those performing artists who have been hit hard as a result of COVID 19? Any words of sage advice to the new graduates from Canada’s theatre schools regarding this fraught time of confusion?
Well, I don’t think any artist that has been working in the industry requires sage advice right now. It’s been three months, and everyone has been surviving it and going along with it. If anything, I’m an individual that requires everyone to maintain their responsibility in this.
For the next generation of artists coming out of school and graduating and confronting this what seems an immovable roadblock, I think the best thing for them to do is to stay engaged. Stay engaged as human beings. What is happening with the pandemic right now, I think, is hand in hand with the focus that our citizens are going through with the anti-racism protest. I think this bubbling of energy is necessary. There’s an incredible amount of witnesses right now that are focused and will not lay down anymore when the system betrays them again.
So, the young artists that are coming out and can acutely learn that the other artists that have been speaking out about injustices, misogyny, and racism backstage in the workplace. The kids at school coming out have probably experienced this and they don’t feel they have a voice.
Coming around to the simplest answer to your question, I would encourage all young artists to remember they have a voice, and to not be silent, and to never be silent.
7. What is it about the performing arts that still energizes you even through this tumultuous and confusing time?
My relationship with the performing arts hasn’t changed because of this. I still need to tell stories. I still need to feel that I have a responsibility to right wrongs, to uncover indignities and injustices in our society. The plays I mostly am attracted to when I direct are ones that are combative to a great degree of the status quo to a system that is built to keep people under.
My need to tell those stories hasn’t changed. On a professional level, it has become a little bit more precarious about when or if there’s going to be work. The sense of sharing a story and having the ability to have someone in the audience question what they believe or believed, how they engage with another human being, and the power that can create, and that we have the artists to do that. That is a change, and that’s what energizes me, and that’s what I’ve love about it. And that’s what I’ve always loved about it.
The other thing that energizes me about the performing arts and theater -I love the collaboration in doing theatre. I love not being the smartest person in the room and letting others shine, let the designers be artists and let actors make mistakes in a free and safe space to work is something I cherish. That’s what energizes me.
With a respectful acknowledgment to ‘Inside the Actors’ Studio’ and the late James Lipton, here are the ten questions he used to ask his guests:
1. What is your favourite word?
2. What is your least favourite word?
The ‘N’ word.
3. What turns you on?
4. What turns you off?
5. What sound or noise do you love?
My family laughing.
6. What sound or noise bothers you?
When someone snorts their own snot. I hate that! Absolutely hate that! Use your thumb or get a tissue.
7. What is your favourite curse word?
Fuck! I love that word. (Nigel and I shared a good laugh over his answer)
8. Other than your current profession now, what other profession would you have liked to attempt?
An ophthalmologist. I’ve always been fascinated with the eyes.
9. What profession could you not see yourself doing?
An ophthalmologist (And again, Nigel and I shared a good laugh over his answer).
10. If Heaven exists, what do you hope God will say to you as you approach the Pearly Gates?
“Shaken or stirred?” I would think he would offer me a drink. I think God would assume I’d like a martini. My life’s not going to turn off just because I go to heaven.