Nora McLellan

Moving Forward

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Joe Szekeres

Performing artist Nora McLellan made me laugh quite a bit during our one hour Zoom conference call. She has certainly tried to stay positive in these long eight months. Well, Nora, please keep up your sense of humour in looking at things as sharing it with others is a gift indeed.

I’m quite impressed with Nora’s background as a Canadian performing artist. She acted in JOHN for THE COMPANY THEATRE. Additionally, she has performed in some outstanding productions including AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY at the Arts Club in Vancouver, THE MATCHMAKER at The Stratford Festival, MRS. WARREN’S PROFESSION and GYPSY at The Shaw Festival, and THE STONE ANGEL at Canadian Stage and London, Ontario’s GRAND THEATRE to name a few.

Thanks again, Nora, for an enjoyable discussion and conversation:

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?

I was thinking about what it would be like the first time we go to a theatre and we see somebody shake hands or stage. Or hug on stage. Will it be a period piece, or will it be shocking? Will it be a sense memory? So these are the kinds of questions that occupy my thoughts when I go for walks. I think about those little noticing details.

What we are in right now is the new way of living, I guess I would say. For me, living in Niagara means I am able to go for walks in the country. When I go to see my guy in Toronto, we try to go on interesting urban hikes. Two weekends we went to Downsview Park, an urban park where the airbase was. I hadn’t been here before. There were other people around but we were miles away from everyone as we walked.

So, this new way of living means it’s quiet, I will say that (Nora laughs).

Some new way of living is here right now.

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

How have I been doing? There have been some personal struggles but I’m doing okay. I’ve been doing an astonishing amount of walking for me, at least 5-6 miles a day. So that is something that I feel I have to do, I feel as if I have to go walking daily. I’ve got headphones and listen to the CBC or podcasts or just take off all the external accoutrements and just listen to the sounds of the birds. It’s been very interesting.

I got home in March and I’ve been really watching the seasons. Because I’m not usually here as much as I am this year, I’ve seen the same trees go through spring, summer, fall and then descending into winter. And I guess I’m going to be here to see your spring again aren’t I, Tree? (she says with a laugh and so do I)

There are colleagues of mine in horrible situations in terms of health and personal things.

My ‘chosen’ family are in Louisiana, Oakville, and Alberta. My guy Ted has his job as a Systems Administrator. He’s working from home 9-5 Monday – Friday in Toronto.

Everybody just seems to be plodding along. My family are my closest friends that I picked.

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

During this time, it would be the lack of routine from working. Luckily, I have been working a lot in recent years. I miss that – warming up in the theatre, working on the text, the camaraderie.

I miss watching other actors work or at work. I miss how a director works. I love Tech Week and I miss Tech Week. Some of us from Vancouver once a month will participate in Zoom calls and just to talk stuff. I miss the critical thought about the work.

The thing about theatre is we’re filled with stories of all kinds.

The short answer: “I miss it all.”

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?

Yes, I was. I’m sincerely hoping that some of these projects will continue in the future. Fingers crossed, here’s hoping.

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

I am Ontario Councillor for Actors’ Equity Association. We have a lot of meetings and depending on how many committees I’m on, I’m busy in reading a lot of documents. Walking and Zoom therapy!

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?

Well, I don’t know necessarily if I’m a very wise person. At Equity, there’s a Mental Health Wellness Task Force, and the committee has been calling on the senior members of Equity to check in on how they’re doing. Many of the more senior members are saying: “We’re used to this uncertainty, this pause. It’s the young theatre graduates you should be contacting.”

For the graduates, this time of the pandemic is a crash course in how to live in uncertainty and how to keep going.

I’m incredibly impressed by my colleagues and how they have shifted to other professions in the interim while staying firmly planted in the live theatre/entertainment industry. And my colleagues have adapted to the digital world and how that adaptation has now become a part of theatre. The astonishing amount of people from across the country who have the ability (which I don’t and which is why it impresses me) to sit down and decide to discover how they can still create during this time of shutdown in the industry.

I don’t have that ability. Someone has to tell me to do something, and I do it.

For the young creators out there, talk about being put into a box and punch your way out of it. This is the time to realize, “Okay, I’ve been put into a pandemic lockdown box. How do I punch and do something?” It’s an extraordinary time and to the young performers I say, “if you’ve got it, go for it.”

Do you see anything positive stemming from Covid 19?

Yes, I do. The ability to take care of each other and to be kind to each other. In the arts community, I find them to be a very caring group. It seems right now that when our friends and colleagues are going through difficult times on top with the isolation, there is a great desire to reach out. That kindness, support, and idea for being thrilled for a colleague when a part is offered to them is rewarding. It’s not much of why didn’t I get that role or that part? Instead, it’s triple fold excitement for our colleague who was offered work in the industry during this time.

The professional and community theatres are caring groups. Ted was involved in community theatre. It was important for him. I think the world of community theatre – people who donate their time for weekend and evening rehearsals do it for the love of it. They are a caring group. They really love what they’re doing, and it is this hope that I see stemming from Covid.

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

There’s been such a huge shift in the arts world, and a well-timed shift. There’s a new generation. I think the people that are showing that kind of leadership – the festivals have all demonstrated that. I’ve been seeing things happen right across the land.

It’s incredible to me that I was streaming a show from the Arts Club in Vancouver the other night, watching Natasha Mumba in ‘acts of faith’ the other night. I was streaming something from California the other night that involved an acting lab from my teacher, Uta Hagen. I see a lasting impact in a deeper connection we will make with each other when we’re allowed back into the room and the performance space and utilizing the digital techniques and elements that were already in use.

A few years ago, at the Blyth Festival, I saw ‘The Last Donnelly’ co-created by Gil Garratt and Paul Thompson with beautiful slide and digital work by Beth Kates similar to live music mixing in concerts. I think this is the future and it is fascinating.

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?

Believe me, as a Councillor for Equity, this is an ongoing discussion especially these days. It’s a new world.

I’ve seen some incredible work. One of the first things I saw in lockdown was a terrific performance at Factory Theatre with Kevin Hanchard in HOUSE. It worked. It was as if Kevin was talking to us. Then I saw Daniel McIvor, the playwright of HOUSE, perform the play in Cape Breton in August. Wonderful production with Daniel as well. Two streamed productions that were incredibly different, but that’s the mark of a great play.

That kind of stuff has been eye opening. The Stratford filmed productions have been a tonic for us. I’ve also seen live concerts at Shaw where we were socially distant.

Something that I truly miss as I was watching a streamed performance the other night – I miss being in the audience. I miss the shared experience. I miss being with Ted and knowing that we, as an audience, collectively receive something together that particular night. I still get it when I watch a performance digitally but being with people in the room is really something that cannot be replaced.

We’re both on the same page, but ACTRA and EQUITY have to figure out the compensation element which is wobbly. People want to get out to do something but not being paid….it’s such a challenging issue right now.

Despite all this fraught tension and confusion, what is it about performing that Covid will never destroy for you?

Destroy? This question sounds like such a Game of Thrones kind of thing. (Nora laughs).

To me, I’m just getting warmed up. I hope I’m part of the Canadian Theatre fabric when we all get out of this pandemic.

What cannot be destroyed is my desire to be on stage. I feel like I’m just in the wings ready. I’m hoping I speak for so many of colleagues. Our love of telling stories and being part of the ritual of theatre – there’s nothing like it.

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