The Self Isolated Artist
I’ve met Peter twice in Toronto theatre lobbies since I’ve begun reviewing for On Stage Blog. Both times he was a true, modest, and unpretentious gentleman.
The first time was at Factory Theatre. I had waited to speak to one of the actors after the production. Keep in mind I hadn’t met Peter at that time, but I had reviewed one of his shows at Soulpepper several weeks earlier in the summer. There was this dignified looking man who spoke to an actor. This classy guy was Peter. I waited while Peter finished what he was saying to the actor.
When he sensed I was waiting to speak to the actor, Peter graciously stepped back and made me laugh by saying, “There are others here besides me.” While I was asking my question, I could sense Peter was paying careful attention to what I was saying and then what the actor said.
I remember we had left the auditorium together. Peter asked me my name and what publication I wrote for. I was so surprised when he said, “Joe, yes, I read your review for the production I had directed at Soulpepper. I’m Peter Pasyk.” And I was equally touched he said he has been reading my articles and browsing through the On Stage site.
Wow! This highly sought-after young director who has worked at Stratford, Shaw, Tarragon, Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre and Canadian Stage read my review and was perusing On Stage. I was honoured and flattered to say the least.
The second time we had met again was several weeks later at Factory in the lobby before the performance began. Once again, this dignified gentleman came up to me and started chatting with me as if he had met me before.
When I introduced myself, he said, “Yes, I’m Peter. We met here last time.”
Well, I turned mortification red in eight shades of embarrassment and wanted to hide. Peter laughed and said not to worry as we are constantly meeting people all the time at the theatre.
I promise you, Peter, when ‘Hamlet’ premieres at that gorgeous new Tom Patterson Theatre in Stratford I will not forget!!!!!
We conducted our interview via email:
1. How have you and your family been keeping during this two-month isolation?
We’ve been keeping as well as we can, thanks for asking. It’s actually an exciting moment in time for us because my partner and I are expecting a baby in July. So that has kept us busy and focused. But of course, its been hard and strange too. Being pregnant, we wish we could be getting together with family and friends more often but that’s not really possible for now. But we have each other and that’s most important.
2. What has been most challenging and difficult for you during this time personally and professionally? What have you been doing to keep yourself busy?
For a while there, both personally and professionally, there was a kind of mourning. I think that’s what it boils down to really. I have been mourning the loss of the daily routines and interactions I took for granted, and I have been mourning the best laid plans I had set out for myself and my future. But there is a kind of sweetness and clarity in grief too. I am forced to reckon with my values and appreciate the not-knowing as well as the simple pleasures.
As far as keeping busy, I cook a lot. I read. I write. I subscribed to the Criterion Channel to watch great art house cinema and learn from the master directors. And I’m always cooking up future theatre projects in my head. You know, I’ve heard some folks talk about being bored. I have never really experienced boredom. It just doesn’t afflict me. I’m always curious about something or working something out in my head. As a director, every experience and every observation and every interaction is fodder for my craft. And there is so much to learn at this moment about each other. I have found in myself a greater capacity for empathy - and empathy is probably the single most critical skill of a director because we have to see the world from multiple perspectives.
3. I interviewed Antoni Cimolino several weeks ago, and he spoke very highly of you and your work in preparation of bringing ‘Hamlet’ to the Festival this season which has now been postponed. Antoni is still declaring this slate of plays will go, but it just depends on the situation with Covid. How are you doing regarding all the work you had been preparing for ‘Hamlet’ only to have everything come to a grinding halt?
We were in advanced stages of rehearsal with Hamlet, and about to go into tech. I was in such awe of the company. I could hardly contain my excitement for sharing their work with audiences because there was some really fresh and unexpected things happening. And though it’s frustrating I know that none of that work will be wasted. The creative process is resilient. And at any time I trust we can pick our momentum back up again. I know this from touring productions: a show can easily start to feel far away but as soon as you start up again there is this sense memory that kicks in. Of course, ‘Hamlet’ is so much a play about reflecting the present moment that in some ways the production will naturally evolve with the times. But that’s the exciting part.
But also ‘Hamlet’ is only one part of what is an exciting landmark season for the Stratford Festival. I am looking forward to the day that all these shows can be shared with the public, and that everyone will be able to experience the new jaw-dropping Tom Patterson Theatre.
4. In your estimation and opinion, do you foresee COVID 19 and its results leaving a lasting impact on the Canadian performing arts scene?
Well, it’s easy to speculate in any direction but speaking of the longer term I tend toward optimism. Ultimately, I trust that this prolonged pause in our being able to congregate and commune in large groups will make theatre and performing arts more vital and sought out by the public eventually. By the time theatres open again I don’t think anyone will make the argument “why would I go out when I can watch TV at home?”. That said, it’ll likely take some time (and a vaccine) before we can congregate again and in the interim it will be a difficult time for many artists who are unable to make a living.
5. Do you have any words of wisdom to build hope and faith in those performing artists and employees of The Festival 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?
I don’t think anything I can say will alleviate those hardest hit. But I do believe that storytelling is almost as old and as necessary for survival as fire. So, storytelling will not go away. The way we do it may need to adapt.
But of all those affected I feel most for young adults and new graduates because it is such a fertile time. So many firsts to be experienced, now interrupted. But to be honest, I’m counting on this new generation of artists to lead the way of innovation and to find new ways of presenting theatre that can adapt to the times. There is nothing more valuable than the gumption of youth.
6. I’ve spoken with some individuals who believe that online streaming and You Tube presentations destroy the theatrical impact of those who have gathered with anticipation to watch a performance. What are your thoughts and comments about the advantages and/or values of online streaming? Do you foresee this as part of the ‘new normal’ for Canadian theatre as we move forward from COVID 19?
Yes, I’ve heard a lot of conversation about this, but I think the premise of the argument is confused. Online content and live theatre are each unique medium. They are both storytelling mediums and both share an audience but neither can ever replace the other. I applaud those artists that are pivoting their creative efforts to online formats. Everyone has their own way of dealing with a pandemic and anyone who manages to be creative and productive at this time is winning in my books. And to go back to something I was saying earlier, I think that when we are given the go-ahead to return to theatres there will be a considerable uptick in the popularity of live performance.
7. What is it about the performing arts that still energizes you even through this tumultuous and confusing time?
The sound of an entire audience giving an involuntary collective gasp.
With a respectful acknowledgement 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?
3. What turns you on?
4. What turns you off?
5. What sound or noise do you love?
Wind through trees
6. What sound or noise bothers you?
7. What is your favourite curse word?
Kurwa (Polish is my first language and it’s great for cursing)
8. Other than your current profession now, what other profession would you have liked to attempt?
9. What profession could you not see yourself doing?
10. If Heaven exists, what do you hope God will say to you as you approach the Pearly Gates?
“Are you ready for an adventure?”