Petrina Bromley

Moving Forward

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Joe Szekeres

To know when Canadians have made it to Broadway to showcase their talent is something to celebrate all the time. When one can go to Manhattan to see Canadians in a Broadway production and see them perform is another excitement in itself.

That’s why it was exciting for me to see ‘Come from Away’ in New York when East Coast artist Petrina Bromley was in the show (along with Toronto artist Astrid van Wieren whom I interviewed earlier).

Petrina is an actor, director, musical director, and composer from St. John's, Newfoundland who has worked with Artistic Fraud of Newfoundland since its inception, having participated in ten of the company's original works. A bit of online research discovery that Petrina also made an appearance in one all time favourite CBC shows I watched religiously each week: ‘Republic of Doyle’.

We shared our conversation via Zoom:

It has been an exceptionally long five months since we’ve all been in isolation, and now it appears the numbers are edging upward again. How are things in Newfoundland? How are you feeling about this? Will we ever emerge to some kind of new normal?

We’ve been very, very fortunate. The provincial government has been diligent. The benefit we have over everyone else is the physical location (of Newfoundland) and the fact it’s an island. You have to make an effort to come to Newfoundland. No one is flying and the ferries were reduced. There were less people travelling anyway and they actually closed the borders for awhile provincially as well.

Now we’re in an expanded bubble but it’s just with the Atlantic provinces. You still can’t even come here from Ontario and Quebec. They’re being very, very strict about all this stuff so I think it’s good. When I first came home in March, we (Broadway production of COME FROM AWAY) shut down March 12 and I hopped on a plane the next day and came home. That first week I was home which was around St. Patrick’s Day, over the weekend there had been at a funeral home two wakes happening and someone came home to bereave a loved one and brought Covid with them and didn’t realize it, and out of that one person, 150 people got sick. At least one person died.

Because that happened immediately, everybody really took it seriously. You became so aware suddenly of how contagious it was and how quickly it spread and how sick you could get. It’s put the fear of God into everybody, and people have been taking it pretty seriously since then.

We’ve been slowly, slowly coming back to some things. We had a pedestrian mall downtown this summer on the main drag where restaurants had outdoor service. They closed it to traffic and that was a huge success. The kids have gone back to school last week and so far, that seems to be going okay. We’re very lucky that we don’t have any community transmission. Anytime anyone has been sick, it’s been quickly traced, and it’s usually connected to someone flying. A lot of it has been people who have been away and trying to return home. Because of the rules and the isolating, it’s been under control.

Cross my fingers and knock wood, we’re in a really good place with it so far. We’ve been fortunate enough that I actually went to a live performance the other day, a socially distanced piece of theatre. The main theatres here in the Arts and Cultural Centre which are a series of large theatres across the province all operated provincially have officially re-opened and have their social distancing, masks, sanitizing rules in place that are now opened to houses of about 100 which is a start.

I think there will be some sort of new normal. We have been warned for so many years that superbugs are on their way, and it’s a question of when. I think masks are just going to be a part of our future in general, particularly during the cold and flu season. And hopefully we’re all going to wash our hands a lot more often. And just be aware of how much contact we do have with people. I hope it makes us more aware and more grateful for the physical contacts that we have, being able to be in the same place with others, being communally together and developing a greater appreciation for that. I know it’s made me aware of how much I miss being in a room with other people.

And for performing arts in general, I’m now teaching a university course online. It’s a singing course and it’s almost impossible to connect because technology doesn’t really exist to facilitate it. It’s made me very aware that I can’t wait to sing in an ensemble again, a true ensemble, not “I take my part, and you take your part and we stitch them together with an editor, but I’m looking forward to when we make sound together.” It’s made me realize how important this is in my life.

How have you been faring personally and professionally? As an artist within the performing arts community, what has been the most difficult and challenging for you professionally and personally?

Again, I’ve been very, very lucky and fortunate that I own a home in Newfoundland. All of my family have been good. Knocking on wood again, I haven’t add anyone adversely affected by it all. It has been something that has been happening elsewhere. It’s more something that you see on tv since I haven’t had anyone in my life who has been sick.

Professionally, the biggest is teaching this course online as I’m stretching all of my skills and learning new ones every moment of every day. I also think the other challenge that performers, particularly theatre performers and musicians are a little bit better equipped to deal with something like a shutdown because we go through long periods of time of “I don’t have a gig”. There are periods of non creative output in terms of jobs.

It’s gone on so long that doesn’t stand anymore. Theatre performers are deeply affected because our industry is in question itself in terms of what will come back, how it will come back, and how we manage to make it work. I have no doubt we’ll be back no doubt as we all need that storytelling. There’s something in our lizard brain, from cave people that we need to sit in a group and be told a story together. We will find a way to make it happen again. It’ll just look a little different and feel a little different, but I think we’ll be back to it. But this is what I found hard, the uncertainty of it has been challenging.

For the first six months, they kept pushing with faint hope that the Broadway League kept pushing the dates and that Broadway would come back. It was always a guestimate and still is, really, but every time it got moved, there was a feeling of “Ugh, it’s being moved again.” That has been hard, wondering. The research that was also coming out saying that singing was a no no was also disheartening. It really did make me feel that our industry doesn’t exist anymore and won’t.

Times are changing and this is such a fluid situation. There’s flux in this Covid situation, but we will find ways as we’re hard wired to find them.

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?

I wasn’t personally in any kind of planning. I was very content to be where I was. It’s been the best gig ever and I couldn’t imagine leaving it.

Besides the university teaching, what have you been doing to keep yourself busy during this time?

You know, I’m actually surprisingly busy which is a great complaint. It’s because I’m back home in Newfoundland and it has given me the opportunity to work with people I’ve worked with before and to re-kindle old work relationships. That’s been great.

I’m involved in a workshop that’s coming up in a little while. Now there are two television productions shooting here and I got a couple of days on one of those. I’m supposed to be writing my own show as well.

I’m busier than I should be in normal times let alone in Covid times.

Any words of wisdom or sage 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?

Oh, I don’t know. ‘Hang in there’ is about all I can say. You have to be kind to yourself. You have to be able to give yourself the room to feel whatever you’re feeling at the time. There’s general anxiety, upset and depression given the times that we’re in right now because the whole world has changed. It’s a huge tectonic shift for anyone to go through, and we’re all going through it together. I think we all need to be a little more generous to the people around us in terms of understanding that we’re all going through it. Everyone is having a bad day just about every day, maybe not every moment but there will be those times where it’s going to feel bad.

To the new theatre grads, yes, be kind to each other, be gentle with each other but hang in there is the best thing I can say to them. I would always tell people before all this that the road to where you want to get might be longer than it needs to be. It took me my entire professional life to get to Broadway. It happened eventually and happened when I did not expect that it would happen, very, very unlooked for and unexpected for me.

But as I look back on it, everything happened as it should have happened, and I can’t imagine having gone sooner in my life because it would have been a terrible experience and ruined it for myself. Knowing me and knowing how I would have treated it when I was younger, I would have just blown it. Sometimes the path you go down takes a lot of twists and turns before it fits in where you want it to go, but every one of those twists and turns will have value, maybe not until later but it will.

Do you see anything positive stemming from Covid 19?

Oh, definitely. There’s tons of positive stuff happening because we’re so focused or we’re forced to be especially during the lockdown, a little less now that we’re getting back to some sense of normal life. People were so focused on everything that was happening on screens in front of them because there was nothing else. That really facilitated the focus on the ‘Black Lives Matter’ social movement and all those things that sprouted from that.

Theatre companies and institutions were being called to task for their response to the Black Lives Matter movement.

Also again, I hope, that it’s going to make us appreciate communities so much more, physical community being with other people, and experiencing things with other people because there has been such a movement to have everything be on line.

Even before everything went on line with Covid, we were doing a lot more virtually, through video, and through conversations on tablets and phones, and I hope having this moment will remind us just how important it is to hang out and just see people be together. A lot of that can be seen when they reopened the bars and the reports came out there were too many people and they were too close together.

I think we are really, really just hungry for it to be around each other again.

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

Again, there’s a lot coming out of the Black Lives Matter movement. This focus is changing the world of theatre all over the world. It’s shining a light on that and allowing and opportunity for us to take stock of that, well more than take stock, to really give the attention that it deserves.

I think we’re really going to see the affects of that. Hopefully there will be a focus on the technical side of things, a focus on some of the older theatres around being properly ventilated. Some rehearsal practices that might encourage some proper physical things as well, just handwashing. It’s very easy for a bad cold and flu to go through an entire cast, let alone something like Covid.

We’re all going to be mindful of these things. If it does come to a place where masks are more common, then that might help that as well.

There’s ton of more things that we’ll eventually look back and say, “You know what, that started after Covid.”

The first couple of times seeing audiences wearing masks might be little jarring, but the thing about New York is New York is full of individuals. Everyone there is an absolute individual so you would run into different people all the time like subways or in the stores who are already wearing masks a year ago. That wasn’t uncommon to see in New York back then.

During the show close to the shut down, we would see one or two people wearing masks in the audience and that was when it was startling. I think it’ll feel natural now because it’s all over the place now, but who knows? Going back to New York, it might seem startling not to see masks.

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?

It’s great. It is definitely a double-edged sword because it depends on whether or not an individual artist is able to support himself or herself by putting their stuff up online. The arts is not a hobby, it’s a job. I always call it a calling. I always tell people don’t get into this industry if there is anything else you can see yourself doing. If this is a compulsive behaviour for you to be in the arts, then you might make it because it’s so challenging, so difficult and demands so much of you.

As long as people are managing to turn streaming into something that gives them a viable living, I think it’s fantastic. There was a lot at first as people kept thinking, “Oh, we have to keep doing something” and so much was poured out. We’ve come to a place now where there should be limited access and pay thresholds as a product because it is as people do need to support themselves.

Again, the irony of it all – when something goes wrong in the world and someone wants to have a benefit for something, the first people who are called upon and step up are performing artists, visual artists and artists in general who say, “I can help”. I think this happened when Covid hit as people just wanted to help out in some way and so they just started posting things to make people feel better, things to look at and to focus on.

Where it has come to now is good with the talk of pay thresholds, paid performances and having limited access to something so that it’s not out there on the internet forever.

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

Our need, absolutely, that goes back to what I was saying earlier about our compulsion with people. If you’re a performer and this is how you identify yourself that you have to do it. Being unable to do it is challenging enough but just being not allowed to do it is a different thing altogether. Everyone has had a moment as stage performers where you’ve had an injury or illness and that has prevented you from performing. I had some voice trouble once and it was a long period of time where I couldn’t sing and during that time it kept running in my mind, “Who am I if I can’t sing?” What do I have to offer and who am I as a person.

That’s one thing.

But now with Covid and it’s the feeling of “No, you’re not allowed to sing” is so much harder because it’s hard to make those reasons realistic to yourself. They seem like someone is imposing something on you.

Again, everybody started putting up these videos right away speaks to the compulsion that the performing artist needs to create. It’s who we are as a human being and how we get through this world.

So I don’t think that can be taken away from us at all and people’s need to experience that can’t be taken away either.

At least I really hope.

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