Philip Riccio

Moving Forward

The Company Theatre website

Joe Szekeres

When I reviewed The Company Theatre’s website, I saw some very influential members of the professional Canadian theatre industry, and I invite all of you to peruse the site when you have a chance and see what’s going on with them.

I wish to extend my sincere appreciation to the Co-Artistic Director of The Company Theatre, Philip Riccio, for taking the time from his schedule to chat with me and to let all of us know where and how The Theatre Company will move forward from this pandemic when it is deemed safe.

Philip attended the Etobicoke School for the Arts in Toronto, an Arts High School, where he majored in Drama. He then attended George Brown.

I never had the opportunity to see ‘Jerusalem’ in 2018 at Crow’s Theatre, staged by Outside the March and Company Theatre. And yes, I am doing the proverbial kicking myself in the behind for missing it as I heard it was THE play to see that year. Philip was in that production which was directed by Mitchell Cushman whom I had already interviewed earlier. A note to myself: don’t be missing out on these kick ass productions in the future.

Philip and I held our conversation via Zoom. Thanks again, Phil, for the wonderful talk and discussion:

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 in your opinion?

Right now, I feel pretty Zen about all of it. I feel as if people prepared us and predicted it and that the fall and winter would get worse.

I feel mentally that I was prepared for all this. The hardest time for me was probably when it first happened, I thought in my mind that it would last three months or so. And then in the summer the reality sunk in that this was going to be much, much longer than we thought. I feel like I’m past that phase.

Obviously, I’m just worried for everyone’s health and that as few people die from this virus as possible, and that our communities can stay as safe as possible through the winter. Hopefully, knock on wood and fingers crossed, I’m hoping next year we will see improvement. I am really hopeful that towards the end of next year that we are returning to some semblance of life and what it was like before this pandemic.

I think it’s human nature on every level that we’re probably giving ourselves a date, perhaps 2022, as Ms. Arnaz said. No one really knows, but I’m hopeful and trying to stay optimistic that people are saying that a vaccine will be available sometime early next year and that it will take a good part of the year to get it distributed. It feels like a realistic timeline for some positive news.

Up until the pandemic, The Company Theatre has only produced plays that already existed, mostly international contemporary themes, and we’ve launched a new initiative in the search for new plays and new voices about the struggles of this time, and how we’re going to come out of it.

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

I feel pretty lucky knock on wood that we’re all healthy. My grandfather did get Covid and he’s 90. He’s not in the greatest health but he somehow survived it. It kind of spoke to the randomness of this disease where some people who are younger and healthy can’t survive it,and some who you think won’t survive it are able to do so somehow.

My parents are getting up there in age. I have eight siblings so it’s navigating the internal workings of the family such as who gets to hang out with the parents and when, making sure we’re all on the same page and how careful we’re all being. Certainly, we’ve been lucky overall for sure.

My grandmother on my dad’s side just turned 100. She’s in a nursing home. It was nice and everyone came. She has about 100 grandchildren and great grandchildren. We did what we could. We were able to wave to her when she was at her window. It was kind of sad that we weren’t able to have a proper celebration for that, but she’s still doing well. Hopefully when we’re past this we can celebrate with her.

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

Certainly, for me professionally which is also personal is The Company Theatre and having to postpone what our next production was going to be. The uncertainty wondering if we would be able to survive this as a company. Mostly for the people who work for us and the artists whom we wouldn’t have the chance to employ.

Personally, I actually don’t mind and find it easy to find other interests and there was something nice about being forced to put a pause on theatre which has been such a big focus for me over the years, and let my brain wander into other random things.

It was mostly just being worried about the community and the long-term effects to the community are going to be. I don’t think we know what they are going to be yet. Certainly, I’m sure there’s hardship going on within the community. That’s probably the hardest part.

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?

We were prepping as we usually produce a show yearish, and so our next show wasn’t going to be until this winter. We should have been starting rehearsals for this upcoming January. Because we are a small company, it is about a year of prep for us. We were casting and doing a lot of the preliminary prep work in set design and marketing for that production. That one will at least be postponed a year. We’re planning to do that one around January/February 2022 instead of 2021.

Not just being able to plan and all the conversations around possible productions and activities we were thinking of having have been put on hold.

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

(Philip laughs when I asked him where his mind has wandered to during this time away from theatre) I’d be even too embarrassed…honestly, I’ve just been randomly obsessing and learning about the things that are the complete opposite of the arts, of acting. I find that when I was a young artist, I was so obsessed and narrowminded as all I cared about was theatre and story telling. That lasted for years.

Now that I’m a bit older, there is a sense that this pause has made me realize there are lots of interesting things out there. While I was busy zeroing and narrowly focusing in on this one thing, I didn’t appreciate how much creativity and how many other worlds there are filled with people who are really passionate and creative about something other than the arts. That’s been really interesting to dip my toe into these different worlds and get to know people in these other worlds and see how similar they are to something like theatre where there are a group of people who are gathered around something they are passionate about.

At the same time because I have The Company Theatre, we’ve also launched ‘Intermission’ magazine about 4 years ago, which is an online theatre magazine. There has still been a lot of work around how do we keep the company afloat, what should the focus of the company be, and what should ‘Intermission’ do during this shutdown. How can ‘Intermission’ support the community during this time?

I’ve been splitting my focus a bit between making sure Company Theatre and ‘Intermission’ magazine are okay and trying to find ways to support the community through those outlets and giving myself permission to explore worlds that are completely outside of the arts which I actually think will end up informing my work in the arts moving forward.

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?

I definitely feel bad for them as it is interesting this once in a lifetime occurrence of the pandemic which hits where you are in your career and life. It really does affect how you experience it, and I do feel badly for those young artists.

My advice to them would be exactly the same as it would be before the pandemic. If I had advice for myself as a younger artist, it would be to expand my interests and don’t be so narrowly focused on acting and theatre or storytelling. I think anything else you can learn or experience will just inform you as an artist and will make you better as an artist. As much as possible, use this time to do just that and create habits that will allow you to have a healthy relationship and balance when you do return to a focus on your career.

The arts can be an all-consuming lifestyle. It can be a really harsh lifestyle at times with its many ups and downs. Having other interests and being okay with the arts not being around, being able to develop those skills early in your career will serve you positively. It’s hard to tell young artists that. That’s something that comes inevitably with age and experience.

For the young people who are able to hear that and take it in, it’s true that they shouldn’t worry. If they’re meant to be actors or theatre artists, and that’s their greatest passion, they will come back and pursue it another time. Just don’t waste this time right now by worrying about it. Focus and learn other things and that will just make you a more interesting and compelling performer anyway. Trust that.

Do you see anything positive stemming from Covid 19?

I really do, actually. I’ve a weird kind of relationship with it all. I worry about the people and the individuals and the artists, especially people I’ve grown close to over the years. But from a macro level, I think there’s something very positive about a pause on theatre. It will allow audiences to miss theatre and to remind them just how important and how profound a live experience can be in a communal watching of a story and taking it in together. People will crave that in a way that you can only crave something when it’s gone away.

For artists, our own relationship with theatre will have changed. It can be tiring, exhausting. There are many positives about it, but within the professional theatrical community you can forget as a job what you loved about theatre, what’s special about it. I think there’s going to be a renewed sense of passion for theatre since we’re going to be away from it for a long time.

I also think it’s going to be an inevitable cleansing. It’s going to be a long time before it comes back that I’m sure there will be artists who don’t come back to it or who have moved on to other things or have found other ways to live and don’t want to come back. Obviously, there’s a huge social change happening at the same time while we’re on pause. That social change has clearly broken through, perceptions have shifted through this time in a way that is going to bring profound change to our community when we come back.

It’s almost as if we’re coming back to a clean slate. It will be a kind of Theatre 2.0 where there will always be a before Covid and a post Covid. So, whatever that post Covid looks like, the leaders within the community and all the artists in the community are thinking about that. When it returns, it will return fresh and new in ways that I don’t know that we know yet. But I’m confident that will happen.

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

With ‘The Company Theatre’, we’ve launched a new play development for the first time. For us, it was really about how we can support the community. I really feel like if we’re able to give and provide support to artists who want to use this time to write and create the stories we’re going to tell on stages after this, than there could be a real golden age of Canadian plays that will come out of all this. We did get in this cycle of development where we would discover a writer and they would have a lot of time to work on their first play and that would be successful.

There would be so many theatres who would want the next play from the writer that there is less time for development at that time. Every play after that gets less development time so that’s not the best kind of development pipeline. Now, essentially, we will have years of our great theatre artists hopefully getting to spend some time on creating what their next show will be. I have to mention that is going to be a great thing with the caveat if we can support them to do that and the artist is not worrying about having to pay their grocery bill.

I don’t think we’ll know exactly what the lasting impacts are as of yet. I think there will be lots of things that will change about the theatre community itself and that inevitably will change the work that gets produced. Our relationship to it will be different. Every industry is going to be thinking about how they do work now.

All of this experimenting online will not go away after Covid. That will remain in some way as part of theatre.

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?

I’m kind of on both sides of it. Personally, as a performer, I have no interest and as a director I have no interest. For Company Theatre we quickly thought about it, but it wasn’t right for us.

We’re so much about the live experience and what live performance is versus other mediums. That’s really what we do and what we’re passionate about. It felt inauthentic for us to pursue it in any way. Most actors who perform on theatre stages in this country also perform in film and on tv, and I love film and tv as an art form. It felt like any of my time or effort was better served for me personally more kind of traditional film and television than trying to turn theatre into streaming.

On the ‘Intermission’ magazine side, because ‘Intermission’ serves the whole community, we have been trying to find ways to embrace and support that work. We’re about to launch an initiative so we will use ‘Intermission’ to broadcast streamed performances – some of them will be live, some of them will be re-broadcasts of what theatres have already done to give a second life to it.

In terms of compensation, there’s really no financial model around it. At least for me, it will serve us better to try and get support from the people who support us whether that’s the public funders or our main supporters, our donors, corporate supporters and then trying to sell directly to patrons and audiences at this point.

Now I know that other people in the community think much differently, and I know there’s a lot of pressure to get some revenue out of these streaming performances. It’s a new art form and I think we would do better long term to offer that to audiences for free, see what the reaction is, build some habit around them consuming theatre in this way and then see if we can build from there. I think if we try to charge right away, I just don’t know what kind of success people will have with that model and whether it will be worth the small amount of revenue that we might be able to bring in. We’re going to shoot ourselves in the foot if we’re trying to grow this as an aspect of theatre.

One of the exciting things about this for me and ‘Intermission’ is the fact theatre is so localized and how the streaming allows us to show the performance in Alberta, Vancouver or wherever. That’s exciting and how to compensate artists for their time is a tricky one. It’s just the reality around it if there is a sustainable financial model for it. I don’t know, but if we can get support from different streams, I definitely think that financial support should go to the artists for sure as much as possible.

Ultimately we’re all in this together, and if there is a desire to create this online theatre world, there’s going to be some sacrifice from all of us for the time and effort and resources behind it without expecting much back in return.

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

To me it’s about connection and community. Theatre is about building community and that’s what we’re being reminded of during this absence.

At its best, that’s what live performance can do. It can make you feel more connected to your loved ones, to you, to the human condition. Most of these are all to do with connection to others.

I’m hopeful it will give us a better appreciation for all that.

To learn more about The Company Theatre, visit their website: www.companytheatre.ca, Facebook page: The Company Theatre, Twitter: @companytheatre.

To learn more about Intermission magazine, visit their website: www.intermissionmagazine.ca, their Facebook page: Intermission, Twitter: @intermissionmag.

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