Self Isolated Artist
La Presse, Montréal
When I was in Montreal the last couple of years to review shows, I remember seeing Black Theatre Workshop’s (BTW) name on several posters around the city announcing upcoming productions. I had reviewed ‘Angelique’ at Toronto’s Factory Theatre, presented by Factory and Obsidian Theatre Company (in co-production with BTW and Tableau D’Hote Theatre), and I wanted to learn more about these two Montreal based theatre companies.
I was so pleased that, when I reached out to both companies, they have responded back in kind and have welcomed the opportunity to share their story of ‘The Self-Isolated Artist’ in their company. Tableau D’Hote Theatre Company’s profile will appear shortly.
Artistic Director of BTW, Quincy Armorer, and I conducted our interview via email. Quincy was to have appeared in August Wilson’s ‘Fences’ at The Centaur before the lock down. The On Stage Blog reviewers were really looking forward to the production as all of us wanted to attend, but only one of us would be able to review. That’s a nice feeling when you have reviewers who really want to see something.
Thank you, Quincy, for this interview. I certainly hope that Our Theatre Voice can be of service to BTW in future:
1. How have you been doing during this period of isolation and quarantine? Is your family doing well?
My family is doing well, thanks. It’s been difficult to spend so much time away from them, but luckily everyone is healthy and doing fine. It’s been hills and valleys for me, I think. When the quarantine began and we didn’t quite realize how long it would last, I tried to give myself a bit of down time. And at first, I didn’t mind the shift to working from home. Now that we’re at three months with no clear end in sight, it feels very different. Also, the recent incidents of anti-Black racism that have sparked outrage across the world in the past couple of weeks have made being stuck in isolation especially hard.
2. Were any productions in rehearsal for BTW at the time of the lockdown? Were they far from premiering? Will these productions become part of any future slate(s) for BTW?
Just as the lock down made its way to Montreal, we were about to present one show and begin rehearsals on another. We were bringing in the Toronto production of ‘Obaaberima’ produced by Buddies in Bad Times Theatre, to present it with our partners Espace Libre in English with French surtitles, but it was quickly cancelled. This was the second time that we were working with Espace Libre to bring in a Buddies show (the first was ‘Black Boys’ back in 2018) and its a great collaboration between our three companies to bring Black queer content to Montreal that is accessible to both anglophone and francophone audiences. We are definitely planning to find time in a future season for ‘Obaaberima’.
Our other project was a co-production of August Wilson’s ‘Fences’ with Centaur Theatre. We were just a week away from beginning rehearsals and, not yet fully understanding the extent of Covid-19, thought that we could save the show by simply delaying production for a month. Well, that plan wasn’t going to work either, so Centaur Theatre’s Artistic Director Eda Holmes and I made the decision to postpone the show indefinitely. We are both fully committed to seeing the project through, and as soon as we can safely and responsibly make it happen, we absolutely will.
3. What has been the most challenging part of the isolation and quarantine for you personally and professionally?
Personally, I miss my family. And I miss hugs. I really do. But I think what has been most challenging for me is also what has been the most rewarding. I’ve been very introspective lately and it’s stirred up a lot of thoughts and emotions within in a very real and profound way. It hasn’t been easy, but it’s been very enlightening and I’m grateful for the opportunity to turn inward for awhile in a way that I normally don’t. I’ve enjoyed that quite a bit.
Professionally, there are a number of things. One of the hardest parts has been the uncertainty of knowing what if anything we will be able to present next season. It’s a milestone year for us – our 50th anniversary – and we’ve been planning it for some time, so this limbo that we’ve been forced into right now is certainly a challenge for us.
I also want our artists to feel safe and confident and for them to know whether or not – or at least when – the projects they have been preparing for and looking forward to will happen. There’s also been the challenge of potentially shifting ‘online’ and deciding how much content to offer and what that content should be.
But most importantly, our Black communities need support right now. We have to ensure that we are properly providing for them, listening to them and creating space for them, which is made that much more difficult by quarantine and isolation. I’d give anything to be able to open up our doors and invite everyone in and create a safe space for us to talk, share, vent, cry, support, hug – whatever we need. We can’t do it in person right now, so we’ll do what we can from a distance.
4. What have you been doing to keep yourself busy during this time of lock down?
Working. Our office is closed, but our full staff has been working very hard from home since the middle of March. In many ways it feels like we are busier than we’ve ever been. Our 50th season was intended to be one of our most ambitious to date, although now we’re still not sure how much of that season we’ll actually be able to deliver. Preparing for our launch, exploring other artistic activities, as well as revisiting and revamping our seasons to come has kept me quite occupied.
I also jumped on the bandwagon! My folks are from Trinidad, and in our family, mom is the cook and dad is the baker. I had to try my hand at my dad’s Coconut Bake, and I have to say it turned out pretty good! I now understand that place my dad disappears into whenever he gets his hands in dough. It’s meditative. I like it. It’s been a welcome escape.
5. What advice would you give to other performing artists who are concerned about the impact of COVID-19? What words of advice would you give to the new graduates emerging from the National Theatre School?
Make lemonade! We have to work with what we’ve got, so when the world gives you lemons, that’s what you do. There’s no denying that this is the world we are now living in. What we have to do is find the opportunities hidden behind the obstacles. The work is still the work and the craft is still the craft. That won’t change.
Keep working on what you can, when you can. We’re on hiatus. Be ready when hiatus is over.
6. Do you see anything positive coming out of this pandemic?
I hope people come away from this with a greater appreciation for art in general and live performance in particular. When the lockdown began, everyone was turning to art and artists entertainment and humour and comfort and connection. We needed it. I think a lot of people didn’t realize just how important it is in their lives until they no longer had access to it. I’d love to know that in certain circles, the value of what we do now requires less explanation.
But beyond that, I just want all of us to be kinder to each other. None of us is exempt from this pandemic, and it would be unfortunate if something this global, something this devastating but potentially unifying would find more ways of dividing us rather than bringing us together. What a shame that would be.
7. Do you believe or can you see if the Quebec and Canadian performing arts scene will somehow be changed or impacted as a result of COVID – 19?
It already has. I can’t imagine that there wouldn’t be significant impact. Covid-19 has changed how we interact as a species. Our relationship to proximity and touch and intimacy isn’t what it was three months ago, and it won’t just disappear once we’re allowed to gather again at the theatre. Audiences are going to be receiving what they see on stage through a post-covid lens.
Creators and producers can’t help but be affected by our current reality either. We have to embrace it. What are the stories that our audiences will want to see? What, if anything, do we need to do differently to tell them? It’s not a question of ‘will it change’ but rather ‘how will it change’.
8. Many artists are turning to streaming/online performances to showcase/highlight/share their work. What are your thoughts and comments about this? Are there any advantages or disadvantages? Will streaming/online/ You Tube performances be part of a ‘new normal’ for the live theatre/performing arts scene?
It seems like there was a mad rush for many companies to begin producing online content to stay connected to their audience, and some fared better than others. I don’t think there should be a blanket rule because it’s not going to work for everyone. Some companies have more resources available to them and can create high-quality content in little time. Others just simply don’t have the means. I think some of the work that has been put out there is a nice complement to what we do, but there’s no substitute for the shared experience of being in the same space together. You can’t replace that.
That being said, streaming and online performances allow companies to reach a much broader audience. We have our Artist Mentorship Program at BTW that culminates each year with a live Industry Showcase in May, which this year we had to cancel. Instead, we created an online showcase which has allowed us to share the work of our emerging artists with potential engagers not only in Montreal but across the country. It’s a new initiative that we hope to make a permanent addition to the program.
9. As Artistic Director, where do you see the future of Black Theatre Workshop headed as a result of this life changing event for all of us?
Our approaching milestone anniversary has been a time of deep reflection for us. It’s made us look back on all that we’ve accomplished over the past fifty years, but also on what we want the next fifty years to be. BTW has had to fight against systemic anti-Black racism for decades, and, over the years, we have built a profound legacy of maintaining our relevance in a world and industry that are ever revolving around us. That certainly is the case now.
I want us to continue amplifying Black voices and telling our stories because, let’s face it, the current state of the world right now is showing us that we need these stories now more than ever. There are multiple voices, diverse voices, still under-represented voices within the Diaspora, and BTW will be a place where they can all be given a platform. We will continue to be an example of the open door that we ourselves have been seeking.
With a respectful acknowledgment to ‘Inside the Actors’ Studio’ and the late James Lipton, here are the 10 questions he asked his guests at the conclusion of his interviews:
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?
6. What sound or noise bothers you?
7. What is your favourite curse word?
8. What profession, other than your own, would you have liked to attempt?
9. What profession would you not like to do?
Medical examiner (despite my name)
10. If Heaven exists, what do you hope God will say to you as you approach the Pearly Gates?
‘What’s up, Girl?”
To learn more about Black Theatre Workshop (BTW), visit their website: www.blacktheatreworkshop.ca.
You can also visit their Facebook page: Black Theatre Workshop
Twitter: @TheatreBTW Instagram: @theatrebtw