The hour and a half Zoom call conversation I shared with Raoul zipped by too quickly as we talked about many things going on within the live performing arts industry. Raoul Bhaneja clearly articulated to me his extensive thoughts and feelings on where the performing arts industry is possibly headed once we move out of this pandemic.
I remember watching the evening half-hour nighttime soap opera ‘Train 48’ on Global Television where Raoul and many other local Canadian actors improvised some of the dialogue to reflect the current news events of the day in Ontario. He has appeared in a number of well-known productions including ‘Suits’, ‘Flashpoint’, ‘Republic of Doyle’, ‘Grey’s Anatomy’ and ‘Rookie Blue’. I remember he had appeared in a production of ‘Disgraced’ co-produced by the Mirvish series that broke box office records. I had wanted to see that production so badly but was unable to get tickets for it.
I did not know Raoul is an accomplished jazz musician. I’m going to have to listen to Jazzcast.
Again, thank you so much, good sir, for making me feel amazingly comfortable as we chatted about everything and anything:
It has been an exceptionally seven long months since we’ve all been in isolation, and now it appears 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?
Oh, gosh, well I think like a lot of people I was happy the first wave that hit us, as terrible as it was, didn’t end up with catastrophic death in Ontario. We didn’t have an Italy or New York situation where it felt like the health care system was completely strained. Once we’ve dealt with the trauma of that and realizing it was happening in other places and not here, people felt quite comfortable.
I was in the States right up to the time the pandemic started as I live part of the year in California as well for work. I’m very into news and world events. It was a strange experience for me because I remember seeing Canadian journalist Andrew Coyne’s tweet just after Christmas about a mysterious pneumonia in China, and he wrote something on Twitter like “Uh oh. This doesn’t look good.” I remember clicking on Andrew’s tweet and was wondering if this was a bad thing.
I remember hearing about the different outbreaks, and I thought, “Well we won’t get it that bad.”
Then I began to follow it closely.
I started the year off in Newfoundland shooting an episode of ‘Hudson and Rex’ for CITY TV (Shaftsbury). While I was there, the province was hit with Snowmaggedon and this monstrous snowstorm shut down filming for a week and we were all stranded there. I love Newfoundland and have worked there before many times and didn’t mind being stuck there. As I was sitting in my room, I saw all the updates on the cases in China, cases in Iran and then I ended up in California and I could feel in California as if it was coming.
By early March I started to get quite nervous about it. By the time I got back to Ontario, even though the summer was a reprieve for Ontario for all of us, we’ve been pretty well locked down in one form or the other since mid March. I don’t think any of us have experienced anything like this.
Now that Toronto is in Stage 2 with winter coming, I don’t really know what the future holds. Human nature has us wanting this problem to be solved. We were dealing with a lot of problems and injustices before all this happened. For me, I do think there’s a lot of energy and resource being put into this. The more daunting thing of the last month or two is the understanding if or when a safe vaccine is available, the rollout of this vaccine and steps are going to take quite a long time. We will get to the other side of all this.
It’s hard to see from the entertainment industry side and think that in March 2021, it’s hard to see things being anywhere near what they need to be to return to a ‘normal life’. This requires from all of us a different mindset. The summer showed me there is a way to function in all of this and to function. I think it’s going to be a long stretch of easily at least another year or two of modified behaviours until things are back to a steadier normal.
How has your immediate family been doing during these last six months?
We’ve been lucky as there hasn’t been a lot of serious health issues related to Covid. My wife’s parents are okay, my parents are okay. In the demographic we’re in, my wife and I have to make sure we’re healthy enough so we can look after our own two kids plus make sure our parents are doing fine.
I was in and out of the ER for a throat infection in the summertime but Covid cases were low and the hospitals were in good shape. I had this throat infection come and go for no real reason explanation. Outside of that, generally it’s been pretty good, but it has meant being pretty cautious.
As an artist within the performing arts community, what has been the most difficult and challenging for you professionally and personally?
Obviously, performers never work enough even in a busy year. In the last year and a half, I’ve probably worked more in tv and film than I have in a long time. That was a goal of mine was to semi-retire from the theatre and to focus on television and film which I’ve done to varying degrees in my career.
Personally, and professionally, it’s been difficult not to work first of all. Our whole system is set up, phone rings and then go and do the job. Add to that, the fact that I work in the US, and there is the complication of what is the work, where is the work? Is it safe to work there? To travel there. Is it safe to work there? Is it safe to leave my family?
Artists are going to be protected and cared for to some degree, but the artist will be the one coming home early because someone might be sick, or they might get sick. As actors and musicians and performers, our bodies are the only thing we have and what happens if that is taken away from us? We have to take care of it.
The possibility of work and all that comes with it is another challenge. In other words, how much as a performer can I do without compromising my health? As actors and performers, we trust that we are being kept safe, but a system must be in place so that there is that trust even before we get to the set, to the stage. These systems on set and on the stage have been placed under stress as well so where does that place the performer?
Film and tv will come back in some weird form, but the live arts? That is the question. For the live arts, it will be a long time. I hope the environment of shooting hours and scheduling will be conducive to human existence on film, tv and the live arts but the budgets will have to reflect these changes as there has been so much collapse. Money and budgets will definitely be under stress.
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 was supposed to have completed a role in a TV movie in Vancouver when everything was quarantined. It didn’t make any sense financially to travel to Vancouver. I was disappointed because I was kind of hinging on at least the fact that I had this cool role to play in Vancouver.
The project in Vancouver is still going ahead, but it just didn’t make sense for me as a Toronto actor to work on it for the budget and production restrictions regarding travel and quarantine. The role went to a local hire.
I’ve got to get back to the States as well for work and to living there, but they’re in the midst of a contentious election along with all of the Covid numbers going up in certain locales. When is work going to go back for film and tv in the US as well? So much uncertainty for me.
I’ve been a performer for about 30 years, so I’ve been very fortunate in that I haven’t had to know any other kinds of jobs and to have had work in film and television.
As we learn more about the virus and to adapt to it, we will have opportunities again, but we have to learn how to adapt.
What have you been doing to keep yourself busy during this time?
I’ve been doing some voice over work, some audio books and the odd little animation job or commercials.
I have had the odd audition here and there and that’s usually pretty fun when you get one. I’ve turned a few things down because it was a pretty good year for me, but I’m trying not to be choosy since I’m working in the US.
I’m a musician too and have been approached by this pretty cool online station called Jazzcast (www.jazzcast.ca) based in Toronto (24 hr streaming jazz focused channel). I was approached as they played a bit of my music. I wrestled with the idea and then decided to do a show since later February, early March this year called ‘Raoul’s Blues’ which was a series of six two-hour episodes and make them thematic and focus on different things I’m interested in. I started recording the first radio episode in my hotel room during Snowmaggedon in St. John’s.
As all the craziness has unfolded, it’s turned into a weekly show on radio now with some re-broadcasts.
For my mom’s 80th birthday, my band (Raoul and the Big Time) and I rented the Jazz Bistro (on the day it was closed) and streamed a concert from there.
I’ve also been doing a bit of writing, a TV series for Netflix about an immigrant family that has a diner they decide to turn into a nightclub on Yonge Street in 1959.
I also have a show called ‘Hamlet Solo’ that I’ve been doing all over the place for ten years now. I haven’t done it in four or five years. I’m thinking of bringing it back once again. I’ve also done a tiny bit of coaching online.
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?
It's tough to imagine this being the beginning of your career. I also think for a lot of actors and those coming out of theatre school programs that it was already such a transformed landscape.
I graduated from the National Theatre School in 1996. Even back then, there was a feeling of being trained with the hope of getting a job at Stratford or Shaw for the rest of your career. That was not a responsible way to do it as it was unlikely that would happen. If you were a graduate in 1969 or 1975, the odds were higher of the cohort of those who professionally trained in Canada that you might become a professional stage actor and were ready to travel to all corners of the country to do shows all over the place that you might make a living.
When you look at it now with a country full of training programs, there are far more actors graduating who will ever work full time. There’s way more who have degrees and diplomas who will probably never have the opportunity to work as an actor full time.
The advantage of graduating now during this pandemic is that there will be something new at the end of all this. People in my age demographic now who are acting – we have so many other responsibilities like children, parents, mortgage, car payments. I’ve been incredibly fortunate to get all these necessary things as an actor.
The new theatre school graduates will be adapting to a whole new different world. Whatever the industry is, they will be the children of it. I’m more worried about those actors who are right in the middle of their careers and have been out of theatre school for at least ten years and have really invested in the structures and places that weren’t always that welcoming or given the opportunity, especially if you were an actor of colour as you were restricted in terms of leading roles and access to the big stuff. I worry about this mid stage actors because they’re going to have to change mid stream in their careers and they may not have those things that will give them security, reputations, and not enough under their belt to squeak through.
Anyone at any level who is left still standing after this pandemic still wanting to do it, still doing it, still able to do it, probably will be the people who are most into it. I know there will be people of my cohort who will just step away once we get past this pandemic and hope to do the odd commercial or tv project. People of my cohort will be wondering how they will be able to put their kids through any post secondary education when there’s a quarter of theatre jobs or you can’t make any money playing music in clubs anymore.
Even though there’s money in tv and film, every actor will want to perform in those mediums and not every actor will be able to perform there for one reason or another. You can fly any actor you want to Toronto. Toronto may just become as big as Hollywood. We can have every studio here and there will always be very talented and amazing Toronto actors.
Do you see anything positive stemming from Covid 19?
We’ll just have to wait and see what happens. But for the new theatre graduates, it’s going to be their world. We need to give the young people more opportunity to lead. Whether it’s the climate crisis or probably, very soon, the attendance crisis at our live events, I need someone under 35 telling me how they are going to get their people into those seats.
We need younger people to lead us through these institutions and through so many of these problems we’re going to have when we come out of this because they’re well informed, a lot of energy (as we have seen in the social protest movements), and they’re well engaged. So, when it comes to arts and arts leadership, we’re really too late. Yes, it was nice to see some of my Generation Xers get opportunities, but some of those people have been waiting in line for almost 20 years.
For my generation’s responsibility (Generation X), we need to create plans of succession. Things are changing so quickly. We need to nurture new people coming in.
Do you think Covid 19 will have some lasting impact on the Toronto/Canadian/North American performing arts scene?
As performers, we’re pretty good at dealing with quiet stretches or at being unemployed, but for any of us we live on the hope that we’re going to get a job tomorrow that’s going to change everything.
It’s daunting for live performers and theatres because we’re not built for the ‘oh, the phone might ring in a year and there might be some work for me.’ It might mean for certain people they may never return to a full functionality within their careers just because I’m not really sure what will be left. If theatres are closed for six months, that’s one thing. But to be closed for two years or at limited capacity for two or three years at a diminished capacity is something completely different.
And we have to look at the fact that the demographics of people who attend theatre in the greater Toronto area. It’s very rare to see twenty somethings in the theatre. It’s only those who have a specific interest in the theatre or only those who want to be in the theatre, or in music. When we have an older demographic at risk, we’re going to have to have an environment that is safe for them to attend even though the diehards say they will be back.
It’s going to be very challenging to make the theatres safe again when we also rely on one of the most threatened demographics of this disease. This is an unlucky factor, but this pandemic has been acting as a kind of accelerant, a fire. In some ways, some of the challenges that the live arts are facing have been pushed to the front now on account of this accelerant and fire.
With the competition of the digital world and digital technology we haven’t really found a way to really engage younger audience in the live experience. If we were ever going to have to find the time to figure that out or to risk being obsolete, it’s going to be when we come through this period. The people who are going to feel ready to do stuff are the people who are in their twenties who feel safe. Everyone else will get on slower.
So, the question: “How do we get twenty-year olds involved in the live arts?” I think we’re ill prepared because when it comes to leadership within our society, it won’t be Generation X, but Generation Y. Therefore, we have to be prepared to put Generation Y members in positions of leadership, especially within the arts, so they will be able to bring in their people.
The live arts have catered to the baby boomers and the silent generation, and catered to some late Gen Xers who have money, but pretty much from there on back, what’s the strategy going to look like, sound like, what’s the cost? We’re going to be in a lot of trouble if we expect Generation Y to participate in a Generation X world because that will not work.
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?
Oooh, ya, that’s tricky. I’ve been asked a lot why ‘Hamlet Solo’ isn’t on You Tube. As soon as I put it on You Tube, I guarantee someone will watch a 90 second segment of it and then say they’ve seen the entire two-hour and 10-minute piece. I’ve resisted ever putting anything up on You Tube except short trailer clips or media clips because something like ‘Hamlet Solo’ is meant to be experienced live.
Now does it have to be experienced in person, I don’t know, but an archival video up there that people can watch for free that I never get paid for? I knew back in 2007 that was a dumb idea, but people were saying all the time that if you want to reach young people you have to do that. I get that idea, yes, I do.
I remember when Frankenstein was broadcast on You Tube earlier this summer with Benedict Cumberbatch. Brilliant set design, staging from some of the greatest designers of British theatre, but I can’t sit through a two hour You Tube. I can’t. So, there’s a few issues.
The problem with digital space is the issue with copyright and compensation. I have all my music on Spotify. I resisted getting it, but my kids wanted it. The day I downloaded Spotify as an old guy and started to use it, I realized it was over the first day I used Spotify. This has completely changed the game. The levels of compensation for Spotify are so low that it has basically bankrupted us as musicians.
So basically, I don’t think you can replace the live arts with the Zoom version of it, but I do think you can create stuff for the medium that works for it. There’s a way to use that’s better than nothing, but only certain artists are going to be able to use it where they are compensated fairly.
Despite all this fraught tension and confusion, what is it about performing that Covid will never destroy for you?
I think the desire for people to see stories in whatever format we’ve had to use during this time. The desire for story is like our need for fire. It’s something that’s been in our civilization forever.
Humanity and performers are resilient, and audiences will be yearning to travel once it’s safe and to see live stuff again. At the pace that our lives were at, it’s been very unusual to slow down, but I think it’s shown a lot of us that we were on a hamster wheel and believe there was no ability to get off the wheel.
It’s forced us to contemplate what’s essential and make a lot of us in the arts to encourage us to look at what is essential and what really matters. I think this isn’t bad, but I think we were driven through our consumeristic and capitalistic way of delivering performance that was entrenched for so long. Now, we have to look at what is essential and what really matters.
This pandemic has been an accelerant to remind us of things that need to change. Covid is not going to make people less interested in the stories of humanity.
You can follow Raoul on his social media handles Twitter and Instagram: @raoulbhaneja AND
Facebook: Raoul Bhaneja Actor/Musician