Self Isolated Artist
As an avid theatre-goer and attendee, I can recall how the excitement of the Toronto professional theatre scene in the late 1980s and early 1990s matched and marveled that in New York City. At this time, there were the mega-musicals: ‘Les Miserables’, ‘The Phantom of the Opera’, ‘Miss Saigon’, and ‘Rent’ just to name a few. The first two productions listed have one person in common: Rebecca Caine.
It was the Canadian sit-down company of ‘Phantom’ at The Pantages Theatre (now the Ed Mirvish Theatre) where I saw and heard the lovely Toronto born Rebecca Caine perform the iconic role of Christine Daae, which she had also performed in London’s West End. I remember hearing and/or seeing how fans of the Toronto production flocked to the stage door after performances to catch a glimpse or to chat briefly with this beautiful lady. And yes, I was one of them.
Again, during the first few weeks of the ‘Phantom’ Canadian run, I also learned that Rebecca had originated the role of Cosette in the London/West End production of another theatrical titan: ‘Les Miserables’. Rebecca’s dulcet sounds were not only and simply relegated to the musical theatre community.
While in Toronto, she also joined the Canadian Opera Company and made her debut there in the title role of ‘Lulu’. Rebecca also received a Dora Mavor Moore award for her performance in ‘The Little Vixen’ with the Canadian Opera Company.
I encourage you to visit her website and to see Rebecca’s extensive work across Canada, the US, England, and overseas with incredibly diverse roles in music and storytelling. It was also nice to read in her biography on her website that Rebecca made her straight acting debut.
And when she returns to Toronto for a concert, I would most certainly like to attend to hear her sing once more in the theatre when it’s safe for all of us to be there.
Rebecca and I conducted our interview via email:
1. It has been the almost three-month mark since we’ve all been in isolation. How have you been faring? How has your immediate family been doing during this time?
London calling! I’ve been incredibly up and down.
Initially, it almost felt freeing. No self-tapes! Air punch! I heard Helena Bonham Carter say she didn’t have to feel stressed about being cast because no one else was. Well, quite.
Then the fear crept in. Thanks to the ineptitude of the mouldering pile of chickpeas that is Boris Johnson, we have an incredibly high infection rate in the U.K. Friends got sick, some nearly dying. We hunkered down. We’ve had a lot of illness in my family in the last year. My mother has been hospitalised twice and a sibling was released from six months of cancer treatment in hospital into the whirlwind of a global pandemic. A brother in law tested positive for antibodies, my sister did not.
I started to have some strange symptoms, rashes, an eye infection that could be seen from space, so my husband and I were tested. He came out positive much to our shock as we’d been so careful, and he was asymptomatic. My GP told me to assume that despite two negative tests I had had it. I’ve had days of real fatigue, headaches, and depression. We quarantined, him for one and me for two, which made me feel even more barking mad.
Today I’m feeling better so let’s hope we’ve come out of it really lightly and stand a chance of not getting it again although of course, we will still be super safe in our behaviour. Meanwhile, I’m convinced the steady diet of Pringles and chocolate will keep us healthy.
2. As a performer, what has been the most difficult and challenging for you professionally and personally?
I’ve really struggled a lot with loss of confidence in the last few years. I’m really hard to cast, being a full-on legitimate soprano of a certain age in a world of belters. There are no roles for me in traditional opera now as I am a light lyric soprano and they are the first to walk the plank, and the projects that I do want to do are few and far between.
It’s harder to keep one’s confidence in the long gaps between gigs.
I have COVID nightmares. Standard actor dreams.
‘Phantom’ has been my go-to stress dream for thirty-two years.
I keep dreaming I’m back in the London production where I had a horrid time. The dream has changed over the years. Initially, I was hiding on the top floor of the theatre hearing the show over the show relay but, over time, the dream has progressed to finally being on the stage. Inexplicably a trapeze act has been added to the opening number, ‘Hannibal’ and I am pantless.
I constantly dream I’m onstage in something I’ve never rehearsed and don’t know, and all this plays on my mind. I wonder, when we ever come back if I’ll be able to still do it which, of course, I will because it’s in my bones. It’s hard not to have the fear at four am.
The other thing that was really tough was that in the first few months of the pandemic I could not bring myself to sing. When I tried, I cried.
For many weeks here every Thursday night, we clapped the NHS. My street asked me to lead them in a group sing and it felt exposing and like showing off. I wanted to be quiet and private.
All over my socials, Turns, as we refer to ourselves here, were “giving their gift” and I was incapable of singing. I needed to because I go crazy if I don’t feel that vibration in my body and I needed to stay in good vocal shape.
Eventually, I turned to the Bel Canto Vaccai method of Practical Singing (God knows what the impractical method is) which is over 200 hundred years old. I found that singing through the exercises daily kept me in good shape technically and mentally.
3. 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?
Straight off, I had to cancel some concerts in Canada, which made me sad as I hadn’t been back for three years and I miss everyone.
Last year I did an extraordinary new piece, ‘Abomination’, an opera about a Northern Irish politician Iris Robinson and the DUP party’s appalling homophobia by the brilliant composer, Conor Mitchell. We had had plans to take it all over the place and now that’s on ice which is distressing. It’s an incredible age-appropriate role that was written for my voice and an important piece of political theatre. I was so excited for the wider world to see it.
Bebe Neuwirth, whom I went to high school with, and I were plotting a cool thing we’d hoped to workshop this summer as well. I could tell you about it, but then I’d have to kill you.
It’s hard to say what will become of any of these projects. Certainly here, nothing is happening until 2021…
4. What have you been doing to keep yourself busy during this time?
Well… lots of gardening, weeping, needlepoint, weeping, eating, weeping, and silent screaming.
I don’t seem to have the concentration to read. I have been watching a lot of ballet, which I adore. I can lose myself in it and the older I get the more I am lost in wonder at what they can do. My heart breaks for all the dancers trying to keep in shape in their living rooms; it’s such a short career, full of sacrifice.
5. 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?
My heart bleeds for them. I wish I had a magic wand to make it go away. I message the younger colleagues to tell them I’m thinking of them and support them. The next generation had things stacked against them before this bloody virus arrived, but I am utterly convinced that they will find a way of making theatre that will amaze us all. I’m so incredibly inspired and excited by their politicization, creativity, and passion.
They will find ways to express themselves that we never dreamt of.
Don’t succumb to the divisiveness that’s out there. That’s what they want you to do. Listen and avoid dogma. Don’t cancel, debate. Be kind and strong and you will rise.
The theatre has survived plagues before. It will survive this.
6. Do you see anything positive stemming from COVID 19?
I hope that there is a realisation that we can no longer see the planet as something to be plundered, but as something we must respect or it will strike back and that people must see each other as equals. I’ve been profoundly impacted by the stories raised by the Black Lives Matter, Climate change and also the Me-Too movement.
I think somehow the pandemic has brought all these matters to ahead. The next generation get it and soon, they’ll be in charge.
7. Do you think COVID 19 will have some lasting impact on the Canadian/North American performing arts scene?
I can’t speak for the North American/Canadian scene as although I work over there, I am based and mainly work in the U.K. but surely the problems are the same?
Unless there’s a vaccine, some sort of herd immunity develops or the virus mutates into a less fatal form or indeed vanishes, we are going to be dealing with this for some time.
8. Some artists have turned to YouTube 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?
Even before the pandemic, one of my favourite things to do was to take my mother to see relays of operas and ballets at the cinema. Although many of them were playing in London it was an easier thing for my mother to handle at 87.
What I did miss was feeling the music in my body. No sound system can replace being in the hall.
However, in the present circumstances, I think it’s a brilliant way of getting things out there. The Belfast Ensemble streamed ‘Abomination’ to over 5000 people in 32 countries. For a contemporary opera that’s an incredible achievement.
9. Despite all this fraught tension and confusion, what is it about performing that COVID will never destroy for you?
That feeling of the flow, of being in the zone, when each thought just comes unbidden and I am fully in the moment. Pretty wanky, eh? True, though.
As a respectful acknowledgment to ‘Inside the Actors’ Studio’ and the late James Lipton, here are the ten questions he used to ask his guests:
Oh lordie…ugh… right.
1. What is your favourite word?
2. What is your least favourite word?
3. What turns you on?
4. What turns you off?
Donald J. Trump
5. What sound or noise do you love?
An orchestra tuning up.
6. What sound or noise bothers you?
Straight tone screlting. Vibrato is a fingerprint that gives individuality unless you want to sound like the factory klaxon that opens ‘Sweeney Todd’.
7. What is your favourite curse word?
What is your least favourite curse word? Unprintable.
8. Other than your own, what other career profession could you see yourself doing?
Well, Pope obviously, but costume designer or medieval manuscript scholar would be lovely.
9. What career choice could you not see yourself doing?
Wife of Trump.
10. If Heaven exists, what do you hope God will say to you as you approach the Pearly Gates?
“It’s ok Darling, we don’t need an up tempo.” Seriously, it’s “All your pets are waiting for you.”
To learn more about Rebecca, visit her website: www.rebeccacaine.com
Twitter: @RebeccaCaine Instagram: RebeccaCaine Facebook: Rebecca Caine