Rebecca Northan

Theatre Conversation in a Covid World

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Joe Szekeres

Boy, am I ever pleased Rebecca Northan and I made contact through Facebook. I’ve seen her name through various social media sites but hadn’t seen any of her work. After chatting with her through Zoom, I am planning to catch more of her work when we all get out of this thing called Covid. I am proud that I have caught her work as host and director of her pandemic project ‘Undiscovered Sonnets’ at Stratford Festival You Tube, and I’m planning to tune in for the next episode in conjunction with the Festival’s presentation of ‘Up Close and Musical’.

Her spicy sense of humour made me laugh so many times throughout our conversation especially when Rebecca told me she wanted to evict Covid because she doesn’t want to live with it anymore. But she poses an interesting question that I still consider even after our conversation last week:

What if Covid is here to stay?

Rebecca graduated with a BFA from the University of Calgary. She is a Canadian Comedy Award, Dora Award, and Betty Mitchell Award winner. Rebecca is an alumna of the Loose Moose Theatre in Calgary where she did her improv training with Keith Johnstone. She is the Artistic Producer of Spontaneous Theatre and has created several shows that have toured across Canada, the US, and the UK including Blind Date, Queer Blind Date, Undercover, and Legend Has It. Her new show, An Undiscovered Shakespeare was to have had its world premier at the Stratford Festival in 2020. As a playwright, she is responsible for ZORRO: Family Code, Slipper, Kung Fu Panties, and most recently All I Want for Christmas.

Rebecca has also taught at the U of C, the Canadian Film Centre, the Banff Centre, the Soulpepper Academy, and the Stratford Festival Conservatory. In February 2021, she will teach at the National Theatre School of Canada.

She is delightfully witty. Thank you again, Rebecca, for our conversation and to hear your voice about theatre in a post Covid world:

In a couple of months, we will be coming up on one year where the doors of live theatre have been shuttered. How have you been faring during this time? Your immediate family?

(Rebecca gave a snicker before she began) I would say I’ve been feeling everything. At the beginning, like everybody, we thought, “Oh, we’ll just have two weeks off. Isn’t this great? It’s all blow over, and we’ll get back to it and everything will be fine.”

Then it turned into a month….and then ups and downs….and here we are.

I have absolutely gone to grocery shop in my pajamas, more than once. (and I started to laugh) And I’m wearing a mask too. Hey, I don’t care, I don’t care anymore. I’m really comfortable in what I’m wearing.

But I’ve also been really inspired by my colleagues in the improv world. The world was paused on March 13 and some of my colleagues did a show online on March 15, and I think, “Wow, that’s incredible! That’s incredible!” I’m also inspired by the things people are experimenting with, and keeping busy, and keeping connected to offer things to the public.

We saw a lot of things offered to the public. Here’s a free reading. Here’s a concert, here’s a whatever. I’ve also been really moved by the generosity of artists and I try to do that as well. At the end of May, 2020, I connected with some artists here in Stratford and we launched a project called ‘Sidewalk Scenes’ where people can order curbside entertainment. We were actually quite busy throughout the entire summer.

We did a production of ‘Romeo and Juliet’ in a parking garage. I’m not good at being idle. I had seen an article about drive-in movie theatres being allowed to open in Manitoba in early May, and I thought, “If drive in movie theatres can be open, we can do drive in live performance.” I just waited for drive in theatres to be allowed to open in Ontario. As soon as it did, we way to the Bruce Hotel and said, “What do you think? We can get 10 cars in a circle in your parking garage” And so we did Romeo and Juliet.

When you do this play during a pandemic, it makes so much more sense as the play itself is set against the backdrop of a plague. We kept busy. We had a woman who booked us to come and do improv in front of her house, and of course the neighbours came out on their porches. Some of the neighbours didn’t know each other, other than a wave to each other.

We talked to that woman a week later and she was honest with us. This woman told us that she thought they were doing us a favour by booking us to come. I agreed and said that she paid for us to be there. But she told me, “Yes, but it’s you who did us the bigger favour. We have a connection with our neighbours now that we didn’t have before. And how nice it was to see our neighbours sitting on their porches, and laughing, and enjoying the performance and laughing together.”

After hearing that, we felt really lucky and blessed.

I didn’t think I’d be street performing in my mid career. I didn’t see that coming, but I’m really glad that I did that in my twenties, so I knew what it felt like. Street performing is not unknown to me. Theatre happens where you make it. It occurred long before we had the brick-and-mortar buildings, lights and velvet seats.

My immediate family is doing alright. Healthwise, everyone is fine. We have two people in the family who got Covid but they have mild cases, so they are quarantined and having groceries dropped off. They’re in the recovery phase; their energy is coming back. We’re very lucky.

How have you been spending your time since the theatre industry has been locked up tight as a drum?

Along with grocery shopping in pajamas and street theatre, it’s fits and starts for me if I want to read a book as my attention span is short at the moment.

I wrote a play that got produced in Cape Breton for Christmas. I think they’re in a different situation now. At Christmas time, they had 100 people indoors in their theatre. It was The Highland Arts Theatre in Cape Breton. They had no cases as they’re in that beautiful eastern bubble.

This theatre had restrictions but no total lockdown. The Artistic Director had put a call out on Facebook saying they were looking for a Christmas show. They wanted it to be a comedy, written by a Canadian and preferably by a woman. I sent a message and said I would write them one, and the theatre said let’s do it.

Look up ‘Highland Arts Theatre’ as they’ve launched a brilliant campaign during Covid. They got rid of all subscription packages, normal packages. What they told their community – in order for the theatre to stay open, they were going to try something as an experiment and were going to set up a subscription to the theatre in the way that you would subscribe to Netflix. That can be $5 a month, $50 a month, whatever you can afford. The theatre needed to bring in $50K a month to stay open.

And they did it. They are the first ever directly community funded professional theatre. Go to their website and take a look at their tiers of subscription. (Note: the link will be included at the end of Rebecca’s profile)

The theatre had different markers along the way. One marker was if they reached a certain marker the theatre would never charge for any production ever again, for anybody. Anybody could walk in, take a seat, and watch a production if that marker was hit.

It’s incredible and inspiring with Highland Theatre has done. It’s a brand-new model and Highland is a company that has never had a grant.

The late Hal Prince described the theatre as an escape for him. Would you say that Covid has been an escape for you or would you describe this near year long absence from the theatre as something else?

My God, no, it’s a living hell. I’d rather be in a rehearsal hall. I’d rather be doing shows. I’d rather be around people. I’m a workaholic so, no work…..ugh…..it’s the worst.

I’ve started painting which is something I didn’t know I had any skill at. But I have some commissions, so somebody thinks my paintings are okay.

I’ve interviewed a few artists several months ago who said that the theatre industry will probably be shut down and not go full head on until at least 2022. There may be pockets of outdoor theatre where safety protocols are in place. What are your comments about this? Do you think you and your colleagues/fellow artists will not return until 2022?

At least 2022, oh yeah, I can see that. I think that definitely we’ll see a bigger move towards outdoor theatre. That’s already happening as people are already planning their outdoor seasons.

Our experimentation this past summer was solid. Knowing that Covid is around and there is a cross-breeze gives a certain peace of mind.

My guess is that people will be nervous. We’re going to see a lot of personality types. There will be some who are front row centre, bring it on, let’s hug, let’s touch each other. I also think for everyone’s safety and peace of mind that we will come back gradually is my guess.

I had a discussion recently with an Equity actor who said that yes theatre should not only entertain but, more importantly, it should transform both the actor and the audience. How has Covid transformed you in your understanding of the theatre and where it is headed in a post Covid world?

I think Covid has driven home something to me which I’ve always believed that what are the most important things about live theatre is the fact we’re having a shared experience. We’re together when that happens.

That lady who talked about having improv on the sidewalk in front of her, that improve we performed brought her neighbours together. That’s what we as artists hope will happen – we are bringing people together. The togetherness of it and this time has also made me realize that, as a performing artist, I’m in service to my community. For me, a big way that I serve the community is the skill that I have in making people laugh. If I come to you in the middle of a pandemic and make you laugh for 45 minutes, that’s how I can be of assistance right now. I can’t be of assistance in researching and developing a vaccine, although I wish I could.

I can come and give you a couple of giggles. Maybe that will help a bit.

The late Zoe Caldwell spoke about how actors should feel danger in the work. It’s a solid and swell thing to have if the actor/artist and the audience both feel it. Would you agree with Ms. Caldwell? Have you ever felt danger during this time of Covid and do you believe it will somehow influence your work when you return to the theatre?

I think there should be risk and ‘danger in the work’. This danger has to come from a place of trust and safety first. You have to stand on the bedrock of safety in order to take educated and calculated risk.

What is the danger really? It’s vulnerability, absolute truthful and human vulnerability. The danger is look at how messy we can be in this truthful and human vulnerability. If I am willing to take that risk and dip my toe in that kind of danger, that’s another way to serve my community. We can explore greed, the absolute feeling of ‘I want to get revenge’. We can go to those dangerous places in a safe way because it’s true and make believe at the same time.

There’s a tension there of “We can take the trip but now we can take the safety when the lights come up and the show is over.” The audience has to feel safe. The only way an audience can come on the ride is knowing they too must also feel safe. The audience needs to know the character/performer is safe. We don’t want the audience to be worried for the performer.

I guess, at the moment, I sit with the question: “What will risk/danger look like? How is it changing?” For example, when we did Romeo, we didn’t have any kissing because that’s too dangerous. Obviously, we were bubbled as a cast, but to an audience to see kissing, that would feel far too dangerous. That will be real danger, and we can’t do that. That’s part of us taking care of an audience. Instead, we had the characters touch hands because that’s what is called in the script. And even in the touching of hands, there were gasps from the audience because they could sense the imminent danger. When there’s real danger in the world, the kind of risks you take on stage change against the backdrop of a real, shared, lived danger. The act of two people touching hands is enough.

Maybe it’s that going forward. Maybe danger and risk are gentler, smaller, small truthful things have greater weight? I’m not entirely sure because we’re in the midst of this right now. My brain is also thinking, ‘What if Covid is here to stay?’ Then what? Then the act of coming to the theatre is an act of courage for the actors and the audience. But we have this need to gather. So how do we adapt and manage this thing?

I think we’ll ultimately be okay. We’ll find a way to gather and to share experiences safely.

The late scenic designer Ming Cho Lee spoke about great art opening doors and making us feel more sensitive. Has this time of Covid made you sensitive to our world and has it made some impact on your life in such a way that you will bring this back with you to the theatre?

I suppose in the back of my mind that I’ve known artists are vulnerable. It’s really been highlighted by the way we started our conversation, Joe. You said it yourself that an entire community of people lost their entire work and are waiting. That’s been really highlighted to me how vulnerable a community it really is.

In a world where what we do is linked to the gathering of other humans, that’s a really unsafe Petri dish at the moment. It’s really softened my heart even more and given me more inspiration and more respect when I see people other artists going, “How else can we do this?”

The creativity of the pivot is incredible, it’s incredible.

I think I’m more sensitive to the plight of the artist. Ultimately as humans we are so vulnerable and that’s been highlighted by this teeny, tiny, wee micro virus has brought our world to a standstill. That’s incredible.

My heart also aches for the artistic directors of the large theatre companies across Canada. I’ve often had daydreams of maybe I’ll get to run a giant arts organization someday. I’m so glad I’m not running a large arts organization right now because I can’t even begin to imagine how many items are on Antoni’s (Cimolino from Stratford Festival) desk right now.

Again, the late Hal Prince spoke of the fact that theatre should trigger curiosity in the actor/artist and the audience. Has Covid sparked any curiosity in you about something during this time? Has this time away from the theatre sparked further curiosity for you when you return to this art form?

Probably once a year since I became an actor, for more than half of my life, I’ve asked myself every year:

“Is this a wise career choice? Can I do another year of it? What else am I good at?”

This question of what if I can’t do this anymore, am I good at anything else? I’ve had that curiosity because it seems like a wise question to explore. The thought has crossed my mind in ‘What if I have to do a permanent pivot?” What’s that going to look like?

I don’t have any answers yet, necessarily.

It’s frightening to think about it. A friend dropped off some books on the front porch yesterday and we checked in with each other as he is a theatre person. I asked him how he was doing…

“Not good, not good. What if live theatre is never coming back?”

The hopeful part in me tells him it will come back. But when I closed the door, my curious side wondered, “What if he’s right?”

Ultimately, I believe in science and scientists and that things will look differently and better.

To learn more about Cape Breton’s Highland Arts Theatre, visit http://www.highlandartstheatre.com/

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