Rebecca Perry

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Joe Szekeres

My friend, Peter Mazzucco, recommended that I should get in touch with his friend, Rebecca Perry, for an interview as she has led a fascinating career so far. Rebecca’s name sounded familiar to me, and I’ve finally recalled that I saw an interesting solo show in summer 2020 as part of the Hamilton Digital Fringe Festival: Sarah/Frank by Steven Elliott Jackson which toured to the Toronto, Fundy and Halifax digital Fringe festivals.

Rebecca Perry is a Toronto‐based actor, singer and writer, best known for her solo work which she writes and performs around the English-speaking world.

Her two Redheaded Coffeeshop Girl shows have taken her from coast to coast in Canada and from top to bottom of the UK and Ireland, both receiving critical acclaim.

Perry’s most recent solo show, From Judy to Bette: The Stars of Old Hollywood has toured around Ontario, the East Coast, the Prairies and all over the UK. It had great critical and industry success at the 2019 Edinburgh Festival Fringe, and most recently toured around the GTA for three months with Toronto’s Smile Theatre and finished a full run in the Sudbury Theatre Centre’s 19/20 season garnering six Broadway World Award nominations. Perry performed a live-streamed, fireside version of the show in March 2020, which won the Broadway World Award for Top Streaming Production/Performance.

She can be seen on film in the multi-Canadian Comedy Award-winning web series A Gay Victorian Affair, and the feature films Forest Fairies, Best Friend From Heaven and Baby in a Manger, as well as on television programmes available on streaming services in the UK, Canada and North and South America (including Ponysitters Club, Haunted Hospitals and Killer Affair).

Perry’s theatre performances have continued digitally since lockdowns began, and she has toured several shows with Smile Theatre, including From Judy to Bette, and two works created for that exact purpose: Maps of Home: A Folk Cabaret and Christmas in Hollywood.

Perry’s most recent works include the role of Ethel LeNeve in Jackson’s The Kindness of Murder, which was filmed for the 2021 digital Next Stage Theatre Festival.

We conducted our interview via Zoom. Thanks again, Rebecca:

Next month, 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?

You know, it’s funny, obviously everybody has had their challenges and to take better care of their mental health, this time has created a space for me to learn more about myself, and also created space for me to get creative. If I didn’t have this space of this time [of Covid] right now, I wouldn’t have been able to follow through on a number of projects.

Before our interview, I made a list of about eight things I wouldn’t have done if the pandemic did not occur. I’m already a woman who wears many hats in this theatre industry. Along with being an actor, singer, I’m a playwright, producer, and I’ve had a chance to actively flex all those muscles at different points throughout this year in a way that I don’t think I would have allowed myself the time to do, nor without the time to do any of this without CERB.

Artists need funds to do their work so when you take that stress away from them, all of a sudden people can do their passion projects, not just projects that pay the bills.

My partner David and I have been extremely careful. After we did our online show, we made the executive decision that we didn’t feel safe where we were living in Toronto in Little Italy. We had the good fortune of having my parents stay with them for a few months and bubble with them.

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

I’m a yearly speaker at George Brown Theatre School about producing your own work. One of the things I’m known for is producing my own solo work and having it travel the world, not just Fringe Festivals but theatre seasons in Festival seasons.

I do say to the graduates if you have any idea for a production, write it now because you’re going to need it sooner than you think. It’s the most important thing I can say even to people three years younger than me.

My very last contract before the pandemic hit, one I’m very proud of that took a lot of time and hard work was a full length run in a theatre season of my most recent solo show called ‘From Judy to Bette: The Stars of Old Hollywood’ which chronicles the life and times of Judy Garland, Bette Davis, Lucille Ball, Betty Hutton and what they did for the television and film industry that paved the path for other women to do the same thing. This show was a passion project for me, and I’m sure you can tell from the tone of my voice just how passionate I am about it.

We had a 2 and a half week run at The Sudbury Centre. That ended, Covid hit, and I went from a 90-minute “bells and whistles” production in Sudbury to my very first pandemic gig being an online version of the same performance, in my living room, and it received tons of support. I’ve turned it into a fireside story telling moment and just found out a week ago it was awarded Top Streaming Production/Performance in the 2020 Broadway World Toronto awards (and nominated for five others for its run at the Sudbury Theatre Centre in Feb 2020).

After this, I felt so creatively fuelled that I had this online support. With my partner David Kingsmill, I wrote a folk cabaret called ‘Maps of Home’ that we’ve been meaning to do for awhile. David is from the the UK, I’m from Canada, but we’ve found out all these ways we could have met 10 years before we did. It’s about your roots, your home, what’s special about home, when you leave your home.

The biggest plus for me has been this writer/actor relationship and connection I’ve made with Steven Elliott Jackson who wrote ‘Sarah/Frank’ as well as ‘The Kindness of Murder’. And having this wonderful, wonderful relationship furthered when Ryan G. Hinds became part and directed both of these pieces. I was the producer of both these productions. I had such a good time with Ryan in producing ‘Sarah/Frank’ that I wanted to do it again ‘Kindness’.

I’ve become excited in moving forward as to how I’m going to adapt to the inevitable changes that will come out of this time of isolation. If we adapt, we will thrive. If we don’t adapt, we’re just going to break our hearts over and over again. I’m excited about digital ideas I want to put out there.

We also finished off the year with ‘Christmas in Hollywood’ which was a lot of fun and presented it to seniors’ home across Ontario. Our show was done from Zoom and projected onto screens in seniors’ homes.

The pandemic has been a horrible thing to occur, but there is also room to count your blessings.

It turns out I have a talent for refurbishing antique furniture, so I’ve been doing that and selling it on Facebook Marketplace. It totally brought me joy. I’m also into selling vintage clothing. For fun, I’ve been creating Minnie Mouse and Mickey Mouse ears.

My health is also better. I’m getting more sleep than ever before.

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?

That’s almost a tricky one because Covid has forced me out of my shell a little bit. I had been creative in ways that I didn’t think I’d have the time to be. I think I have made theatrical alliances that I’d hoped would have happened 5 or 6 years down the road such as two shows by Messrs. Jackson and Hinds. They have been both good friends of mine and an utter joy to work with both of them.

I also had a chance to align myself with a community that is adjacent to the musical theatre scene in Toronto which is the Cabaret Performance and Burlesque Community. I’ve always been meaning to make this connection. Cabaret style of performance always enters into what I’m doing so it was wonderful to make some connections in the Toronto community of it as I’m only connected to the communities in Edinburgh, Scotland and London, England (going to the Fringe next summer)

My next gig was to tour ‘From Judy to Betty’ for four months in the UK.

It was high time to make these connections in TO. I’ve also aligned myself with this wonderful woman, Stella Kulagowski, who goes by St. Stella in the burlesque community. She put out a call because she got a fully funded grant to put out a digital show. She wanted to do a web revue of Canada’s top talent, but in a whole bunch of different sections from Cabaret to Burlesque. I was doing the old-style Hollywood MGM cabaret style performance. It was a smorgasbord of wonderfully talented performers. Check out this link to learn more about Stella’s company: https://pointedcapcabaret.com/performer-bios/

I do come off as an extrovert, but I see myself more as an ‘extroverted introvert’. That’s why I like writing and creating my own solo shows because I can really focus on what I’m doing.

I’m a team player and want to work with as many different people as I possibly can.

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?

I agree and will be honest and say it’s probably more likely the end of 2022 before we have a return to the traditional form of theatre as we have come to know it in a building with a proscenium arch. As a touring artist in the English-speaking world, I know personally I probably won’t get under a British or Scottish proscenium arch until the summer of 2022 unfortunately.

That being said, I think it was high time that a lot of things got shaken up a little bit. There were a few companies and people in power who were stagnant and lazy. Now, all of a sudden, every single company had to adapt at the same time, and it has actually created a larger sense of community again. Counting those little blessings, strangely enough we can’t see each other but we’ve never been more connected than ever.

I’m not going to say it was necessary as, my goodness, a pandemic is awful. But, it’s interesting the amazing things that have happened. Does it make me sad that I believe theatre won’t be back until the summer of 2022? Of course, it does.

The best thing anyone can do in this time is keep training. There are wonderful online classes and talks with speakers Canadians normally wouldn’t have any access to (David Connally and master classes). This has created a sense of unity.

The theatre that is going to occur up to the summer of 2022 are solo shows. Since I perform some solo shows, it’s forced me to research how are we going to pull things off safely? – The answer is outdoor theatre with a limited audience (50 people, 15 people). Theatres need to get a bit creative – more shows with less audience? I know that isn’t an answer theatre may want to hear, but it’s a matter of safety for all those who are involved and attend live shows.

As a solo show performer, I’m going to be on the front lines this summer and yes I want to make sure everyone is safe. I know it’s an answer people don’t want to hear, but there has to be plexiglass. As a solo performer, I’m going to be seeing so many people, so I have to ensure that I’m safe no matter what. It does make me sad. Actors are going to have to try their darndest to connect with an audience even through plexiglass if used. In a strange way with a limited audience, the performer will be forced to improve their craft even more to get the attention of that small audience.

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 there’s no room for something that doesn’t generally move an audience. I do a lot of stuff on the lighter side of musical theatre, I don’t it generally matters with the subject matter, it’s the connection with the audience that is so very important on multiple levels. There isn’t room for anything insincere that won’t shake the heart.

Many subjects can shake the heart, as some commercial theatre has given theatre a bad name but that’s all out the window now.

We have to feel the emotion right now. We’ve stopped drinking Diet Pepsi as we want to drink the real thing – Pepsi. As artists we have to be doing something now that matters, not something that is going to further your career. We have to be telling stories that need to be told right now, and that it’s relevant to our society right now.

I really hope artists will think about why they are creating what they are creating. Some of the most moving things I’ve seen recently are not what I had expected. And I love that. People have to give credit to all kinds of scales that theatres can be created. I have felt utter joy in all kinds of theatre out there.

I really hope for upcoming post pandemic theatre that both audiences and theatre companies are going to take chances. I truly believe that artists are going to create so much more with purposeful intention. It’ll take longer for larger casts to come back and that’s sad. But, when larger casts do return I hope they will think about what they are creating which will give them purposeful intentions.

There’s power in taking up smaller casts and exploring what can be offered with them.

There’s going to be exciting times ahead.

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?

Ooooo….. I like the three parts to this question.

I’m actually going to say I agree with the sentiment of it in the sense of it that if you aren’t present in the moment and feeling the thrill of what is happening in the story, the audience won’t feel it either. I think she’s referring to intention to effect and affect an audience.

In the last five years, we’ve had some wonderful breakthroughs in making actors feel safe while doing dangerous work. Not only fight choreography instructors, but there are also now intimacy coaches to help you safely navigate bumpy, turbulent relationships within the text.

What’s nice is you can be focused on the danger and thrill of the story because the entire band of actors are doing it in a safe way where they trust each other and where everyone feels like they’re not going to be in danger, they’re going to be so good at their job and focus on the text that the audience will feel like they’re in danger. I love the sentiment that you should feel that thrill, but in the past five years we’ve found the way to feel safe and secure no matter the text presented in the script.

When I heard that definition, I was harkened back to the 1990s when the Method acting was the way to go for an artist.

Now let’s take this from a different perspective on account of the pandemic since the quite is so relevant. I’m going to be so nervous in having someone work alongside me in that initial stage of returning. I’m not sure when doing my job isn’t going to feel like a risk if it’s just more than me on the stage. It’s petrifying but it’s also realistic. It’s going to take a long time for all to be vaccinated and hopefully people will not be skipping any of the safety steps before and after vaccination.

I think I’ll be sticking to all of these wonderful digital creations or to my solo shows probably until the summer of 2022 and then hop on stage with other people with the knowledge that all will be vaccinated and, hopefully, if there are any ramifications or not.

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?

For me, it’s been appreciating the little things and celebrating the little successes and trying to celebrate those of my family and friends as well. While our industry is in tatters, and many of my closest friends are in this industry, it’s both a blessing and curse to look outside the definition of yourself that includes your career, and more like who you are as a person.

It has made me more sensitive to celebrating more than what I just used to celebrate. Alongside another woman, we planned the Zoom baby shower to end all baby showers for a friend, what was nice was the fact she felt safe at home. Of course, it’s tricky to have a shower since we can’t get together.

Celebrating things that have nothing to do with the arts has brought me so much joy that I want to keep doing that once we’re out of Covid. I want to intentionally make time to celebrate all of life’s miracles. Before I was so laser focused on the career moments, I was missing some of the beautiful stuff around me, and I don’t want to do that again.

It’s not a theatrical answer, but it’s the truth.

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?

As I told you earlier, the three side businesses have also kept me going during this time. I want to take better care of my health especially when I’m touring.

I’ve actually had the time to figure what I need to sustain myself to thrive since I’m a vegetarian. I’m so excited to apply that the next time I go on tour as I’ll feel more strong, ready and awake. I can’t believe it took me until my thirties to realize this life changing source. I probably should have done it sooner.

I’ve realized the mind/body connection in my curiosity as you have to be at your fighting weight. Yes, we have to have good mental health but there are other elements we shouldn’t neglect.

To see a teaser of Rebecca in production of ‘From Judy to Bette’, click the YouTube link below:

https://youtu.be/Ud7WO49wedY

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