Richard Lam has been one busy guy these last few weeks. I saw his work in a terrific production of Bad Hats’ Theatre production of ‘Alice in Wonderland’ presented by Soulpepper. I really enjoyed the production because the use of the technology enhanced the visual presentation of this iconic story. Hopefully, Soulpepper still has the production on its website that you can access, especially if you are an educator.
Richard’s biography is also impressive. From Bad Hats’ Theatre website, “[Richard] is a Toronto-based Actor, Writer, Musician, and Sound Designer. Originally from Vancouver, Richard obtained his B.A. in Political Science at UBC before training in the BFA in Acting program at the University of Alberta. He was a company member at Soulpepper Theatre for four years, where he trained at the Soulpepper Academy in a split actor/musician stream under Director of Music Mike Ross. At Soulpepper, he appeared in 15 stage productions and concerts, and joined the company on tours to the Charlottetown Festival and Off-Broadway in New York City. He has also worked for many other theatres across Canada, including the Citadel Theatre, Canadian Stage, Coal Mine Theatre, Buddies in Bad Times, and Outside the March.
In 2019, Richard wrote, performed, and composed music for his first original play, ‘The Little Prince: Reimagined’, and received Dora Award nominations for Outstanding New Play and Outstanding Performance.
He is the guitarist in the band James King and the Midnight Hours (@jk12hr), and recently released his own home-recorded pandemic EP Hard Rain: A Mixtape Cabaret.”
Richard is also an Ontario Councillor for Canadian Actors’ Equity Association.
We conducted our interview through Zoom. Thanks again for your time, Richard:
It’s a harsh reality that the worldwide pandemic of Covid 19 has changed all of us. Describe how your understanding of the world you know and how your perception and experience have changed on a personal level.
It’s kind of like everything was thrown on its head completely. I feel like the world I know doesn’t exist anymore, or it’s covered in moss.
I’m sure many people you’ve talked to have said the same thing. I was really used to a pace and a rhythm of my years, my kind of world, my career, auditioning for stuff, doing stuff, thinking ahead to what’s coming next (in 18 months). And then all of a sudden to have that completely go to zero, everything seems like it’s up for discussion now in a way that’s really, really fascinating.
Some of that is really good. It’s been really refreshing to be able to spend some time with myself and to explore different stuff. I know a lot of people who have wondered about their relationship with theatre in this time because it can be a tough life and a tough career. There are aspects of it that definitely take their toll.
For me, it’s been really refreshing to say, “Oh, no. I miss it. I want to do it again really badly.”
I’m ready for it to come back when it does come back, and, in the meantime, I’ve pondering all the ways that I can plant seeds that will hopefully poke their way above the earth when the time is right.
It’s been a little bit of everything.
With live indoor theatre shut for one year plus, with it appearing it may not re-open any time soon, how has your understanding and perception as a professional artist of the live theatre industry been altered and changed?
Well, if anything, I have a newfound appreciation, not that I didn’t have it before, but a newfound appreciation for how much we need people. We need people who aren’t us so badly who want to come and gather, sit together and have that experience together.
The health of our industry and the ability of our industry to be relevant and important to our country and our society really depends on people having the time and energy, and feeling safe to sit together, be together and to have those experiences in leaving home, the safe nest that’s acquired a different power in Covid than it did before.
But even before the industry was fighting against Netflix, getting takeout, and spending a night at home.
The industry is nothing without people. Film and tv have been rolling along just fine but the theatre industry is in a complete standstill because we really need everyone else to want to leave their houses and sit have an experience. It’s a very simple thing, that’s the heart of it at the end of the day.
Doing ‘Alice in Wonderland’ where we did get to have the creative aspect, the process, and that was so welcome, and I miss that so much.
Knowing that the audience was never coming was strange, and I really miss that because it really changes everything. You can spend all your time in the rehearsal hall putting the show together, but once the audience is in the room with you, you learn so much about the show so quickly that it takes on its real identity.
I felt like it was so close and yet so far. There was so much joy in making ‘Alice in Wonderland’ that we’re not back yet. The people are missing.
As a professional artist, what are you missing the most about the live theatre industry?
Along with the people I’m missing, I miss my community. I really did take it for granted how many people who were my friends and colleagues whom I adore and respect were in my life. We don’t make a coffee date and hang out as much as we should. But we see each other pretty regularly at a show, or we end up at the same bar after a show, and they’re talking about the show they saw, and I’m talking about the show I saw.
The number of little networks of connections made it feel like we were part of a real group of people, a real functional community. I miss that a lot. I miss running into people and hearing about what people are up to, their lives in the lobby or wherever we end up running into each other. That’s the thing that has been really lacking from my life.
My circle of humans used to be so big, and I loved that. And now it’s very small and it’s strange.
As a professional artist, what is the one thing you will never take for granted again in the live theatre industry when you return to it?
You know what, I did say it was my community, but if I’m honestly going to be 100% real with you, it’s so simple, - it’s BREATHING.
When we were rehearsing ‘Alice in Wonderland’ we had masks on for three weeks. Finally, once everyone got a Covid test (the whole cast and production team), it was masks off and we could finally start performing. Yes, we still had the plexiglass.
Honestly, rehearsing the show with the mask on, learning choreography, singing, even just speaking with projection, Jacob Macinnis who was in the show defined it as “We’re training at altitude” like athletes on a mountain. It was so hard to breathe.
When I finally got to remove the mask, I was, “Oh, I’m not out of shape and I haven’t forgotten how to sing and speak without my mask.” (Richard laughs)
I’ll never take breathing for granted ever again. It seems like a mundane thing to say, but it was like night and day when we had the masks off during final rehearsals.
Describe one element you hope has changed concerning the live theatre industry.
I hope that people really value what we have, and value how special this industry is and this work we get to do. I do feel there’s equal parts magic and reality sometimes in the theatre. And when you’re in the thick of it, it’s easy to get stuck on the reality; it’s easy to get detailed focus; it’s easy to get career focussed on the how much money you’re going to make and to spend and how the show’s going.
It’s hard to step back and just realize what a beautiful thing it is to gather everyone and have these experiences and make this work. I don’t think anyone will ever lose sight of that at least for a generation. I’ve been teaching at Sheridan College and a little bit at Randolph for the last year all on Zoom. It’s been really humbling and a great reminder for me to see these students who are about to graduate or part way through their programs who still want to do theatre so badly that they’re slugging it out online for dozens of hours a week.
Some of my students have 54 hours of class online a week; they’ve set up dance spaces in their home so they can dance on Zoom. They’re doing their singing and acting lessons all over Zoom, and they still want to make theatre and are still excited by it
It was hard on them, but when these young people finally get the chance to enter the profession, which will be a little delayed from when it should be, the appreciation and joy these students will take from being able to do it finally is going to change all of us. And I hope all of us are changed in that way too.
Explain what specifically you believe you must still accomplish within this industry as an artist.
Ooooo…what a question!
I really do think that I am still searching to realize my potential as an artist. I’m a bit of a ‘jack of all trades’, or at least now, thankfully, that I’m getting a bit more experience that I’m a ‘jack of some trades’ and not ‘all of them’ anymore and trying to narrow them down to just a few. Instead of every possible door being opened, now there’s just several.
I am getting better at all of those things. I’m a musician, an actor, a writer. I have a lot of different hats I’ve worn at different times, and I really like all those things. For me, my happy place is balancing them all together and treating them all equally or making sure they all get to have their space.
For me, I feel like I’m learning slower than I would if I had one thing because there’s just more things to keep track of, but I am learning and I am getting better.
I just want to harmonize all those things together as well as I can and get as good as I can and treat them seriously. I know I’m not close to the tip of the iceberg yet; maybe I’m on the tip in using this confusing metaphor, but I know there’s a point that all the unique things I do can sit together and make me an artist that is different from anyone else.
I am really looking forward to feeling like I’ve mastered whatever that balance is. I’m not quite there yet but I’m working at it.
Some artists are saying that audiences must be prepared for a tsunami of Covid themed stories in the return to live theatre. Would you elaborate on this statement both as an artist in the theatre, and as an audience member observing the theatre.
A few months ago, The Musical Stage Company compiled a survey of audience members with a bunch of questions actually similar to this. One of them on a scale of one to ten was how much do you want to see work which addresses this time of Covid.
I was ZERO on the scale. Give me ‘Cats’ or ‘Phantom of the Opera’ instead. Give me ‘The Buddy Holly Story’, that’s where I’ll be.
I want to see the lightest thing possible for at least two years, and then maybe I’ll be able to handle something surrounding Covid. But right now, I just want to celebrate moving through this time of Covid.
Maybe I could handle something a little more indirect. Everyone has had such a life changing monumental experience in Covid. Every single person, on earth, Covid has become one of the life defining moments of this period of their lives and who they are, no matter how old you are or how much history you’ve lived through. This is one of the chapters of our lives.
And so, I feel as if all us had a wild, first hand experience with this. It would be nice not to have to be reminded of this at the theatre for awhile.
As an artist, what specifically is it about your work that you would like future audiences to remember about you?
What a great question.
The thing that I always think of the most, no matter what I’m doing whether I’m writing music, writing a play or acting is surprises. That’s the thing I think about a lot when I’m crafting something .
Once I feel like I understand what the story is and zeroing in on the performance, I start thinking, okay, where am I going to surprise them. Where is the moment that I’m going to give something to the audience they don’t expect? And they’ll draw in a collective breath. That’s what I really enjoy doing.
And that’s what makes the theatre so awesome is those moments where you really surprise somebody. And they can be simple.
I remember being in ‘Of Human Bondage’ at Soulpepper several years ago. There was this great moment that was so small, but I lived for it watching it every night. All of the sound effects were created by the actors on the stage. There was a moment where an actor walked up and saw another actor through a window. The first actor knocked on thin air and the other actor knocked on a glass vase at the same time.
People gasped every night because it worked so well. Nobody expected it, and for that one second it was a real window. And I loved that moment so much because people didn’t see it coming.
I always think of little things like that. I hope I’ve showed some people little surprises and things like that they didn’t expect, and that it was delightful.
To follow Richard on Instagram: @rickyslams