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Richard Lee

Theatre Conversation in a Covid World

Neil Silcox

Joe Szekeres

Richard Lee is an Award-winning actor, fight director, sound designer and theatre educator, and theatre producer. Always grateful for challenges, Richard embraced his love of all things based in movement, sound and being bossy, which have led him on many interesting journeys. Richard graduated with a BFA from York University’s Theatre Program and has worked extensively in both film and theatre. In his career he’s had the joy of playing many interesting roles.

Some highlights include Bruce Lee (Little Dragon – K’now/Theatre Passe Muraille); Rick Wong (Banana Boys – fu-GEN Theatre Company); Sun WuKong (The Forbidden Phoenix – Lorraine Kimsa Theatre for Young People/Citadel Theatre); Falkor (The Neverending Story – Roseneath Theatre) all for which he has received Dora nominations. He has received three Dora Mavor Moore Awards. One for his work in Sound Design in paper series (Cahoots Theatre Company), and the other for performance in Cinderella: A Radical Retelling and Sultans of the Street (Young People’s Theatre). In 2013 he received the infamous Harold Award (In the House of Sarah Stanley), a theatre award bestowed upon one individual to another in to recognize the outstanding and often under-recognized dedication on or off the stage.

Beyond the performing arts Richard has spent many years living and training as a Martial Artist. Over this time, he has trained in many varying styles.

Richard is a Professor at Humber College and teaches a course in Collective Creation using the Belshaw Method. This method teaches performing and production students to better understand the collective creation process and the skills it requires. He is also a founding member and former General Manager of fu-GEN Asian-Canadian Theatre Company. A company dedicated to the development of professional Asian Canadian theatre artists. He also serves on the boards of The Toronto Arts Council and princess productions, a small independent dance company. Richard is quite passionate about issues of Cultural Diversity as it relates to the Canadian Performing Arts Industry and seeks to actively address and raise awareness of this issue.

It was a pleasure to chat with him via Zoom today as he is personable, witty, and passionate. Thank you so much for adding your voice to the conversation, Richard:

Richard, next week we’re coming up on the one-year anniversary of shuttered doors to live theatres. How have you, Nina and Eponine been faring during this time? I chatted with Nina in summer of 2020 and am curious to hear how things have gone for all three of you:

Thanks for asking. They’re doing very well since you last chatted with Nina. I’m sure Nina told you when you spoke with her that it was a big adjustment in a crazy household experience in terms of everyone all being under the same roof, and things all happening. I’m speaking to you from Eponine’s room right now. The living room becomes my studio, and our bedroom becomes Nina’s office. It’s pretty crazy, but good.

It’s been a very interesting year with a lot of different things happening. For the most part, I think for me personally, it’s been a really big time of reflection. But Nina’s busy. She’s still running the Factory Theatre. She’s still making art. I’ve primarily been the House-band as she likes to call it to hold down the fort ensuring meals are made for everybody because everybody is so differently busy.

I’m teaching at Humber College. I taught in the fall and teaching and an Introduction to Theatre Course. I was fortunate because this particular class is very easy to convey online in learning about the etiquette of theatre. The class I teach specifically I like to call it “All the things they never teach you in theatre school that you had to learn for yourself.”

Funny enough you say it’s coming up to a year. One year ago, I was teaching a separate course for the Production students. It’s a devised piece where they were to construct a piece of theatre and we were right in the middle of doing it when Covid hit, and all the restrictions hit. As tragic as that was, I embraced that challenge so wholeheartedly with all the students that it was a really good precursor how to work online and diving into a platform like Zoom to use breakout rooms, and how do we talk and doing research on ways to engage students to help them learn and make it fun and interesting.

Along with your teaching, how have you been spending your time since the theatre industry has been locked up tight as a drum?

The short and long of it: I’ve been doing some different workshops in between with various companies and different projects that have been happening. I was assisting Humber College and running their program for a while as the Academic Program Manager. They had a bit of some transition happening and that was worthwhile and interesting in the long-term trajectory of wanting to run a program. Potentially it’s something I could actually do.

The first part of the pandemic was hard. As a person who works primarily in theatre, having no live theatre to do was beyond devastating I will honestly say. The first 3 or 4 months in I kept thinking, “Oh my God! Did I make the right life choice?” Not only is it a difficult profession to succeed in because of the excellence required and the hard work and rigour, I’m stuck in this pandemic where the very nature of what I do really limits what I’m able to actually accomplish.

On top of that, George Floyd’s death kicked in a very different conversation that, of course, we in the BIPOC community have been having but having everyone else be more aware and have it come to the forefront. I will confess that it really highlighted for me, as a theatre artist that really wants to see diversity and inclusion on our stages and in our theatres, how far we still need to go in some ways.

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 year long absence from the theatre as something else?
Oh, Joe, that’s a great question. I’ll answer it in three phases:

a) Early Covid, I would call it ‘The Curse of Doubt’. Up until the end of summertime when it was clear that this would be much longer than a few months, I really got down on myself and questioned the very nature of what I was doing, not only as a profession but as a person engaging in the world.

Fast forward to the end of December and having changed tack, seeing the broader picture and running a program and making challenges and changes, it was a realization that

b) ‘Covid has been a blessing.” It has allowed me to really deeply think about myself and what I engage in, the switch in opportunity made me really appreciate being an artist and how wholly, how fortunate I am in my life to follow my instincts and my impulses and have the option to make a choice in what I want to do. Covid gave me the time and space to pick apart the various aspects of my life.

I know this sounds like a philosophical discussion (and Richard and I share a good laugh). That was a blessing I didn’t expect. I’ve taken care of the family. That’s part of my job and who I am right now as Nina is building a community through Factory and her work at PACT. She’s trying to bridge people in the art of theatre making, not only administratively but through her work. It’s incredible the amount of work she does.

I’ve learned to really appreciate the work I do not only as an artist but also as the House-band and provide the support to Nina. I have the time to do that. My relationship with my daughter is so meaningful to me and I’m so grateful Covid has allowed me the time to do this because I have the flexibility and the space to do all this. And I have the ability – I can cook, drive etc.

c) The third phase is ‘Rebirth’. A year later I’m armed with new knowledge about where I sit in my own place and ‘nerv-xcited’ to try new things and challenge myself to be satisfied. I want to enjoy all the accomplishments I’ve made both large and small. Now what’s the next challenge that excites me. I’ve always wanted to do a video blog about things that I really love. What’s stopping me? I feel like I’m in an age of Renaissance myself.

I’ve interviewed a few artists who have said they can’t see theatre as we currently know it not running at full tilt until 2022 with the occasional pockets of it where safety protocols are in place. What are you comments about this?

That’s another good question. I’ll answer it very simply. Theatre as we know it/have known it in the live form that we have will not return in probably until 2022. That is a very true thing to say. Even if it comes back earlier, my question: will people (audiences and actors) feel comfortable actually being able to attend and perform?

The other side of that coin – yes, I think theatre has pushed through the next stage of its evolution. This is not based on any historical fact whatsoever. As I look at the different art forms that have evolved over the last 100 years: cinema, television, radio, even internet art forms, it has all evolved out of some sense of storytelling, some sense of creative drive and the need to communicate.

The next step: a virtual theatre? A virtual internet theatre? Whatever the name, it’s exciting to me.

I keep telling my students that I’m excited to see what you will make as theatre. I can teach you about theatre, I have made theatre, but I want to see what you’re going to do whether it’s a virtual form of theatre if that’s what you want to call it, some other word signaling a digital look at theatre. I want to see Zoom theatre; I want to see Twitter theatre. I want to see you take all these different ways we have to communicate and creative whatever form of theatre and twist it on its head and show me your stories and your entertainment in the way you want to tell them.

I’ve always struggled with what it means to perform live versus performing in movies. From my perspective, the preparation is still the same as a performer. The difference for me is recognizing the medium that you’re in. When I perform on stage, my conduit is to the audience and the people there and understanding the space and shape I’m in. When I’m performing for film, the conduit is literally this tube that is in front of me and all my performance needs to go there but I can still continue to be engaging elsewhere, but the frame is so different.

The same with virtual theatre exists – I’ve had to be selective of Zoom readings and Zoom theatre just because we are reading plays that have not been created for this medium. We’re not using the medium as part of the creation of that tool. When I see a piece of theatre that has been created for that media – ‘Acts of Faith’ or ‘House’ or ‘Ministry of Mundane Mysteries’ (via telephone), all of that has been created specifically with care using the tools of communication they have. It’s very purposeful, very recognizing made for those mediums, those tools, and that’s what makes them so exciting because the story telling is so much clearer there. It’s not pretending to be something substituting for something else.

What makes it great is the fact we are on the cusp of engaging something really new and exciting and the world is finally ready to hear it. That’s always exciting.

Am I looking forward to getting back to performing in front of people? Hell, yes!!! But I’m also excited to see new things pop up.

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

I feel like Covid has transformed my tolerance for people who don’t even bother trying to be inclusive. It has less to do with my art than what my personal outlook is.

It has made me appreciate my art much more deeply than before and has made me think about the totality of me as a theatre artist.

Covid has really me made me impatient for when I see people who I think are unwilling to make the effort to try to open the way they view the world. By that it can be gender issues, being inclusive of Indigenous, Black, Asian folk. It could be inclusive about the way we make theatre or the types of theatre or how we define it.

I get really impatient about these issues and go, “Why?” Opera was a new form over 400 years ago that was exciting for people. Television was a new form for people. Every golden age in the way we invent and tell new stories is an exciting innovation. Why would be so indifferent to embrace something that is different? That has the potential to be exciting in a different way. That doesn’t make sense to me.

The late Zoe Caldwell spoke how actors should feel danger in the work. It’s a solid and swell thing to have if the actor/artist and the audience feel it. Would you agree with Ms. Caldwell? Have you ever felt danger during this time of Covid and how will this influence your work when you return to the theatre?
I agree with the definition in principle. I really do. To me, the sense of danger Zoe Caldwell implies is the sense of risk, right? The sense of being able to put yourself out there or the sense of challenging a notion, or a thought. I absolutely agree with that on principle.

As a fight director, I’m like No! If it’s dangerous, the audience is going to be pulled out of it. I think therein lies the art we make. That’s the place I think where we feel most alive and most alert and most present is when there is a sense of danger when we are threatened or challenged in a really bold way.

We’re living in a pandemic and time where we had a president of the US who was very ignorant of the simplicity of his actions of his own words. The ignorance, to me, the historical significance of that kind of thinking and rhetoric and leadership was dangerous. As a child, I was very oblivious to the world around me. Although I know contentious things did happen (The Cold War, all kinds of internal strife), I don’t think I’ve ever seen so much unrest as I do now between Trumpism and China’s increased boldness at lying to the world. The whole thing all feels very dangerous. That’s the big macro.

On a micro level, yes, it’s been challenging to try and understand how we decide theatre and art in the most considerate way with all the things we want to accomplish – by that I mean we’ve made in a particular way up to now. 100% it’s been tried and true as it gets the job done; it’s been a way that we work. But the journey I’ve been on and what I’ve come to appreciate and have been verified on during Covid is that it doesn’t have to be that way. We don’t have to be in a place where we can’t find ways to see how we can communicate with each other, or make art, or rehearsal practice.

Who made these rules on how and why we rehearse theatre? They work for someone but don’t work for all. Why is it so hard to consider a change? Let’s just try it. Working a five-hour day might be terrible, but it might be great as it’s equally productive for me as an eight-hour day. A five-hour day allows me a better chance to absorb things I’ve done that day and to live life. The danger I’ve often felt on a micro level – we’re living in a dangerous time where we’re rubbing up against so many ideals on how we engage each other, open to issues of transgenderism, BIPOC issues, to new ways to rehearse, engage, make art and be mindful of it. It’s not about being politically correct, it’s about story telling in the most considerate way because we’re being asked to make that change.

I think we can do it. I think we can make that change. New and exciting material that is capable of being broad as it can be and welcoming as it can be, and still be interesting as can be.

Great pieces of work do that. They just do and they challenge our sense of reality.

The late scenic designer Ming Cho Lee spoke about great art opening doors and making us feel more sensitive. You’ve made reference during our conversation to how this time of Covid has made you feel sensitive to our Covid world and post pandemic society. Is there anything else you’d like to add?

Covid has given us the time and space to realize some of these important issues we’ve been discussing here. Just thinking back to the death of George Floyd – would this momentous time have got the traction it would have were it not for the facet we were sitting around in the midst of a pandemic? Maybe not?

I like to talk about things in this idea of a swinging pendulum from complete racism to now where we swing to a pendulum of amazing awareness. At some point, we will swing back to a middle ground where everyone will be aware without having to push into this idea of being ‘too much ignorant’ anymore.

Ultimately, it’s opened us all up to possibilities, even people who are resistant to these ideas cannot deny that it’s there now. They just can’t.

The sad part to me is for those people who are unable or not ready to embrace inclusion, that they are having to live in a place of fear, as I don’t think that helps. My hope is that people who are resistant or ignorant just take a moment to consider the possibility for themselves to be inclusive. What harm would it do you to say ‘they/them’ in conversation as opposed to ‘he/she’?

Simple actions like that, that’s my wish for the world, just to turn it a bit on its head. I just want people to take small steps. It makes us uncomfortable; I get it. It makes it difficult for us to re-learn the way we work and the language we use, and the way we like to deal with people in life but it’s so worth it.

I’m not a perfect human being as I’m not going to be as inclusive as I want to be.

We’ve come full circle in concluding with Hal Prince’s comment about curiosity and the fact theatre should trigger curiosity in the artist and the audience. Again, you’ve talked about your curiosity earlier but is there anything else you’d like to add?
I think I’ve spoken earlier about my curiosity and I don’t want to re-hash too much.

One of the biggest blessings has been the re-ignition of ‘what is it that I am actually curious about’? Why am I doing this if not for the insatiable drive to have something itched, to discover something, or to just get it out.

I tell this to my students all the time: “We are too poor, too over worked, too tired in this industry for you to be here for anything less than a love of theatre, and a love of making theatre.” Covid has really reminded me of that, and in a certain way it’s reminded me that it’s okay to take my theatre pocket and put it aside and go and play in the podcast world, go and play in the YouTube world and do something different.

Because I’m a theatre major, I’m not going to restrict myself to a box. You never have been, even in theatre, so why would you go and do that now? Go and do things you’re interested in.

You can connect with Richard at INSTA: @aranthor/ Twitter: @Aranthor/ or at Facebook: /Aranthor

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