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Richard Ouzounian

Moving Forward


Joe Szekeres

It was reading the many reviews of now retired Toronto Star theatre critic Richard Ouzounian and theatre critic Lynn Slotkin (of The Slotkin Letter) which led me to enter the world of professional theatre reviewing, and I am gratefully taking this opportunity to thank both of them publicly. I had interviewed Lynn earlier this season. My friend, Kathy Knight, told me that Richard was out for a walk and happened upon the porch side concert in which she was performing. Kathy said to get in touch with Richard for an interview, and I was most thankful and pleased when he agreed to answer the questions via email.

I also had the opportunity to see Richard’s direction of ‘Four Chords and a Gun’ (Gabba Gabba Hey) and loved it for its bleeding rawness about the Ramones. Now that I know Richard will direct an upcoming concert production of ‘Follies’ since it has been postponed, I do not want to miss that one especially when you see the cast he names in one of his answers.

Thank you, Richard, for our email conversation:

It has been an exceptionally long five months since we’ve all been in isolation, and now it appears the numbers are edging upward again. How are you feeling about this? Will we ever emerge to some new way of living in your opinion?

I always knew this was going to be a long haul. Well, not always. Initially I thought it would be over for North America in a month or two. Then reality set in. I think we might be back to normal – whatever that means – in about a year from now. But I secretly feel that our world has changed forever. Anyone who thinks we’ll all bounce back like rubber balls is crazy. The world we left in March of 2020 is gone forever. There will be a new way of living. I hope it will be a better one: free from systemic racism, conspicuous consumption and a lifestyle that has come to confuse motion with movement.

How have you been faring? How has your immediate family been doing during these last six months?

Like everyone, we’ve had our ups and downs. My wife Pamela decided finally to quit her job as Board Secretary at the National Ballet of Canada and is enjoying that freedom tremendously. My son Michael lost his two part time jobs as well as his three-day-a-week involvement with the LINKS program at Variety Village. He’s having trouble coping without those anchors. And my daughter Kat, who worked in event planning, saw 10 months of work vanish overnight, which left her all at sea. But despite all of that we have stayed well and surprisingly happy.

As an artist within the performing arts community, what has been the most difficult and challenging for you professionally and personally?

I’ve been the most hurt by what’s happened to my colleagues, especially the younger ones. I’ve had a great 48 year career in the business, so I have nothing to complain about, but I think of the personal and professional losses of the casts of potentially thrilling shows like Soulpepper’s The Seagull, Talk Is Free Theatre’s Sweeney Todd, Stratford’s Hamlet, Shaw’s Mahabarata, the Crows/Musical Stage collaboration on Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812 and so many more that my heart is well and truly broken.

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?

I was joking early in March that I had just turned 70 and was about to embark on the best 7 months of my career! I had four amazing projects at Stratford: a Kander and Ebb cabaret called Only Love that I had created for Vanessa Sears and Gabe Antonacci, a late night revival of the iconic comedy revue, Beyond the Fringe, a staged concert of the forgotten musical, High Spirits, which had an all-star cast and - best of all – a celebratory gala to mark the opening of the new Tom Patterson Theatre which would pay tribute to the productions and artists who had graced the original venue. And after all that, I was going to go to Koerner Hall, thanks to Mervon Mehta , and direct a production of Stephen Sondheim’s Follies In Concert, starring Eric McCormack, Chilina Kennedy, Cynthia Dale, Thom Allison, Jackie Richardson, Sheila McCarthy, Ben Heppner and many more….along with a 26 piece orchestra conducted by Paul Sportelli.

Deep sigh as I let all of those go. The Stratford projects, I’m assuming, are gone for good. But Mervon has postponed Follies one year and we will be doing it in 2021, God and the medical profession willing.

What have you been doing to keep yourself busy during this time?

I have been so lucky. The one show that wasn’t cancelled was the world premiere of an amazing musical called Super School, written by Dan Abrahamson and Sarah Mucek. I thought it might be cancelled as well, but the visionary head of Bravo Academy, Melissa Bencic, decided we do the whole show on Zoom….and so we did! Auditions, workshops, rehearsals, performances….the works! And this was a musical with a cast of 13, all under the age of 18.

It was a a total blast, thanks to the authors, the cast and my astonishing Associate Director/Choreographer Kayla James, who taught me how to embrace the new art form.

Then, courtesy of Corey Ross, I was invited to write the Programme Book for the Immersive Van Gogh Exhibit in Toronto and will be doing the same shortly for a Banksy Exhibition in Taiwan and Tokyo.

I’m also preparing a new and exciting musical video project for Stratford to stream this winter, but I can’t reveal the details just yet!

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?

To my colleagues, I’ve found that staying disciplined keeps the mind from going too crazy. I’ve continued to get up early every morning, shave, shower, dress and exercise. For me, it’s walking a minimum of 10K a day. I’ve tried to feed my family well and healthily and post a lot of my recipes on Facebook and Instagram. I’m proud of the fact that I actually have lost 5 pounds over the past six months.

You also need something philosophical to hold on to. I’ve come to embrace the Stoics over the past few years and they really saved my ass during this difficult time. Dip into Ignore the commercials, sign up for the daily email blast and give it a try. Marcus Aurelius survived a plague far worse than this one.

To the younger generation, don’t let your tools get dull, don’t let your dreams sink into the dust, don’t let the negativity weigh you down. You WILL get a chance. Time is a pendulum. It always swings both ways.

Do you see anything positive stemming from Covid 19?

I hope it is the death of the dinosaurs. I hope it kills off the bloated, traditional, complacent ways we led our lives and – for some of us – produced our art. I hope it signals the end of my generation pulling most of the strings in all walks of life. I hope it makes it impossible for any racist, sexist or other forms of judgemental behavior to continue.

Do you think Covid 19 will have some lasting impact on the Toronto/Canadian/North American performing arts scene?

Closing down all the theatres for 18 months to two years will definitely have an impact. What is will be, I couldn’t begin to guess.

Some artists have turned to You Tube 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?

The best streaming projects have been the ones that try to find a new way of doing things instead of just producing the same old work over Zoom. We have to learn how to write for the form, to direct and design for it, and most of all, to perform for it. In the future, I see it being a vital tool rather the only game in town. But, as Hamlet says, “the readiness is all.”

Despite all this fraught tension and confusion, what is it about performing that Covid will never destroy for you?

The joy of communicating something you believe in deeply with other human beings.

To connect with Richard, visit his Facebook page: Richard Ouzounian or Instagram: richardouz.

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