Self Isolated Artists' Series
(Photo courtesy of Michael Cooper)
The first time I met Rick Miller was after his solo performance of ‘MacHomer: The Simpsons do Macbeth’ at Massey Hall. I was still teaching high school English at that time and had heard this performance was turning high school youth towards an interest in Shakespearean plays. Let’s just say that Rick did not disappoint whatsoever as I can recall with sheer amazement in watching one man assume so many characterizations of the iconic Simpsons voices.
Fast forward a couple of years when I saw a provocative production of David Ives’ two-hander ‘Venus In Fur’ at Canadian Stage Berkeley where Rick’s pivotal role was intensely electric. In February 2019, I reviewed an opening night at Montreal’s Centaur Theatre where Rick was also in attendance. I spoke to him after the show and discovered he was in previews at Montreal’s Segal Centre for ‘Boom X’ which I reviewed the following night. Again, a memorable one-man performance. I had also reviewed at Young Peoples Theatre just this past February his wonderful production with Craig Francis of ‘The Jungle Book’ which sadly had to close early on account of the Covid-19 crisis and the unrest in the provincial education system.
Rick is a Toronto based Dora and Gemini winning performer/writer/director/musician and educator who has worked in five languages on five continents. He is also founder and creative director of WYRD Productions, and co-creative director of Kidoons.
Like many of Canada’s performing artists, Rick’s work was halted on account of the Coronavirus/Covid-19 pandemic.
Recently, I interviewed him via email:
How have you and your family been faring during this difficult time?
To be honest, we’ve been very lucky, and have managed pretty well under the circumstances. None of our friends and family is ill, our community has pulled together, and we don’t feel like strangling each other at home (yet). My partner Stephanie works for Toronto Public Health and has been operating the COVID-19 hotlines from an office downtown, so she’s feeling very productive in a very safe environment. Our two daughters (17 and 13) are doing their share of online learning, chatting, streaming, family workouts, recording TikTok videos, … you know. Our dog is in heaven. And as for me, being home is a gift. I’ve never had such uninterrupted writing time and have tried to stay productive and focused on my work, while also using the time to reconnect with family and close friends.
Were you in rehearsals, pre-production or performances of any shows that were cancelled?
Like most theatre companies, our programming has been severely disrupted, and we’re managing as best we can. We had 3 international tours of 3 shows that were affected: much of the Jungle Book run at Young People’s Theatre was cancelled, as well as the rest of its USA tour. BOOM and BOOM X also cancelled shows in Canada, the US, France and Asia.
We’re trying to reschedule as many of the dates as possible, around 2 new touring productions that are premiering in 2020-2021. For one of those shows, we just held online call-backs where 18 actors performed in groups of 3 – they were all amazing, working with the technology and each other as best as possible, like a group self-tape (one of the many new skills we’re all having to learn in this abnormal ‘new normal’). Creating and touring theatre is always an adventure, but this is unlike anything our industry has ever seen. I do hope we can all come out of this in one piece, with renewed purpose.
What has been most difficult for you during this time? What are you doing to keep yourself busy?
Professionally, the most difficult aspect of this was sending our beloved artistic teams their contract termination notices. It was an awful time for every theatre artist, full of gut-wrenching news and decisions, but I’m glad the government seems to be creating support systems for contract workers and small businesses.
Personally, I’ve felt a little useless, being sidelined while so many others are facing the front lines of the epidemic. I think much of my self-worth comes from the back-and-forth transaction of a live audience experience, which just isn’t possible in the coming months. Online performances - though I’ve enjoyed watching them with my family - just aren’t my thing at this point in my career. A younger me might have posted YouTube parodies, but the middle-aged man can’t bring himself to do it!
What I have been able to do is to pour all of my creative energy into a new draft of BOOM YZ, part 3 of the BOOM trilogy, which takes us to 2020. This crisis has brought out all kinds of perspective and new writing, and our Kidoons team can’t wait to premiere it live next year.
There are many performers/artists/actors/ musicians out there who have been hit extremely hard by this pandemic and self-isolation. Do you have any words of wisdom or sage advice to help all artists through this difficult time?
I fear there’s very little to say that hasn’t already been said more urgently and eloquently, but this crisis has offered us time and perspective – two gifts we rarely get when we’re hustling from one gig to another. We rarely have time to think, or to think about thinking, which to me is just as important. Our minds are all we have, and everything that we create comes from them, so I would suggest that all artists cultivate some kind of mindfulness practice, if they haven’t already. And read – you have time now, so do it, shamelessly. If you need suggestions (you don’t) read Sapiens, Enlightenment Now, Waking Up, or anything by Margaret Atwood. Reading and thinking gives us perspective, which I learned about many moons ago in architecture school. The ability to step outside of a present crisis, to draw from the past and to imagine possible futures. This is what artists can bring to others in anxious times – some perspective on how we fail but can always “fail better.”
Do you see anything positive out of all this?
A crisis presents us with opportunities for change. The US election is the perfect opportunity for a new story, but we’ll see how much of the old story our neighbour clings to. We’re living through one of those “moments” that define a generation, and I hope our better angels shine through. If nothing else, we’re developing a new respect for health care workers and for science. And we’re also tapping into our creativity, realizing that we each have the power to solve any problem we’re faced, using what’s in our heads (our brain), and our hands (our other brain).
Will Covid-19 have some impact on the state of the Canadian performing arts scene?
I do fear that some of the brick and mortar theatre companies may not have the cash flow to pull out of this, and that audiences may be tentative about buying theatre tickets for a long while. I hope I’m 100% wrong about this, but it’s possible. However, it is forcing all of us to be more efficient and conscious about how we spend money and expend energy, which is (I think) a change for the better.
Some artists have turned to online or streaming platforms to share their work. In your opinion, is there value to this?
Without a doubt, there’s always value in people sharing their stories and talents. We’re social animals, and need each other to survive, so anything we can do to connect meaningfully is important for our physical and mental health. And if this crisis is forcing artists up the learning curve of self-production, great.
Why do you love performing?
Well, I get all philosophical or righteous about this, but I’ll give you the simple answer: I love to be loved!
As a nod to ‘Inside the Actors’ Studio’ and the late James Lipton, here are the 10 questions he asked his guests at the conclusion of his interviews:
What is your favourite word?
What is your least favourite word?
What turns you on?
What turns you off?
What sound or noise do you love?
What sound or noise bothers you?
What is your favourite curse word?
What profession, other than your own, would you have liked to attempt?
What profession would you not like to do?
If Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates?
To learn more about Rick Miller and his work, visit his website: www.rickmiller.ca.