Rick Roberts

Theatre Conversation in a Covid World

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Joe Szekeres

Rick and I had a good laugh during our Zoom conversation when he said he’s always on the verge of quitting. He said since this pandemic has started that he has been threating to quit the whole time. But I was glad to hear that, as a creative person, he’s in it for the long haul. He loves being an actor and he loves writing. As actors, you have to wait until someone asks you to do it.

Both a stage and screen actor for over three decades, Rick Roberts is arguably one of Canada’s most versatile actors. He recently starred in the CBC series Fortunate Son for which he has been nominated for an ACTRA Award. Recent appearances include Nurses (Corus/Global), Coroner (CBC), Frankie Drake (CBC), and Sensitive Skin (TMN/Movie Central), Between (Netflix). He starred in the series This Life for the CBC.

Recent features include North of Albany (Slykid and Skykid), All My Puny Sorrows (Mulmur Feed Co.). He will appear in the upcoming video game Far Cry 6.

In 2013, Roberts starred in the CBC movie Jack where he played the role of the late Jack Layton. His performance garnered him the Canadian Screen Award and the ACTRA Award for Best Actor. Other work includes guest starring roles on Saving Hope (CTV/NBC), Copper (BBC America), Cracked (CBC), Republic of Doyle (CBC), Murdoch Mysteries (CBC), Crash & Burn (Showcase), Haven (SyFy), Zos (Whizbang Films), Three Days to Jonestown (Next Films), and was featured regularly in the hit CBC series, This is Wonderland. Rick has headlined the series An American in Canada (CBC), L.A. Doctors (CBS) and Traders (CBC).

A popular fixture on Canadian stages, Roberts recently toured with Why Not Theatre’s hit production of Prince Hamlet. Other recent favourites include Animal Farm, Waiting for Godot, The Accidental Death of an Anarchist (Soulpepper), Within the Glass, Enemy of the People, (Tarragon), Proud (Belfry), Julius Caesar (Citadel Theatre) and the title role of Zastrozzi (Stratford Festival). He was in the middle of rehearsing Copenhagen at the NAC when the pandemic hit.

As a writer, Rick’s work, Mimi (which he co-wrote with Allan Cole and Melody Johnson) premiered at The Tarragon Theatre and was nominated for a Dora Mavor Moore Award for Best New Musical. His play Kite premiered to critical acclaim earning numerous Dora Award nominations for writing and production. Other writing credits include Nod (Theatre Gargantua), Fish/Wife (Tarragon Theatre) The Entertainers (Offstage Theatre Company) and short film The Birthday Cake. His newest play will premiere at a major Toronto theatre in 2020.

Additionally, he has several television scripts in development. He is a graduate of the National Theatre School of Canada.

Thanks for the informative conversation, Rick:

Many professional theatre artists I’ve profiled and interviewed have shared so much of themselves and how the pandemic has affected them from social implications from the Black Lives Matter and BIPOC movements to the staggering numbers of illnesses and deaths. Could you share and describe one element, either positive or negative, from this time that you believe will remain with you forever?

I was lucky just to have the experience of ‘Orestes’. To salvage an aspect of theatre from this…I was doing a play at the NAC which was interrupted and then cancelled on account of the pandemic.

It was kind of like a slap in the face and it took a while to come to terms with the reality of that.

Even though ‘Orestes’ was a gathering in a Zoom room, there are things I will carry forward from this experience. For example, what works theatrically that you can imagine in a live space. Some of it is the appreciation of gathering in rooms with people.

There are lots of similarities to having rehearsals in Zoom rooms and there is a real sense of community and connection around all these people, for the most part, never left their homes to do it. There was a real camaraderie and that mixture of having the experience made me long for the other experience [of being back in a theatre] again.

The other thing I will carry forward is a real ‘talking to myself’ in a kinder fashion around downtimes, around when you’re laid low. In this case, I think the constant stress of the pandemic eats away at you, and early on I felt certain I would not work at all this year and that whole community seemed to be exploded. I will go through manic periods of creation and then down periods of just not being able to get out of bed.

It was because I knew the cause, the constant tension of this pandemic and what it meant. I was able to go, “Today is okay to be down today.” And I’m hoping I can take that frame of mind to other things when there’s not a pandemic. It really has helped my creative process in terms of going “It’s not happening today” rather than muscling something through.

The good thing once again of the ‘Orestes’ experience – it was never a done deal. Even when the last lockdown came, we were in the middle of rehearsals and we had people isolated in two different theatre spaces but wildly separated for practical reasons.

In the middle of rehearsals, we had to move three mini theatres back into people’s homes. I was expecting a phone call saying, “It’s over. This is too much” from ‘Orestes’ being the season opener to not happening to happening in January and then changing it to a streamed play. Is that technologically possible? Do we have the time? So, at every point there was this feeling it could not possibly happen, and you would be heartbroken, but you knew why.

Have you learned anything about human nature from this time?

Oh, man. What I learned about myself and I guess it is about human nature too is the mask wearing and people not wearing masks. As the pandemic evolved and the realities of it, it’s such a stressful thing and it has to do with people’s relationship to authority a lot of times and what we are as a society.

If I see someone not wearing a mask or not wearing it properly, I’ll have a reaction, but I’ll also have to be generous and go that I don’t know that person’s story. I don’t know what brought them to this place. Are they going to barrel through and not respect social and physical distancing or wear a mask?

It’s a stressful time, and stress brings out different behaviours in people. I guess the human nature part is that everyone has a story which brings them to the place we are now in.

The other thing and it may have to do more with human nature is that we ‘ve been steered into this hyper individuality through the neo-liberal project from the 80s. That we accept that, as human nature, we are all in it for ourselves and it’s every person for themselves. It’s not a reasonable way to address a pandemic in that we are social beings.

And now we have to navigate that reality with this other reality that we also see ourselves as individuals. So, ourselves as social beings is being pushed into the fore, and we have to re-learn them. With neo-liberalism, it’s like we got hit by a car and now we have to learn to walk again.

How has your immediate family been faring during this time? As a family, can you share with us how your lives have been changed and impacted by this time?

My kids live in Toronto and I live in Hamilton. So, we’ve had great moments of togetherness and then the challenge of navigating the rules that are often not clear. So, my kids are also hyperconscious of social distancing and mask wearing are up to speed on that. We hang out in a park, we’re very conscious of all this, and yet we’re also aware if we’re allowed to sit on a bench or not. That becomes hard to manage and make a plan. We’ve managed to make plans.

My siblings and my parents, we’re more in contact than we’ve ever been through weekly Zoom meetings which is not how we operate. We are now way more aware of each other, for better or for worse, mostly for the better. All the nieces and nephews get on that call and many more family reunions than ever.

Generally speaking, the stressful part of employment and separation is there. The positive parts of recalibrating and reflecting which has been the opportunity for a lot of people is also there. We’re lucky we can do both.

I know none of us can even begin to guess when professional theatre artists will be back to work. I’ve spoken with some who have said it might not be until 2022. Would you agree on this account? Have you ever thought that you might have had to pivot and switch careers during this time?

That seems likely. There might be little pockets and forays but there may be the positive be such as the experiment with ‘Orestes’ and how does online participate in the comeback, and also smaller events. But in terms of theatres and large buildings with groups of people together? I feel right now 2022 seems pretty likely with even the logistics of opening a building and planning a season. I think a lot of artistic directors are going to have cold feet after this.

Just to even open a building instigates a big flow of cash when things are tight with the likelihood you could close down.

It’s not good for theatre if you’re not even able to predict for theatre how things are going to look in a few months. I think film and television can pivot a little more, even though it’s more expensive.

If you asked me a few weeks ago, I probably would have said, “Oh, we’ll be back in September”, but 2022 seems more responsible. I don’t like to think in terms of a trajectory because I don’t know what the rest of the year is going to look like. I’m going to assume it’s going to be sparse, but that’s what I thought about last year and a bunch of interesting things came up in the middle of the pandemic, so I don’t know but I’m ready to crash again.

The pandemic has put us all in the same basket. I’ve talked to people who’ve said, “I’ve been thinking about the future so I’m going to study this.” We see people whose side hustles are blossoming into something, whether or not we continue, it’s a bit of palate cleanser on the positive side. Negative side – it’s an opportunity cleanser.

If another theatre company said, “Okay, it’s safe now. Bring ‘Orestes’ here. Would you consider it? Do you feel confident that you can and will return safely?

Tarragon is staging ‘Orestes’ but if the NAC said, “You know what?” I don’t know what I would do.

There are so many elements of the story now, I guess it would have to be a conversation about that. The original conversation was a theatre production with online elements, and the online elements were too tricky to consider. And then it reversed, and now “Can there be any live elements?”

I added a lot of stuff to ‘Orestes’ that I really love right now that I’m not sure could live on stage. It would be like cutting out some things now. My knee jerk reaction right now is No. My knee jerk reaction is ‘This is what it is.”

There are lots of smart talented people who would go, ‘What about this?’ and I might go, “Ooooo…hmmmm” The experience of doing it online with the experience and the involvement of the creative team and how it’s shifted to the screen and online as its own space – even now, thinking about it, it’s a unique space because the actual performing happens remotely but the actual stage is the screen which is unlike theatre, film and television so it’s its own thing.

This has now been crafted over the last few months to be that.

At some point, yes, I do feel safely that we will be able to return. I remember reading early in the pandemic about the plagues that shut down the theatres in Shakespeare’s time. The Spanish flu had similar conversations around. It became clear with the waves of opening and re-opening that we may not feel that definitive moment of the end of this plague, and it might just be a gradual shift into another normal, and how much that will feel like the old normal?

It was the timing of the BLM movement in the plague that still has to be reckoned in live theatres, and that conversation is ongoing. Cleansing things are happening.

Taking time to come back in a new way? For example, what does theatre look like? Do we need official big buildings for it to occur now? What about crowds? I know Ravi Jain at Why Not is asking those same questions in a really serious way. These all have yet to be worked out.

The return to live anything is going to be gradual where we will just start to feel like, “Hey! We’re doing it again.”

I do feel that in local theatre history that this time is going to be a big historical marker for lots of reasons and Covid might just be the emblem of that Tectonic shift that has been a long time coming in Toronto and Canadian theatre.

This time of the worldwide pandemic has shaken all of us to our very core and being. According to author Margaret Atwood, she believes that Canadians are survivors no matter what is thrown in their path. Could you share what has helped you survive this time of uncertainty?

What has helped me survive? I feel like I’m talking about ‘Orestes’ since I was smack dab in the middle of it. (and Rick laughs)

I do think that theatre people do have that trait, not necessarily Canadians. Passionate people who are always inventing things and solving problems was really on display in putting ‘Orestes’ online as everyone was inventing new things as we were on the fly with the production concerning deadlines. Everybody was adapting their skills to something new that we didn’t know the rules of it.

The sad part is with theatre and any live performance, often when you hit a rough patch as an actor you can talk to your parents and it’s “Hey, that’s the life you chose” which is true. I know people who had work lined up for over a year and all of it was wiped out in a space of weeks, and there is no life decision you could have made differently.

Musicians and theatre people have been laid low by this pandemic but what I have seen the things we bring to any rehearsal or into our lives is resourcefulness, generosity, community mindedness and also you take the responsibility for the role you’ve taken on – whether as an actor, director, designer, and you carry that forward into a community.

I’ve made lots of connections with theatre people on porches. You see the sadness of the loss and we also see the resilience and the resourcefulness musicians and theatre people have in moving forward.

I attribute the term ‘theatrepeopleness’ to these individuals. It’s just spoken here for the first time. The good thing about Zoom is to mute yourself and to watch technical achievements and the conversations and people navigating. It’s like putting on a play while building a theatre in a landslide. You get to be a witness to all of this in an online environment that you might not get the opportunity to see if you’re in a physical building.

I know when I’m back in a rehearsal room, and I know I will be, I will be hugging people and crying a lot.

Imagine in a perfect world that the professional theatre artist has been called back as it has been deemed safe for actors and audience members to return. The first show is complete and now you’re waiting backstage for your curtain call:

a) Describe how you believe you’re probably going to react at that curtain call.

I’ll be weeping. Funny you should say, we were in the middle of rehearsing ‘Copenhagen’ at the NAC with Jillian when the pandemic hit and we had our first stumble through.

We said, let’s just do this stumble through. Some of the theatre people would be there and we thought let’s just do it even though it wasn’t going to be performed. We were working out stuff like it was a performance. Part of your brain is going why should we worry about this?

We were just on the verge of being off book. We would rehearse all day, grab a quick bite, meet in someone’s hotel room to run lines so we couldn’t do it anymore. Go to sleep and then all day next day. It was a real accomplishment.

‘Copenhagen’ messes with your mind. My dream is to go back and perform that play will Jillian, Jesse LaVercombe and Allegra Fulton and to complete that.

My emotional reaction to that run through is weeping and enormous sense of gratitude for the people who sat and who were involved knowing the play was going away, I would like to put a bookend on that and have an opening night for ‘Copenhagen’ and to stand in front of an audience with that, however that may manifest itself.

b) There is a crowd of people waiting to see you and your castmates at the stage door to greet all of you. Tell me what’s the first thing you will probably say to the first audience member:

The weird part for me is I love talkbacks and Talkback Theatre. I get really shy in lobbies after shows, and I always try to skirt around them. I don’t think I’ll do that anymore.

I’ll walk into lobbies.

It’s so hard now to even think about embracing somebody of meeting an audience again, but I don’t think I’ll ever take an audience for granted ever again. That people coming and showing up to see something, I’ll never take that for granted again.

I feel more a sense of camaraderie and sense of purpose with the broader theatre community which includes the audience.

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