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Rob Kempson

Moving Forward


Joe Szekeres

The first time I had heard of director/playwright Rob Kempson was at a marvelous production he had directed of ‘Maggie & Pierre’ a few seasons ago at Tarragon Theatre. This one-person show, with Kaitlyn Riordan playing both Canada’s prime minister Pierre, his wife, Margaret, and a reporter named Henry, was absolute magic on the stage. I remember it was touring to the Grand Theatre in London later that year and I really wished I had gone to see it there.

Rob is a Dora Award-nominated theatre artist and educator, working largely as a director and playwright. He is best known for his trilogy The Graduation Plays, for which he served as both playwright and director. He served as the Associate Artistic Director at the Thousand Islands Playhouse for three seasons, which followed four seasons as Associate Artistic Producer at Theatre Passe Muraille. Most recently, Rob directed and co-created Box 4901 at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre, which enjoyed critical acclaim and a sold-out run, and which closed one week before the pandemic lockdown began.

Rob is now the Artistic Producer at the Cameco Capitol Theatre in Port Hope, Ontario.

I didn’t get a chance to see and review ‘Box 4091’, and I really wished I had. Since then, whenever I see his name associated with a production, I scan the article to see Rob’s involvement either as director or playwright.

Here's to this pandemic lifting soon, Rob, so we can all return to see your work again:

It appears that after five exceptionally long months, we are slowly, very slowly, emerging to a pre-pandemic lifestyle. Has your daily life and routine along with your immediate family’s life and routine been changed in any manner?

I mean—the world has changed, and any life in the performing arts has been irrevocably altered I think. While many industries seem to be resuming to something resembling a pre-pandemic lifestyle, I don’t think we will really see a full return for the performing arts until there is reliable vaccine. That means there is still a lot of uncertainty ahead for myself, my friends, and my colleagues. With that said, I think the Canadian government has done a lot to support artists during this time, and that has prevented a larger catastrophe for the industry as a whole.

Speaking more personally, my daily routine has also completely changed, and I have been lucky enough to continue some planned work (in an online capacity) so finances haven’t been a big worry. I’m trying to find the focus to work on projects that might never happen, so that can be hard, and harder than usual. My partner is a civil servant and has been able to work from home as well. We aren’t used to navigating our workdays around one another, so that has been a learning process, but it’s been nice to have the occasional lunch date.

I am also a true extrovert—fed by the energy of the people I get to spend time with each day—so I am definitely missing others. I miss my friends, and I really miss theatre. There is simply nothing like a room full of strangers who are about to share an experience together.

Were you involved or being considered for any projects before the pandemic was declared and everything was shut down?

I was meant to be one of two Neil Munro Intern Directors for the Shaw Festival this summer. While Shaw did a brilliant job of pivoting in order to support everyone employed at the Festival, I’m definitely sad that I didn’t get to authentically dive into that experience.

Moving forward, I had a full year booked with contracts and luckily most have moved online, rather than being cancelled. I will be spending a huge amount of time on zoom come fall, but I’m lucky to have work in my field—especially during this time.

Describe the most challenging element or moment of the isolation period for you. Did this element or moment significantly impact how you and your immediate family are living your lives today?

I think the most challenging aspects of this isolation period have been mental and emotional. I feel a profound loss of momentum in my career: the feeling that things were trucking along nicely is a rarity for a director/playwright, and I was starting to have that feeling.

There were things in progress, and at different stages, that made me feel like I had lots on my plate moving forward. That momentum is hard to quantify—conversations with artistic leaders, readings of new work at your kitchen table, design meetings to establish a clear concept. Those are the difficult losses because they are so much more intangible than money.

The other big loss has been certainty. A life in this industry is never certain, to begin with, but most of the time, I confirm my forthcoming work about a year in advance. Looking to the future, we don’t know what will be possible a year from now since we’re still figuring out what’s going to be possible next week.

Regardless of the challenges we’re all facing, I am so grateful for the support systems I have in my life—friends and family who really and truly understand why and how I am an artist. Those people have been essential during this time, and I know that’s true for my colleagues as well.

What were you doing to keep yourself busy during this time of lockdown and isolation from the world of theatre? Since theatres will most likely be shuttered until the spring of 2021, where do you see your interests moving at this time?

A lot of my work has been pivoting towards an online environment, so I’ve been thinking a lot about the capacities of online platforms to create and innovate our theatrical language. Working through these alternate systems can be frustrating if you try to use them to replicate in-person interaction; however, if you go with the flow, it can be really fun to discover new possibilities and new ways of working. I’ve been lucky enough to do some teaching and creating online already, and I’m looking forward to more innovation and creation in the months ahead.

I’ve also been learning about some adjacent fields like film, television, radio broadcasting, and other digital media. I’m not looking to jump the theatre ship anytime soon, but I love to learn new things, and this is a great time to stretch some new muscles.

Any words of wisdom or sage advice you would give to other performing artists who are concerned about the impact of COVID-19? What about to the new theatre graduates who are just out of school and may have been hit hard? Why is it important for them not to lose sight of their dreams?

Working in the performing arts is always about innovation; I think anyone in the industry would agree. I also know that this time will test people’s ability to innovate, while also testing our government’s understanding of the vital role that cultural activity play in our communities. It is my hope that the innovation of artists alongside the ongoing support from our government might together mean that the performing arts can survive, and thrive in the future.

Do you see anything positive stemming from this pandemic?

I tend to be an optimist so, despite the struggle, I have found much good at this time. The innovation of our artform through the forced online presence (as I shared earlier) has been exciting, albeit occasionally frustrating.

But another positive aspect of this time has been the time itself. So often, artists find themselves bouncing between multiple jobs, and trying to keep a handle on any number of projects. It is a busy career, and there isn’t always a lot of time for reflection and renewal. This has been a forced way of “filling the tank”; I’ve been reading a lot more, cooking a lot more, and finding way more time to write than usual. While I’m certainly eager to go back to work, I’m choosing to look at this time as a weird sort of gift.

I’ve also never spent so much time outside, as normally I’m stuck in dark, windowless rooms making plays. So the increased opportunity (and necessity) of being outside has been wonderful.

In your informed opinion, will the Toronto and region performing arts scene somehow be changed or impacted on account of the coronavirus?

I think the world will be forever changed by this pandemic—there is simply no way that it cannot be. I hope that we come back from this time of isolation with a better mind towards compassion and care in our communities. I hope that we do a better job of looking out for others. I hope that we grow in our understanding and adoption of anti-racist policies and practices. I hope we can wake up and start actively caring about our climate emergency. I hope that we hug more often.

I’ve been thinking a lot about division and the way that it seems to be running our world right now. So I’m hoping to come out of this pandemic with an appetite for, and a dedication to, the idea of radical compassion. I want to listen respectfully to others, understand their point of view, and maybe even have my mind changed. But I also want to respect others better and their opinions when we disagree. Empathy is at the heart of theatre, and I think we all need more of it right now.

Theatre will survive, as it always has, and I hope that our current crop of artistic leaders can lean into the innovation that will be required to move forward. I don’t think we will ever fully return to a “pre-pandemic” world, but I do think that with more care for one another, we can create an even better world moving forward.

What are your thoughts about streaming live productions? As we continue to emerge and find our way back to a new perspective of daily life, will live streaming become part of the performing arts scene in your estimation? Have you been participating, or will you participate in any online streaming productions soon?

I have been watching some live productions online, and I think there is definitely something to the accessibility of work when we put it out into the world this way. I also have a few projects on the horizon that look like they might end up in an online space.

I imagine that moving forward, we will encounter a future where we find a kind of hybrid model of live performance. I think we will better embrace technology, and perhaps offer more opportunities for audiences to engage with the work. I don’t want streaming to replace live performance, nor do I want zoom to replace studios and classrooms, but I do think better online literacy offers many exciting opportunities for a more accessible future.

What is it about performing you still love given all the change, the confusion and the drama surrounding our world now?

I’m not a performer, but as a director/playwright, I really miss the direct interaction that theatre provides. I miss the way that people can be altered by a story told directly in front of them.

I think that in the moment a show begins, the artists make a sacred contract with the audience; they are going to create an unforgettable experience for everyone present to share. No matter who is in that room, they will have the opportunity to suspend their disbelief, and go on a journey led by the artists in front of them. I have spent my career chasing those moments, and I cannot wait for the next time I’ll get to experience one live.

With a respectful 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:

a. What is your favourite word?

I don’t think I have just one. Sing-alongs, antiques, cabins, Dolly Parton, and puppies likely top the list.

b. What is your least favourite word?

I never used to mind “moist” but it’s now taken on a totally new meaning, and one that I’m not enjoying.

c. What turns you on?

Personal authenticity.

d. What turns you off?

A lack of compassion for others.

e. What sound or noise do you love?

Harmonies. Voices singing together.

f. What sound or noise bothers you?

So many. I’m super sensitive to noise. The worst is probably the footsteps of my upstairs neighbour. What is your favourite curse word?
I don’t know that I have one…

h. What profession, other than your own, would you have liked to attempt?

I have some experience here, but I really would have loved to be a radio host. I listen to CBC Radio religiously and it is something I would have loved to try my hand at. But never say never.

i. What profession would you not like to do?

I struggle in any profession that doesn’t result in the making of something—I need tangible results.

j. If Heaven exists, what do you hope God will say to you as you approach the Pearly Gates?

“Welcome—we’ve got a few things to discuss. Do you prefer red wine or white?”

To learn more about Rob Kempson, visit his website or follow him on Twitter: @rob_kempson.

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