Ryan G Hinds
Theatre Conversation in a Covid World
The forty-five minutes I had spent with Ryan talking about all things theatre simply vanished rather quickly because I was on every word about this great pause. Ryan is quite candid at times as you will see from his responses below, and I thank him very much for allowing his voice to be heard during this time.
Ryan G. Hinds is a critically acclaimed theatre artist who has appeared across Canada and the US in shows such as “#KanderAndEbb”; Theatre New Brunswick's "It's a Wonderful Life”; Magnus Theatre's "We Will Rock You”; Hedwig in ‘Hedwig & the Angry Inch’ at the Capitol Theatre; and” Lilies; Or, The Revival of a Romantic Drama” for lemonTree Creations, Why Not Theatre, and Buddies in Bad Times.
Ryan is an Associate Artist at lemonTree Creations and serves on the National Council of Canadian Actors' Equity Association as 2nd Vice President. Hinds was an Artist-in-Residence at Buddies in Bad Times, 2014-2016, and has performed alongside artists such as Liza Minnelli, Todrick Hall, Debbie Reynolds and more.
We conducted our conversation via Zoom:
In a couple of months, we will be coming up on one year where the doors of live theatre have been shuttered. How have you been faring during this time? Your immediate family?
Well, peaks and valleys, just like any journey that’s worth taking with highs and lows. My mom died in October. She had been on a cancer journey for a couple of years. My mom and I were really close and she shared my love of theatre and art and culture and performance. She was always my favourite theatre date.
So, when I think about the pandemic, I do think in some ways I’m fortunate because it allowed me to really be there for her for her final months, and to give her the respect, care and attention she’s given me my whole life. She had a really hard experience with cancer and chemo. By the time she died, she was ready to go.
Something I’m very grateful for – she left this earth with a lot of pride in me, a really strong sense of feeling that her life had been a productive, fabulous, globe trotting experience full of colour, food and music and wonderful things. In her last year of life, my mother got to see me sign my contracts to perform at Ottawa’s National Arts Centre, the cover of NOW magazine. She got to see me film a commercial in September. So, I also know she left with a confidence that I was going to be able to handle whatever was coming. That was very important to her.
We knew this time was coming and talked about it often. It was important that she left her only son knowing that he could thrive in the world and not be utterly destroyed by her leaving me.
So it’s been a tricky year navigating that. I miss her dearly. Christmas was hard without her. I know that she would be thrilled Trump lost. I know she would be thrilled there’s a vaccine coming for all of us. Even though times are hard now, she was always looking forward to the horizon and to the next good thing that was going to happen.
My immediate family here in the house – it’s just me and my cat, Sammy (and Ryan picked him up to show me). We’re doing okay. I have some cousins in Kingston, Vancouver and one second cousin in Toronto. Because of the lockdown I haven’t been able to see them, but we’re keeping in touch via phone and Zoom.
How have you been spending your time since the theatre industry has been locked up tight as a drum?
My work as second vice president for Canadian Actors’ Equity Association has kept me extremely busy and I’ll get into that shortly.
At the beginning of the pandemic, I was the doomsayer of all time. I thought our careers were done. I thought the industry was done and that all theatres would go out of business, and that the artists would have to give up on the careers we’ve built up over the years.
I’m fortunate that while I was being dramatic and weeping in the corner about what I thought was going to take place and that my career was over, my friends and colleagues pivoted quickly and got things going online and figured out what had to be done.
Some things I had accomplished: I had directed ‘Sarah Frank’ for Toronto Fringe (which was a solid production that moved me emotionally). I directed ‘The Kindness of Murder’ at Next Stage. I did a solo cabaret for Buddies in Bad Times. I did a fundraiser for the Black Legal Action Centre with Boylesque TO.
I am in an incredibly fortunate situation where I’ve been able to work since the doors of physical theatres have been shut to keep my creative self alive. I’ve been lucky enough to have been on an ACTRA shoot during this time with the commercial I shot in September.
Even though it’s been a really horrible year, I’m still really grateful for it. Grateful for the people in my life – I may not have been able to see them physically but we’re still working together and still in each other’s lives.
Something else this pandemic has taught me is the fact I’m committed to this life of the artist in my soul and in my body. It’s the only thing I’ve ever really wanted and trained for. Now that I’m in the thick of my career, it’s going to take a lot more than a pandemic to get me to turn the corner and do something else.
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 near year long absence from the theatre as something else?
I wouldn’t describe it as an escape so much as a refocus. I’ve learned better how to re-calibrate myself to work on camera than on stage. I’ve really had to figure out ways to hold on to my optimism and not let go of my hope and my drive.
For me, it’s really been a re-focus. Hal Prince is bar none my favourite director of musicals. So many of his musicals were foundational to how I see the world and how I understand things. It is through Hal’s work that I’ve pulled things into focus in the first place. I’ve been able to use this downtime to re-examine some ideas and focus on what’s important to me and to keep my spirits up. I don’t want to escape anything; I want to stay present in the moment and bear witness to this crazy time in history.
I want to stay engaged with my friends and my audiences who are really important to me and don’t always get the credit they deserve.
It’s really about re-focusing over escaping.
A theatre friend and I have come up with this idea of ‘Strong Backs and Open Hearts’. As opposed to trying to be the best singer or dancer in the room, we are going to the best of ourselves that we can be in that moment. The way we are going to get there is by having a strong back and an open heart and we can sail through with whatever is coming.
I’ve interviewed a few artists several months ago who said that the theatre industry will probably be shut down and not go full head on until at least 2022. There may be pockets of outdoor theatre where safety protocols are in place. What are your comments about this? Do you think you and your colleagues/fellow artists will not return until 2022?
I think if you talk to 100 different actors, you’re going to get 100 different responses on this. Because of my work with Canadian Actors’ Equity, I was on the negotiations team for the Canadian Theatre Agreement, the contract that actors and theatres work under in this country.
For the past couple of years, I’ve been in the thick of it thinking about the safety of how we work, thinking about the effects of how we work, thinking of the methods of how we work, the frequency of how we work. So, whether we come back in summer of this year, fall of this year, spring of next year, two years from now…that doesn’t matter to me as much as the idea of when we come back, we’re all a bit more on the same page of how we are creating together. And how we are healthfully moving forward from the wreckage of this pause.
Theatre went through a big reckoning last summer in terms of race and culture and equitable practices. It was really interesting to me as someone who was actively negotiating in the CTA at that time and involved in those discussions of how do we make theatre in this country better? The most satisfying thing about the CTA – Equity had their ratification vote in September, PACT had their vote in January and both bodies voted overwhelmingly for it. I was really proud to be part of a team that really seemed to respond to what people were saying.
The CTA is a living document, something that we’re all going to encounter and play with soone or later.
I learned a lot; it was really, really, useful and my takeaway from it is the way we were working was unsustainable, just unsustainable. There was a lot of elitism in Canadian theatre; there was a lot of gate keeping and closed doors. Hopefully, fingers crossed, this pause we have all lived through has made us think does it make sense for us to be a gatekeeper or a door opener? Does it make sense to keep a certain audience or a kind of artist out OR is it better for us and for our practices to think more broadly and open?
I’m personally, and it’s a flip from the beginning of the pandemic where I was anxious to get back work, I’m now happy to wait a bit until we are all on the same page of how we are going to work healthfully together, how to work equitably and safely and respectfully together. That’s more important to me than the doors just flying open and move us back where we were before.
I had a discussion recently with an Equity actor who said that yes theatre should not only entertain but, more importantly, it should transform both the actor and the audience. How has Covid transformed you in your understanding of the theatre and where it is headed in a post Covid world?
For me, it’s transformed me not just as an artist but as a consumer of theatre. I have realized how much I rely on going to a play to help me process my own thoughts and understand all of our places in the world. It’s not just my own theatre practice, although obviously I’m committed to it, at the end of the day, I’m a theatre fan. I love theatre. I will go to see a play, a musical. I don’t care if I don’t know anybody in it; I don’t care if it’s a large company or a small company, I’m just hungry for theatre.
And it’s the theatre that helps me see the world clearly, and I don’t think I understood that before. I don’t think I had a clear understanding of how important to me the theatre as a consumer was until it was taken away from me. Then, all of a sudden, there are the gaping holes, the lack of truly understanding things.
I take the theatre that I see seriously. I try really hard to apply the lessons that I learned in the theatre to my own life, to the situations that I face.
So for me it’s really about that processing and understanding the world. Now I understand a little better.
I’m an Associate Artist at Lemon Tree Creation with Indrit Kasapi, Cole Alves, and Donna Michelle St. Bernard. The way Lemon Tree works -it’s not always about the finished product so much as it is the process of the show in how it gets made, who’s making it, who’s in the room? It’s been really interesting working that way at Lemon Tree for a number of years and now seeing other companies begin to work in that way as well and beginning to transform their own understanding of how theatre is made, and who makes theatre and why we have some of the processes that we do.
The late Zoe Caldwell spoke about how actors should feel danger in the work. It’s a solid and swell thing to have if the actor/artist and the audience both feel it. Would you agree with Ms. Caldwell? Have you ever felt danger during this time of Covid and do you believe it will somehow influence your work when you return to the theatre?
I absolutely agree with Zoe Caldwell. Artistic danger and artistic risk are supremely important to what we do. Certainly, they’re important to my own practice as a theatre creator and actor.
In terms of the pandemic and how I felt danger – I felt over the past year sometimes in physical danger. There are just too many screens in our lives. We’re staring at our phones, our tablets, computer, television. It’s bad for our posture and eyes and bodies to be sitting so much. To me that’s a really dangerous thing physically that goes hand in hand with the way theatre has pivoted to survive in the pandemic. We have no choice but to be on screen, on Zoom, on live streams, on our phones and social media apps.
That worries me. It really and truly does. When you go see a play or musical, there’s an active movement. Theatre asks us to be actively involved as participants. There’s a physical involvement and I see the danger. If I’m being honest, I’m 41 and I feel the danger in my body of too much screen time, too much staring at a computer and my phone and the effect on my body.
I worry about this effect on the theatre because when we all get back, the last thing I want anybody to do is to apply the standards of the comfort of watching something on screen in your own home to being live in the theatre. Over the past years, I’ve heard people say that the theatre should be more like Netflix. I couldn’t disagree more.
Theatre is its own thing and the more we use theatre to replicate the screen, the more we damage the experience of live theatre. That’s a danger I’ve been thinking a lot about.
The late scenic designer Ming Cho Lee spoke about great art opening doors and making us feel more sensitive. Has this time of Covid made you sensitive and has it made some impact on your life in such a way that you will bring this back with you to the theatre?
I’m pretty sensitive to start with. I’m the person who cries at car commercials on television. I feel things deeply.
In the time of Covid I have become hypersensitive about little details that I just never noticed before. I know what time of day the birds start chirping outside. I notice when the days started getting longer just by 60 seconds.
I hurt more if somebody says something in jest that’s meant to be in jest that I would usually take in jest. I take it as a slight and insult.
I certainly feel sadness a lot more. I’ve talked about losing my mom. It doesn’t matter who you are – that’s going to make you really sensitive for a long time. In her last week, we had a conversation in which she said she knew it was going to hurt and to be really hard for me, but you have to find a way of being strong and keeping going. The way I’m doing that personally is by letting myself feel things and be sensitive and opening myself to the sensations and feelings that come along with being sensitive.
I think It’s important as artists. I don’t want when we come back from all this, I’m already afraid of the bad pandemic dystopian art and shows that are going to happen. Something that I really, really hope is that we talk about and are allowed to access the feeling and the emotions of what we went through, and not just the physical experience.
Again, the late Hal Prince spoke of the fact that theatre should trigger curiosity in the actor/artist and the audience. Has Covid sparked any interest in you about something during this time? Has this time away from the theatre sparked further curiosity for you when you return to this art form?
Absolutely. Absolutely. Curiosity about mundane things to large things. Curiosity about if people miss us if we haven’t seen them in a long time.
There are some larger curiosities about the people that I look up to. As a fan of theatre, there are individuals, artists and institutions that are really, really special to me. I’m wondering how they are doing today. How are the employees at X theatre being treated? How is this person who I know is a social animal and showstopper, how are they doing when they can’t stop a show or don’t have access to the social lubricant that keeps them going.
I have curiosity about my own future. There are some shows that I am scheduled to do before the end of the year. I don’t know if they will happen, I hope they will, but they might not.
I’m curious to know what the experience of doing them is going to be like. I’ve ridden my couch a lot during this pandemic so getting back into the studio for 910 am and having to warm up and get into my body again, that’s going to feel a lot different than it did a year ago.
Emotionally, of course, I think about what it’s going to be like the first time we’re going to see each other again. Are we going to hug? Are we going to maintain distance? Are people going to be emotionally overwhelmed by things?
I’ve been doing a Kander and Ebb show for a number of years. It’s one of my favourite shows. It was my mom’s favourite show to do. I really think I will have the pleasure of stepping into that show again, but I’m curious to know what that is going to feel like now that we know Brent Carver (from Kiss of the Spider Woman) is gone? How is going to feel to do the show now knowing that Terrence Mcnally is gone?
There’s a lot of curiosities about how things are going to feel like when we step back into work.
You can follow Ryan: @ryanghinds on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook, or you can visit his website: RyanGHinds.com.