Sabryn Rock

Moving Forward

Kristina Ruddick

Joe Szekeres

The first time I saw Sabryn perform was with Jeremy Smith’s wonderful summer Bard’s Bus tour of Driftwood Theatre. During those summers, Sabryn performed in ‘Romeo and Juliet’, ‘King Lear’ and ‘The Comedy of Errors’. I remember watching these three performances and thinking Sabryn is destined for even more phenomenal roles on future professional stages in Toronto and across Canada.

And she has given exceptional performances over these last few years including ‘The Royale’ at Soulpepper for which she received the Toronto Theatre Critics Award for Best Supporting Performance in a Play.

Selected Film and Television: Two Sentence Horror Stories, Departure, The Expanse, Holly Hobbie, Carter, Taken, People of Earth, Black Mirror, The Girlfriend Experience. Selected theatre: Rose, Caught (Theatre Passe Muraille), Once on this Island (Acting Upstage/ Obsidian) as well as Caroline, or Change Romeo and Juliet, Three Musketeers, The Merchant of Venice (Stratford), Ruined (Obsidian/Nightwood). Sabryn has been nominated for several Dora Awards. As a director she’s directed shows and workshops for Summerworks, Shakespeare in Action, Obsidian and the Musical Stage Company.

She recently directed Contractions, an experimental play/film hybrid over zoom for the Studio180 At Home series. Sabryn also loves to read (especially out loud) and has now narrated seven audiobooks. She is a graduate of the National Theatre School of Canada, the Birmingham Conservatory for Classical Theatre at the Stratford Festival and the Actors' Conservatory at the Canadian Film Centre.

We conducted our interview via email as she is one busy lady. Thank you so much, Sabryn, for taking the time:

It has been an exceptionally long eight months since the pandemic began, and now 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’m feeling very disappointed and yet not at all surprised that the numbers are surging. I have a lot of anxiety and insecurity about what the future will hold. But I have to say, being a freelance artist who often lives paycheque to paycheque prepared me well for the whole ‘not knowing’ aspect of all this. I just wish the circumstances weren’t so dire and serious for so many.

We will absolutely emerge to some new way of living- it’ll be what it is for that time and place and life will continue on…how that will look I have no idea. I think (and hope) people will be a lot more cautious about illness, handwashing and mask-wearing in the vulnerable seasons forevermore and generally more conscious about the safety and wellbeing of folks. Also for me, personal space and physical boundaries shifting in a big way!

I, myself, have enjoyed the distance and the lack of expectation that I have to hug everyone or shake everyone’s hands all the time (especially strangers or acquaintances I don’t know well); that’s a surprising perk to all this for me because I find often in our industry, people assume everyone is comfortable letting them into their personal, intimate space for touch. I will say though that I am fortunate to have a husband and cats who I can hug all I want when I feel like it. Some people aren’t that lucky right now and I totally understand that- the deprivation of physical touch can be harmful for so many.

How have you been faring? How has your immediate family been doing during these last eight months?
I count myself very, very blessed-I can’t say that enough. I am faring just fine all things considered. I know that speaks to my privilege as I have been able to keep working, have a comfortable home and a partner who hasn’t lost work at all this year. Another odd perk was getting to spend so much time with my husband during the first lockdown- getting to take the time to eat lunch together everyday was a simple yet profound joy we wouldn’t have been afforded otherwise. It’s really made us value one another in a new way.

It has been difficult not being able to see my folks consistently who are in Saskatchewan, especially now that the holidays are around the corner and choosing to stay put to keep us all safe. They’re lucky that they’re in a very spacious place that isn’t as dense but numbers are crawling up there too, so…I just keep begging my parents to stay home and pray they’ll keep safe and healthy so we can be reunited soon.

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

Honestly, seeing all my peers struggling and not knowing how to help besides reaching out and checking in on people. The theatre companies, the freelancers, the people who rely on contract work not being able to have a consistent livelihood or have any concrete plan for the future has been really tough to witness.

Also, not knowing when we’ll be able to gather in a theatre again to watch or put on a play for an eager audience of patrons is unnerving.

And yet, and I’m unsure if it’s ignorance or naivete, but I seem to have adopted the “everything will be okay” mentality and am trusting that professionally my career will be where it needs to be when it can be there. I just hope that the many theatre companies and creative people who are taking huge financial hits right now are able to pull through and pivot in ways that can sustain them.

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 one of the few who didn’t have any concrete plans for 2020. I had made a conscious effort to lay off theatre for the year and focus on screen and voice and I was very lucky in that regard because all my friends and colleagues were losing work. It just felt like I was in the same position as I would’ve been anyways: having no idea what jobs would be coming or when I’d work again; with the huge caveat that lockdown definitely hindered any or all opportunities for actually being on set or a studio for a large portion of this year...but I was fortunate to have been working almost right up until March so was able to coast for a few months without worrying much about my financial situation. And thank goodness for CERB!

I did have a workshop of a new play in development I’m directing that we had to postpone for a few months and settled on doing a three day zoom workshop instead. It was useful for many reasons as far as hearing the play with actors and dramaturgy etc. but we were also hoping to do some physical exploration at this stage and that just wasn’t possible over zoom. The production is tentatively slated for fall 2021 but only time will tell if that’ll happen so all we can do is wait and see and come up with a contingency plan in case we have to postpone which at this point, is looking very likely.

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

Lots of reading, cooking, cleaning for those first three months and then I got really tired of being cooped up and feeling like I couldn’t find a satisfying creative outlet. I actually completed The Artist’s Way for the first time ever in the summer which was such a huge help. Even just writing everyday shifted my mental health in a big way. The artist dates I went on and the creative tasks reinvigorated me and my creative spirit which I so desperately needed.

Once things started opening up later in the summer, I was very lucky to have booked some work again on set and in the studio as well as a few directing gigs for virtual theatre including a zoom production of Contractions with Studio 180 which was another elixir I needed. Getting to collaborate with other artists and using my director brain after months of creative atrophy was the burst of a new energy I needed. It was such a joy and privilege to have those opportunities and although zoom can be challenging at the best of times, the constraints forced some really creative problem solving which I also didn’t realize how much I missed.

I also started doing some virtual teaching at Randolph College in the fall as well as some outreach work with Studio 180 and both been a nice side gigs that are safe to do from home. Teaching is something I’ve regularly done to supplement my income prior to Covid and I truly love it. The shift to zoom has been surprisingly easy if not a bit exhausting on the eyes, although I really can’t imagine doing theatre school training-most of which is so physical- over a computer. These students are so dedicated!

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?

For my fellow performers and colleagues, be sure to keep engaging in creative outlets and lean on your supports. Reach out to mentors, past collaborators or friends if you need connection or want to create something. I think a lot of people are eager to collaborate right now- I have friends sending scripts for feedback or brainstorming virtual projects just because they need the outlet and I think that’s a great way to cope. For some, they’re not in a position to do that right now so I would say making sure to do something that’s good for your mental and physical health and wellbeing everyday. Meditating, long walks with a great podcast, calling an old friend, baking something for a pal just because..anything that makes you feel happy, calm and engaged. Also, therapy has been a huge help for me.

As far as helpful resources and options since it’s difficult to find a therapist in these times, I know Equity launched LifeWorks earlier this year to support members https://www.caea.com/News#LifeWorks-June-29. For ACTRA members there’s a new Expanded Access- Mental Wellness Support Benefit I was just reading about that sounds promising. Info available here: https://www.afbs.ca/fraternal-benefits#additional-benefitsI

For recent theatre school grads I would say: stay positive and optimistic, stay ready, keep reading plays and pushing yourself to learn and engage as much as possible. Take a virtual class. Write those emails to casting directors, artistic directors, people in the community you admire…propose virtual coffees. The hustle to get your name out there has always been hard but now it’s even more of a challenge so it’s time to think outside the box and stay on top of it.

Stream those online readings and productions which there are no shortage of internationally but also here at home there’s lots on offer with shows streaming online with Acts of Faith at Factory Theatre, Contractions with Studio 180 (shameless plug J), Musical Stage Company’s Uncovered just to name a few. Look for inspiration everywhere as you might be surprised where you might find it. Write everyday if you can- it helps so much.

Do you see anything positive stemming from Covid 19?

As far as theatre goes, I think this time off has forced many organizations and companies to recalibrate; to look at how things are run and re-examine structure and operations that have oppressed so many for decades. The BLM movement and the protests in the summer shone a light on so many systemic issues within the world but in our community, it really inspired many to voice their experiences with the #inthedressingroom campaign.

Reading the many tweets and posts, I didn’t find any of these stories particularly surprising unfortunately as I’ve both experienced firsthand or heard of all the micro and macroaggressions towards artists of colour over my career. I think a lot of people are taking this time to stop and reflect on how they can better advocate for and foster, support, and protect BIPOC artists so that when we meet again in a physical space, there are some tangible practices put in place to change the trajectory forever.

I also think that having all this extra time at home, many are realizing that the six day work week isn’t necessary and that we can likely accomplish just as much in five days- arguably maybe more with TWO days off: one to do groceries/laundry/spend time with family and one to actually accomplish the work.
I know I definitely do not miss only having one day off a week. I myself, have found that this lockdown time has really changed my perspective on what really matters in life. Yes, I love my career and performing but getting to have quality time with family, connecting with friends whom I haven’t spoken to in ages, those are the things you won’t ever get back. Jobs will come and go but loved ones are what matters most to me. Balance and boundaries are key.

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

I think it already has on so many artists and companies. Many people leaving the business or finding a new livelihood out of necessity, companies having to shut their doors, losing their space and folding because they can’t financially sustain themselves…I think the fabric of our performing arts scene will forever be changed. However, I think this is such a fascinating time and will absolutely inspire and birth some incredible new work and from the ashes, new companies will rise.

It’ll just take time.

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?

I think it’s amazing the way people have pivoted so quickly. Even just having the ability to lean on streaming is going to be a huge asset to many as things may remain up in the air for the foreseeable future. It would be foolish not to utilize this; I think it is the only option for many actors and companies if they want to keep getting their work or name out there or maintaining audience engagement and some type of revenue.

Unfortunately, these things can be very pricy endeavours if quality is a priority and not everyone has it in the budget to outfit a full home studio right now or create and develop a streaming platform like Stratford. There is so much more content on offer online right now specifically because of Covid, so the challenging part is getting viewers.

I find it overwhelming sometimes to decide what to watch and who to support with all the choices. Streaming can also be pretty frustrating depending on if there are any technical difficulties or if you have crappy internet and I find it really hard to fully sit down and engage at home when I can be multitasking and doing a million other things at the same time which I can’t do in a theatre. Personally, I have also been trying to stare at screens less in my life since I’ve been forced to engage with work in this way now more than ever so I may not be a great target audience member lol.

But I think people have got to do what they got to do and if it’s helpful to utilize YouTube or streaming for the benefit of their spirit, creativity or livelihood, all the power to them.

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

I really miss the live feedback from an audience, that energy; the shared experience of people coming together in a space and breathing, gasping, laughing together (you know, all the risky and dangerous stuff right now). Heck, I even miss the oblivious patron unwrapping candy at the most inopportune moment which then in itself turns into another shared funny/baffling moment between audience and performers!

Covid will never destroy my desire to get together for several weeks and create something out of nothing with a talented group of people and sharing it with live humans in a physical space.

I think when I first step into a theatre again when it’s safe to do so, I won’t take it for granted ever again.

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