Theatre Conversation in a Covid World
I’ve been discovering the work of more and more worthy professional theatre companies where I would really like to attend their productions. I had heard of b current before but knew very little of the company until now.
From its website: “b current is the hotbed for culturally-rooted theatre development in Toronto. Originally founded as a place for Black artists to create, nurture, and present their new works, our company has grown to support artists from all diasporas. We strived over two decades to create space for diverse voices to be heard, always with a focus on engaging the communities from which our stories emerge. As a result, these communities trust our company and respect the work that we do. Whether our audiences identify with our work through ethnic experience, social values, or political awareness, these groups are loyal to our programming because they recognize the high level of cultural authenticity and integrity we foster in our artists and their works.”
With such an important focus, I also became aware that b current now has a new Artistic Director: Sadie Berlin.
She is a writer, director, producer and now the Artistic Director of b current. She has a practice in performance art where she focuses on durational work. The alphabet soup at the bottom of her signature alludes post-graduate and professional degrees.
We conducted our conversation via email. Thank you so much, Sadie, for taking the time to add your voice to this important discussion. I look forward to meeting you in person soon to say hello to you:
We are now one year in with very few signs at this time that live theatre will return fully any time soon. How have you been faring during this time? Your immediate family?
Although I am about as secular as one can get, I sometimes think the Fates have me in their crosshairs. I find it a whimsical way of thinking about the ups and downs of life; imagining biddies busying themselves at playing around with the next twist and turn of my life. After the first couple of weeks of lockdown, I started getting more work than ever. As an artist, you work, create, plant seeds, network, parlay yourself into better and better paying work. I thought the pandemic would stop my career in its tracks, the opposite happened.
My partner who would self-define as a recluse has gained self-knowledge on the limits of his need for isolation. My elderly mother, who still lives in my hometown of Montreal, had her first shot weeks ago and has been able somehow to keep her spirits up through the pandemic.
How have you been spending your time since the theatre industry has been locked up tight as a drum?
I never stopped working. When lockdown came, I was curating a series of articles, a covid-proof endeavour. When I was called back to work at The Lab of the Stratford Festival in the Spring, we worked on finding ways to support as many artists as possible through different initiatives, digital projects, and commissions. I have left the Festival to take the helm at b current and that, of course, is occupying all my time. It’s strange to be so fortunate through such difficult times and, of course, because the grass is always greener, I have moments when I envy those who have a chance to rest and think.
I am a firm believer in wallowing. When I get upset, I give myself a limited number of hours to feel sorry for myself. Capitalist democracy and its prescriptive optimism, happiness and creepy, exaggerated smiles has never aligned with me. It’s ok to be angry, frustrated and upset right now. And for theatre artists, I understand the feeling of dysphoria as people are at home watching Netflix without realising how much theatre and its artists contribute to the tv and film industries.
On the first week of lockdown, I posted the seven volume, original French version of Remembrance of Things Past and thought I would finally be able to get past Book ne. And then for Winter, I purchased a MIDI keyboard and thought I would compose music. I got wool for knitting projects. I purchased a fe Domestika courses just for fun. But there really hasn’t been any time for hobbies.
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 have keenly felt the absence of sharing space with other artists. In Pretend It’s a City, Lebowitz says that hanging out is the history of art. Forget social media or Zoom, nothing can substitute having a heated discussion about the nature of art at 2am in a dive joint. Until very recently, I was holding up better than most. I’m an only child and solitude never phased me. But I don’t feel liberated. I feel like I’ve been waiting outside my assigned gate at an airport for 13 months.
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’m not sure whether this story is true, but it should be: I once heard about an African ant that lives colonies of millions and is deadly to all organic matter. The ants follow the same path every year. And so, once a year, every village on the ants’ path, pack up their clothes and pets and livestock and move off the path of the ant for a couple of days. They villagers come back to pristine village.
I think how a western mindset would address this issue. I imagine the invention of poisons and extensive and environmentally impactful barriers. I conjure up Texans shooting the ants with their guns, an ungenerous but hilarious thought that might pass through my mind.
One thing Covid has taught me is humility. I am no fatalist, but I respect Covid, the same way I respect bears: by staying out of the way. I am watching and waiting and, to me, it feels insolent to make any prediction whatsoever. Like tempting the Fates.
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?
I actually feel the assassinations of Breanna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd, Regis Korchisky-Paquet, Chantel Moore and so many others, have had a greater transformative impact on how I view my work. Covid doesn’t have a conscience, but society should.
I’ve always hesitated between pursuing a life in the arts and working in social justice. The arts won but I will no longer work on projects that reinforce the status quo. I will no longer apologize for harping on about race and politics. Whatever the future holds, I will be a different person in it. The Hindu goddess Kali, the goddess of destruction and creativity is a great guide for me.
Covid has given us a chance at self-renewal – gosh, I feel terrible writing this as I think of frontline workers, indigent children with poor wifi who are barely getting an education right now. It’s fair to imagine that most don’t have the luxury to ponder lofty cogitations.
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?
Before Covid, “safety” had been a buzz word in theatre for some years. I feel we are shying away from any kind of danger, be it physical, emotional, aesthetic… it will change the art that we make but I don’t see any other way. This is the culture right now.
I was in Berlin just before the pandemic became known to the world and every play, I saw, would have resulted in a call to Equity on the first day of rehearsal over here. And the entire culture is concerned about safety and that will affect the arts as well. Would Robert Mapplethorpe be the artist that he became without clubs like The Mineshaft?
The possible de-radicalisation of art keeps me up at night. Because safety is never radical. Because safety is not visceral. On the other hand, do I want to see artists in “danger” of any kind or any form? Of course not.
My outlet is my performance art practice where safety is a dirty word, the important distinction being that with performance art, every artist gets to own and control their process.
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 to our world and has it made some impact on your life in such a way that you will bring this back with you to the theatre?
God, I hope not.
Actually, what I hope for is the pandemic and everything around it to course its way through my corpus callosum until it is forklifted to deeper recesses of my mind. From there it can work its way back into a related but perhaps unrecognisable idea.
Again, the civil unrest of the last year has had a much greater impact on me than the pandemic. More sensitivity is the last thing I need, especially after hearing Tennessee Williams’s adage that the secret to happiness is insensitivity.
Seriously though, I believe in the great French adage: “chassez le naturel, il revient au galop”. In other words, we never really change.
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 curiosity 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?
I’m not sure it is possible to be more curious than I am in normal times but, as Covid forced me to get out and go for walks instead of the gym, my relationship with nature has deepened.
I am very privileged to have access to the natural world where I live and, without Covid, I’m not sure I would have spent as much time pondering life’s cycles and our place in the natural world. I think of everything in more holistic terms now and I am sure this will affect my art practice.
To learn more about b current, visit www.bcurrent.ca. You can also follow b current on its Facebook Page: @bcurrentLIVE; Twitter: @bcurrentLIVE; Instagram: @bcurrentlive
To follow Sadie Berlin at Twitter: @artysadie and IG: @sadiediamorphine