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Sarah Orenstein

Looking Ahead

Howard J Davis-Haui.

Joe Szekeres

Sarah Orenstein’s extensive and impressive resume caught my attention. I saw her work in ‘Oslo’ and a simply fine production of one of my favourite scripts ‘God of Carnage’ through the Mirvish series – a fascinating play with tremendously talented artists who soared that performance high.

We shared some good laughs while I listened to Sarah’s at times candid and frank responses.

Born in Halifax into a well-known local arts family, her mother an actress, father a visual artist, Sarah began her own professional career at five years old. She is a familiar face on stages across Canada.

She studied at the Vancouver Playhouse Acting School. By email, Sarah stated it was a “fantastic institution. Short lived, but amazing group of artists came out of it.”

Veteran of The Shaw Festival (13 seasons) and The Stratford Festival (6 seasons), Sarah has starred in ‘Possible World’, ‘Heartbreak House’, ‘The Millionairess’, ‘Shakespeare in Love’, and ‘Playboy of the Western World’. She makes frequent appearances on Toronto stages, most recently in ‘The Normal Heart’ (Studio 180 /Mirvish) ‘The Message’ (Tarragon). She is thrice nominated for Dora Mavor Moore awards for her work in ‘The Retreat’, ‘The Hope Slide’ and ‘The Collected Works of Billy the Kid’ and won for her roles in ‘Patience’, ‘After Akhmatova’ and ‘Scorched’. She won the Capitol Theatre Award for ‘The Doll's House’. Other favorites are ‘My Name is Asher Lev’(HGJT) and ‘The Glass Menagerie’ (Grand Theatre, London, Ontario)

Sarah is committed to development of new Canadian works over the decades and giving her time as script dramaturg and actor in writing workshops in Vancouver, Banff, and Toronto.

Recently, Sarah starred in the independent feature film ‘Albatross’ and co-stars in Incendo's ‘You May Kiss the Bridesmaid’. She is currently filming Paramount's ‘Station Eleven’.

She makes her home in Toronto with her husband, actor Ric Waugh.

We conducted our interview via Zoom. Thank you for adding your voice to the discussion, Sarah:

It’s a harsh reality that the worldwide pandemic of Covid 19 has changed all of us. Describe how your understanding of the world you know and how your perception and experience have changed on a personal level.

I would say utterly.

Not to be overly dramatic, but my new mantra is ‘I don’t actually know anything about anything anymore’. I used to think I knew things, and I don’t know anything about anything.

I grew up in the theatre (my first gig was at Halifax’s Neptune when I was five). I grew up in a family that worked in the theatre so it’s where I went after school instead of babysitters and waited for my mother if she was at a rehearsal before we went home.

I’ve been lucky enough that I’ve worked in theatre all my life. I think this is the longest time (aside from finishing grade school) that I’ve been not involved in a production of some sort at same level. I only took a year out when I had my children, and this pandemic has made things longer.

So, it’s a bit like walking around in an alien world. I don’t understand myself without that.

It’s been a time of huge reflection, some days great and some days not, sometimes I’m quite philosophical about it but it is a little bit of going, “Well, who is Sarah when she’s not in the theatre?” I don’t have an answer for that yet. I was going so full tilt with a very heavy schedule, not just acting but doing some assistant directing and script work that it really took a while to realize that I felt quite lost.

Now that doesn’t mean I don’t love my life and my family and there’s always stuff as I keep very, very busy. Personally, it has been incredibly challenging to re-define myself, I suppose.

That’s the long answer. (and Sarah and I share a good laugh)

I’ve been very lucky as I’ve also been doing some filming so it’s not that I’ve been without work. 98% of my work is in theatre. I’ve quite enjoyed the filming and I’ve been involved with some Zoom readings and some Zoom script work. Every time I do it, I enjoy the connection, but it doesn’t replace it.

With live indoor theatre shut for one year plus, with it appearing it may not re-open any time soon, how has your understanding and perception as a professional artist of the live theatre industry been altered and changed?

I will say I feel it is yet to be revealed. Truly.

I know absolutely that theatre will come back. It’s just who we are as human creatures – we need it. It’s how we tell stories and we’ve always done it in some version, and we always will.

Theatre can’t be replaced digitally because it is a very different experience for the audience, and what society and humans get from going to the theatre with that hope of being transformed and carrying away, in the best cases, we’ve placed a little flame or little idea in everybody who has agreed to come together to be transformed.

And then you take it away and people process it as they do, sometimes immediately, sometimes it takes years, and we still say that story stays with us. Why does it?

In that sense, I do know that theatre will always be.

But because of the shuttering stoppage, it’s like stopping an ocean liner in the middle of the ocean, that start up is going to be a little messy. I don’t think everyone will come back. Some people will do it of their own choice, some will not. Some theatres won’t be able to come back. I worry about some of the smaller theatres, but I hope they do.

There will probably be a few lean years in the start up again.

But my hopeful side is that change is in the air. Change is always good; it is also very scary. The particularities of that change, I think we can guess that some of them will lie in the opening of walls which is always good for art, inclusionary practices but not just with the faces on the stage but right up to the administration.

I think some of that was starting before the pandemic hit, but it’s really sharpened the pencil on that.

All of the arts, including theatre, love to be on the van guard of society must change so, goddamn it, so are we.

I imagine there will be some missteps and some mistakes in moving forward, but I think in the end it will give us a lot more richness but there’s certainly going to be some rough times in getting everything up.

I’ve been lucky enough, and I don’t mean decision wise, but to be involved in a lot of the conversations towards what Stratford is doing. I imagine all theatre people everywhere who are responsible to keep the institutions going, when I hear how exhausted they are by how many white boards they have made, erased them, started again, and erased again, and wiped and redone.

The spirit is very alive to open the arms of theatre to all of the social changes that must be addressed but also with that desperate awareness of how hard it is to pay the bills on a theatre.

I am full of hope. When everything is up and running, I know in the theatre we will have some rough times.

I think it’s a brave act of hope with every shortened production, smaller casts, being outside. A brave act of hope.

As a professional artist, what are you missing the most about the live theatre industry?

Every single part of it because I’ve been around it so much all of my life.

I miss the buildings. Of course, I miss the people. I miss the rhythms of rehearsal, that’s my calendar usually.

I miss the collaborative and the collective way of living because every single show has its own set of problems that you come together to solve to tell the story, whether full production or just a reading.

When I think of it, I truly miss everything, I miss sitting inside empty auditoriums before everything is happening. And why is that? I think it harkens back to when I was a kid and wait for my mom to be done work, and I’d sit at the back waiting, and there’s a certain sound and a certain air, a theatre that’s not ready for the public yet. I miss the tannoy being turned on and hearing the audience talking and mumbling.

As a professional artist, what is the one thing you will never take for granted again in the live theatre industry when you return to it?

I think it will be how much I need other people to tap into my own creativity. I suspected it, but I didn’t realize how deep that symbiotic relationship was.

Describe one element you hope has changed concerning the live theatre industry.

So much has been happening with change right now over this last year.

This has been part of my awareness since I was young because I am a woman in the industry. And I’m not even going to say that I’ve been particularly or poorly treated in a certain kind of instance, but I’m always looking for and hoping for more women in directing and, therefore, that leads to artistic directorship, not as a replacement but it’s not equitable, and there are very different stories that will come out.

I’ve joked with my very dear, dear friend David Fox (he’s older than me) that over our careers of working together that I’ve played his daughter. I’ve moved on to play his wife. We keep pretending if I’m ever going to play his mother. It has something to do with the seven ages of women are yet to be truly explored. I don’t want to discount some of the roles that are out there for women because it is part of society, but they start tapering off because you can’t be the love interest.

More women in writing, directing, and at the artistic directorship level, please, so that we can explore the female stories later in life without it just being Grandma making something in the kitchen.

Explain what specifically you believe you must still accomplish within the industry.

That is the hardest question you gave me to think about before our conversation today.

The flip thing is I wouldn’t mind a fantastic run in a show that I’m a lead in that’s an amazing Tony award winning, writing piece of Broadway or the West End. That would be nice (and Sarah makes this wide grin that makes me laugh)

On a serious note, I just want to work for as long as I want to work AND as late in life as I want to work.

Some artists are saying that audiences must be prepared for a tsunami of Covid themed stories in the return to live theatre. Would you elaborate on this statement both as an artist in the theatre, and as a theatre goer yourself.

I will elaborate.

I do not think this will happen. (and Sarah emphasizes each of these words) I don’t, at least I hope it won’t.

We are so tired of it all. Everybody’s home is a 12 act play on experiencing Covid personally. It’s not to ignore it, but personally I would not be rushing to theatre to see shows that I know are someone working through how they lived through Covid.

That being said, I think it is undeniably part of the fabric of any story that is written from here on. I don’t think we need to shoehorn it into every re-staging of ‘Taming of the Shrew’ or something. I think anything written from now on, even if it’s not a central theme, it will have to refer to that time, or where you were, or what happened to you, or what crazy psychological thing that character is wandering around, in the same way that wars have done that or political movement or any kind of trauma.

A lot of people are getting through this pretty good. Depends on who you talk to. Some are messed up, some aren’t. We also recognize how lucky we are if we’re able to hold on to your stuff and not have to sell anything and figure something out.

In the best case, this time of Covid will become fodder for good writers to find another universality for us as humans. If a writer gets the right idea of what Covid and the pandemic shutdown, loss and the mismanagement and what it has done to society, that kind of theme if it finds it way into some real psychological drama, that would be interesting to see.

I want to stop talking about Covid when this is all over.

As an artist, what specifically is it about your work that you want future audiences to remember about you?

Oh, you’re wicked…. (and we share a good laugh again)

Let’s hope they find my work fahhhhhhbbbbuuuullloouussss. (and another good laugh)

Okay, if I’m going to be good and serious, I would say I hope that the people, because I do a lot of mentoring and coaching, I’ve worked with whether they’re actors or from other departments of the theatre, remember me as someone who delved deep into the work with them, but also helped pass on the trade.

I really believe in that. I come from a family of creatives and different aspects. One of my sisters is in textiles, costumes, and designs. We talk about we find it interesting that we are at the point of our careers where we are really passing on the trade, without formally teaching in a classroom which is also good.

Acting is a trade. The best way to teach someone is to do it in front of them and have a little conversation about why that is tricky over there.

I’d like to be remembered that way by my fellow workers. I just hope audiences, even if it’s not remembering me, I hope my work resonated enough that they remember a moment on stage, a scene, a play.

(I can attest at this point Sarah is correct as ‘God of Carnage’ at the Panasonic Theatre was astoundingly good.)

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