When you know you’re in the company of a compelling raconteur, you don’t want the story to end because you’re on every single word this individual speaks.
Thus was my conversation with artist Scott Wentworth where I was on every word he spoke.
I’ve seen so many productions at the Stratford Festival in which Scott appeared. I can’t list all of his accolades here as both artist and director because there are so many, but I do recall vividly his performance as Gloucester in ‘King Lear’. I was still teaching high school at the time and had brought students to see the matinee. I remember the students asking how you think they will deal with the plucking out of Gloucester’s eyes, and I also remember telling the group that you’ll just have to wait and see how it’s done.
It was a horrifyingly magnificent moment of stage craft that remains with me today.
Scott Wentworth is an American actor and director who immigrated to Canada in 1986. His first production at the Stratford Festival was in 1985’s ‘The Glass Menagerie’. He has also gone on to play Iago in ‘Othello’, Shylock in ‘The Merchant of Venice’, the title role in ‘Macbeth’ and has directed at the Festival ‘Romeo & Juliet’ and ‘The Adventures of Pericles’.
Scott also appeared in Neil Simon’s ‘Lost in Yonkers’ at the Richard Rodgers Theatre in New York City. Other US appearances include ‘Red’ at the Hubbard Stage in Houston, Texas and ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ in Santa Cruz, California.
We conducted our conversation via Zoom. Thank you for taking the time to add your voice to the conversation, Scott:
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.
This is a difficult question (and Scott has a good chuckle) …I notice it’s the first one so get the really hard one out of the way (and we two have another chuckle).
It’s a little intimidating, frankly, as an older white CIS male person belonging to a community that has traditionally held a microphone. I’ve spent most of my pandemic months keeping my mouth shut and listening and reading and ruminating, so to be asked to opine on some of these very important questions, at the moment, makes me feel a little uncomfortable, not reticent necessarily, but a little uncomfortable so forgive me if I stammer my way through this. (Note: Scott is extremely articulate in sharing his thoughts and ideas with me)
To say that the pandemic is unprecedented is so obvious that one doesn’t need to say it. But I think it’s been important for me anyway to understand that essentially, we’ve just stopped, particularly those of us in the arts. But in many ways, the best way of dealing with this emergency has been to stop and to be still. (Scott emphasized clearly these words)
I’m not sure how we’ve changed yet.
I feel like I’m going to learn that about myself and my community and my world more completely once we’re moving again. It’s very difficult in the moment to have any kind of real understanding of how this has changed my perception of the world. As you know, Joe, one of the gifts of participating in the arts, whether as an activator, active participant, or an audience member, is that one is constantly in a state of re-evaluating oneself and one’s world, and one’s relationship and connection between the two.
I’ve always strived throughout the pandemic to try to look on it as a little gift rather than as a trial so what are the benefits to me personally, and to the other humans that I know and don’t know.
What are the benefits of standing still for a time? As our world becomes more and more connected and fast moving and quick changing, what are the benefits of standing still? What are the benefits of stopping?
I’m not a young person anymore so at my age it’s a different experience than friends of mine who are in their 30s and 40s who are starting families, in their first release of energy into their careers or indeed in a very different experience from young people who are just beginning.
So again, my perception of all this is quite biased but frankly I don’t know how my understanding of the world has changed yet. I’m hoping to get some insights into that soon.
I really don’t know.
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?
It’s going to be a process because there’s been a near two-year gap in gatherings, and when will individual people feel comfortable to do that? I spent many years doing outdoor theatre in Santa Cruz, California, where in the summer it never rains so you go out and do it. We don’t have that luxury here in Southern Ontario.
There’s not going to be one day where we’re all going to shout, “Okay, we can open the doors. C’mon back in.” I frankly don’t think anything will be back to normal.
Again, we’ll see if my understanding and perception as an artist have changed. There’s a lot of conversation going on at the moment over Zooms, not unlike this, about how the theatre can change, be more humane, better serve communities that haven’t had access to it or have had limited access to it. Much conversation has also ensued on developing and looking for healthier relationships on account of crushing practices that have long been unquestioned within the community that makes theatre.
Because it’s literally stopped and, at the moment, there really isn’t any theatre it’s hard to say what has actually changed yet. It is great that these conversations are taking place. I think these kinds of conversations have always taken place, but because we have been given the luxury of space where we don’t have to do a lot of the stuff we normally have to do, they can take more room and therefore can be more far reaching.
But at the moment all this stuff is theoretical, and we have to see what happens when we try to put them in practice. Is it enough? Is this a cosmetic solution? Is there a systemic problem that is causing this one thing?
Again, at the moment, it’s so easy to equate everything to science and doctors because we’ve been so inundated with that reality, but it’s very similar. Are we taking care of the patient holistically? Are we treating the symptom with a cast on the arm or asking questions about how the arm got broken in the first place? Those are all questions that will be answered and hopefully more questions asked once we’re in practice again.
When it begins again, theatre will undoubtedly and, hopefully, be profoundly so. The very nature of theatre is that it constantly re-defines itself. This is a process that has always happened. I suspect there will be fundamental changes but I’m not sure what they will be yet. I can’t imagine anyone really does.
As a professional artist, what are you missing the most about the live theatre industry?
It’s a silly answer, but ‘everything’.
I have worked in the theatre since I was 22 years of age. I’m 66 now. It has defined and affected every aspect of my life. Just on a personal, emotional level, I am missing what has heretofore been an enormous part of how I have self-defined.
There are two ways of looking at how one defines one’s working life. There are jobs and careers that allow you to do the things you need to do – put a roof over your head, look after your loved ones, put food on the table, pay for bills and things you need - but those activities, even though they may be important to an individual, are not necessarily the defining core of an individual identity. Then there are other endeavours that are less a job than a kind of calling. For those individuals, those activities can become and usually do become very central to who you are, and how you see yourself and indeed present yourself.
There are benefits and negatives to this kind of understanding of how one fits in and serves oneself and one’s community.
I miss the rehearsal process, the collaborating with fellow artists. I also miss the other side of the equation of telling stories to audiences every night.
There’s not one thing I miss. It’s the whole thing because I do feel that a large part of how I’ve always identified myself hasn’t been available to me for a long time. I never thought I’d retire as long as I was healthy, and as long as somebody was willing to ask me to do something with them. And so, being in a sense forced into a kind of retirement has brought up all sorts of questions about how one spends one’s time, what is the nature of time.
Actors are used to unemployment, but then there was always the knowledge that theatre was going on and that someone was working. Both a possibility of future endeavours and just the notion if it’s not me, it’s somebody. But now that that’s gone, it’s a real adjustment because it’s not simply about me.
It’s about the larger community and the endeavour that I’ve spent my life engaged in. There’s a profound sadness. I don’t know if I give myself to magical thinking, but there’s a part of me that feels (I don’t think this but I feel it) that there is some kind of correlation between the fact theatres stopped and the world went crazy.
Theatre is not the primary form of how people hear stories these days. At times it can be thought of as elitist, but I wonder if there’s not a tipping point that enough people in the world were going to the theatre to keep the world in a kind of balance. And then when it stopped, that ballast was no longer available and so we’ve all gone a little crazy.
A ridiculous theory, but nevertheless… (and Scott emits a quick laugh)
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?
This is a great question.
I will never take for granted that the theatre will always exist. Clearly, we’ve just seen how a medical emergency can put a stop to it. We alluded a few minutes ago to a fundamentalist religion gaining government power can stop it. There are climate emergencies that could or would essentially stop it.
And I think in a larger sense if I have gained some kind of wisdom about the world is that one can’t take anything for granted there will always be a theatre, there will always be a seashore, there will always be a sunrise. We have to work to ensure that these activities, institutions and events that we cherish continue. They’re alive so they have to be nourished, and they can’t be taken for granted. We have to constantly re-invent them and question them.
We have to constantly re-engage on a profound level. We perhaps ought to stop asking “What kind of theatre” that we have and perhaps we should now ask “Why should we have it?”
My hope is that we will always answer that in the affirmative, but the why will always change and lead us to a deeper conversation of “Why do people feel the need to gather together and tell each other stories? What’s that about?”
That to me is the real question we need to ask ourselves culturally why are we doing this? We need to ask this question before we go to rehearsal. We need to ask this each night before we go on stage. It has to be a deeper reason than simply how we spend our time or how we entertain ourselves. As our technology has increased, theatre is the least cost-effective entertainment platform that I can imagine, so there must be something beyond how the theatre functions commercially; there must be something beyond simply the surface entertainment value that humans respond to when they get into the same room each other, and breathe the same air, sit shoulder to shoulder both scary now and tell stories.
Describe one element you hope has changed concerning the live theatre industry.
Again, I’ll get back to “We’ll see”. (Scott takes a long pause before he continues)
Maybe my issue with this question is the word ‘hope’. I find the word ‘hope’ is kind of inactive. I think we have to work to make these changes happen.
I suspect that what we may discover is that we actually haven’t gone far enough in re-imagining how theatre can function in a post-pandemic 21st century world.
What I hope and plan to do if and when I plan to get involved again in this work is one of things I’ve been really thinking about and contemplating for most of my career in the theatre which is, like most institutions in the 20th and 21st century, the theatre has become more and more and more of a top down organization where decisions are made by a small select group of people that are then filtered down to a larger group of people.
Because the theatre is the most collaborative of art forms, it’s difficult to make change if you’re not a position to make change. The effect that has on the collaboration at times might be impossible if people feel like they are in this kind of trickle-down dynamic.
My hope and my continued work are to come up with practical strategies and work practices that will help to allow the real collaborative nature of theater to become more important than it is at the moment. We’re hearing a lot of conversations now where theatres are saying that we need to ensure that people are heard and seen.
I want to counter that with maybe it’s better to think of it in terms of “I don’t want someone to feel heard. I want to listen to them.” “I don’t want someone to feel seen. I want to look at them, I want to see them.”
Those kinds of changes, I think, are necessary particularly when so much of our theatre in North America is so much a product of colonialism. All of the contracts that we currently work under are very much a matrix of the commercial theatre.
I hope we stop defining what is the majority of the theatre and continue to define it by what we want it to be, not what we don’t want it to be. We want a theatre that offers something to the artist and audience to collect together and share stories, and that’s why we need to reach out and collect more stories shared. We listen to the stories that we heretofore have not paid enough attention to, and we need to re-tell old stories that speak directly to the world we live in, and not to a world that no longer exists.
I think the best way to do that is to ask why we’re doing theatre in the first place, and to try and set up a situation where we are more actively collaborative with the artists who are actually responsible for putting this together and have a real critical look at what is the role of the actor? director? designer? We’re at the beginning of pulling this apart. We’ve been given a gift of time to examine what it is.
We have to keep working, and we have to be keep WORKING.
Explain what specifically you believe you must still accomplish within the industry.
Ah, well, on a technical level, there are still stories I want to tell and still stories I want to hear. There are still parts I want to play.
It’s very interesting the word ‘accomplished’ that you’ve used. I’ve been doing some writing myself over the months of pandemic. I’m an occasional ‘journaler’ and have been re-reading stuff that I’ve written about how to act stuff, how to direct stuff, and why I think classical theatre is still a good thing, and how Shakespeare might continue to speak to us.
The other day I was doing a bit of writing about a speech from ‘Henry V’. Shakespeare uses the word ‘accomplish’, and I found out the original meaning of the word ‘accomplish’ was to make something out of metal. So, we were talking about armours accomplishing the knights with hammering them into these suits of armour.
Sometimes, I think that personal accomplishments in the theatre is not unlike a suit of armour. It is something that everyone can see, it is something that we wear, and it is something that protects you from the dangers of examining these plays and putting on these plays, and trying to tell the truth to each other, and eventually to an audience.
I’m not looking to accomplish things so much as I am looking forward to continue questioning. I still have lots of questions I want to ask. Sometimes they’re about specific roles – what’s up with Willy Loman? Or as a director, what’s going on in ‘Measure for Measure’?
What’s that line from ‘Chorus Line’ – Am I my resume? This list of accomplishments in an actor’s bio can so easily be something that actually functions like armour as it might stop somebody from touching you, or you from touching somebody, as you have to get through the armour of your accomplishments. You have to get through your accomplishments in order to make contact and let the play touch another person.
Sometimes, as an audience member, they’re simply “I want to hear your story. I don’t know of anyone who has had your life experience.” I have questions about that as what’s it like to be you?
What I want to accomplish is to continue to do what I’ve done in the theatre which is questioning new plays, old plays, myself, the people I’m talking to.
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 an audience member observing the theatre.
I frankly don’t think there’s going to be any. I really don’t.
I think there’s going to be a tsunami and onslaught of new plays. I think a lot of people are writing. I think a lot people who have always wanted to tell a story and haven’t for lack of time, lack of courage lack of access have suddenly gone, “Yah, why not?”
I suspect there’s going to be a lot of new writing that has come out of this time. I expect there will be a lot of one person performance pieces that will come out of this time which is interesting.
If anything, for most of us, this has been a period of stasis for some people that have suffered dire economic hardships, dire medical suffering, and death of loved ones, but that’s the stuff of life anyway. There will always be stories about that.
My mother passed away in November. She lives in the States. I live up here. Very difficult to get there. She was in LTC that had an outbreak of Covid and even if I was there, I couldn’t see her. I have felt in the six months since she died a kind of disconnect with her death, for instance. I still find myself going. “Oh God, I haven’t called my mother in such a long time, or I should call her to share this with her as she’d appreciate this. The rituals of completement were unavailable to me.
Now, if I wanted to tell that story, is that a Covid story? It’s only superficially a Covid story but it’s how our modern life sometimes doesn’t allow us to participate in these interpersonal rituals because of events that are outside of our control.
I suspect a lot of the new writing that will appear post pandemic will probably be more political than it’s been for awhile. That also goes in phases and cycles, but obviously and culturally we are grappling with and dealing with. I wouldn’t be surprised if most plays had that political or cultural political aspect in their plays than perhaps the interpersonal relationships.
I think certain sensibilities we’ve had to deal with during Covid, I find myself thinking about mindfulness. We’re talking about mindfulness in these cultural conversations we’re having, uncovering individual and unacknowledged biases and how we need to be more mindful of that and mindful of the language we use because we’re now aware of how dire the consequences could be if we are not mindful and aware.
As an artist, what specifically is it about your work that you want future audiences to remember about you?
(With a good laugh, Scott says) I feel like I keep throwing spanners into these questions, so I’m going to continue my role as spanner thrower.
I’m not sure I will be remembered and I’m not sure I ought to be remembered.
(Scott then proceeds to tell me a fascinating story of one summer years ago when he was watching create Da Vinci life sized sand sculptures of The Last Supper. Scott remembered as he was walking home late one night around midnight where he saw the sculptures on the sand and noticed the wind on the beach had softened the features of these sculptures and, by morning, these sculptures were lumps of sand.)
(Scott’s comparison of this moment of the sand sculptures to the theatre was intriguing).
We who work in the theatre are sculpting out of sand; we’re inviting people to watch us create these characters and stories out of nothing, out of sand, and they come into incredibly sharp focus. So, as you watch the face of Jesus, of Judas appear out of the sand as this sculptor created was an extraordinary moment to watch and to participate in because we’re in the moment watching this sculptor do it.
I found it really liberating to work in a medium (of theatre) that is all about time, and that only existed in the moment. I couldn’t go back and visit the creation of the face of Christ in the sand. It was an experience that I shared, and it lived with me, but I couldn’t go back and look at it again in the way I could go to Europe now and look at the actual painting of the Last Supper.
Theatre doesn’t have the sociological impact of the mass media of film and television to immediately change peoples’ perceptions on a large scale – how we dress, how we behave. Theatre has a unique ability partially because it only exists in the moment and exists in the space between the artist and the audience. I think it has a unique ability to affect the human soul.
The power of theatre is perhaps less apparent than some of the other platforms for creativity, but on an individual level, it really does have the possibility to get people to change the way they think just a little bit, just move that bias in a slightly different arc.
And so, to answer the question you asked, the people who occasionally stop me who say, “I’ll always remember certain roles you’ll play” will carry that experience as these are wonderful plays. Hopefully my inhabiting of the character(s) at that moment had an affect on those people, and perhaps changed on a tiny little level, the bias of their lives.
But those of us that work in the theatre know that once the people who have seen our work die, that’s kind of it. The giants of the theatre a century ago (Ellen Terry, Edwin Booth) are forgotten now, which is as it should be, because theatre is the now, it’s about the moment.
I don’t want to be remembered. I want people to continue experiencing the now.