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Seana McKenna and Miles Potter

Looking Ahead

Photo provided by Seana and Miles

Joe Szekeres

When I closed out the ‘Moving Forward’ series in November 2020, I was extremely grateful both Donna and Colm Feore graciously gave of their time to answer questions via email on how they had been faring during this last year of tumultuous upheaval especially in the live performing arts industry.

I am appreciative both Seana McKenna and Miles Potter agreed to close out the 2021 series of ‘Looking Ahead’ and offer their understanding of what has gone on these last 16 months for them, and how they see the professional live theatre industry in a post pandemic world.

Seana is a graduate of Montreal’s National Theatre School. I’ve seen her work on stage in many productions over the years at The Stratford Festival. She has graced the stages of other companies across Canada. It was the production of ‘Doubt: A Parable’ in which she appeared that encouraged me to direct John Patrick Shanley’s hard hitting drama twice on the community theatre stage.

Miles is an actor and director who has worked in the industry for over 35 years at many of the illustrious venues across Canada. He directed the original production of ‘The Drawer Boy’ in 1999 at Theatre Passe Muraille. As a director, Miles has envisioned over 40 productions and acted for three seasons at The Stratford Festival where he was in the original company of Elliott Hayes’ ‘Homeward Bound’.

We conducted our conversation via email. Thank you, Seana and Miles, for sharing your thoughts and perspective with all of us as we look ahead:

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.

SM: My view of the world, like so many things over the pandemic, has been up and down. At one moment, filled with despair at the loss, the ignorance, the cruelties that abound. And then fervently optimistic about the world, its young people, and their hopes and dreams. I think I am still a realistic optimist, which may very well be a cynic in the end. Work for the most; hope for the least

MP: When I view Covid from my personal perspective, I have to acknowledge that a): I am an extremely lucky person, and b): my experience of Covid has been very different from a large part of the population. As an older person, of course the initial risk was very present for me (I told my adult son my main objective was to ’stay off the trachea tube’)

But fairly quickly I became aware that I was assuming the role of an observer, as theatre people often do, and I became very aware of how other people's lives and livelihoods were cratering around them. My heart went out to those young people and mid career artists whose worlds shuddered to a halt.

I do, however, think that a perception I had early in the pandemic is still true today: if you compare the number of teeth gnashing and wailing done by, let’s say, the financial industry in 2008 compared to the theatre industry in 2020, the theatre industry with an unemployment rate nearing 100%, compares favourably, attitude wise. Especially as we had nothing to do with the destruction. This is to say my most recent perception of my fellow workers is that they are flexible, realistic, and often stoic, which is something decades in an uncertain industry can prepare you for.

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?

SM: I think live inside theatre is still in cocoon form, just starting rehearsals in various cities to open outside, or hopefully, for autumnal indoor theatre. It will have changed, I think. There will be more diverse storytelling, more awareness of the social justice issues that have been front and centre over the pandemic and possibly, less of it, due to the theatre’s economic devastation.

Hopefully, it will be a kinder, more welcoming place to everyone and their viewpoints. Many theatre people will, I think, leave the theatre, having found other more stable jobs that are not so challenging. They may have realized how truly marginal we are in our society, especially in Ontario, one of the largest theatre-going centres in the world. Yet theatre practitioners were not even considered in Ontario’s original opening plan, unlike sports teams that needed to “practice”.

MP: Part of the above answer to this question may apply, but I also think I have come to be very aware that despite the heroic efforts of people to keep working on video and zoom theatre…it ain’t theatre.
There is no replacement for sharing air with your audience; the air carries the sound waves as well as droplets; no electronic equivalent can do the exact same thing as hearing a live voice speaking directly to you; I suppose one might quibble those microphones do the same thing…sure, but I hate microphones.
As a professional artist, what are you missing the most about the live theatre industry?

SM: People. The huge collaborative exploration of the complexities in any given piece of theatre. The continuing discoveries made with the audience present, moment by moment. The joint purpose of everyone involved in putting on a play, onstage, backstage and behind the scenes. The camaraderie of colleagues. The listening. The way of life that every theatre person understands.

MP: What do I miss? Being in the room. In an interview about his films, Ingmar Bergman was once asked “Don’t you do plays as well?” And apparently, he really perked up: “Yes; now, being in a room with a group of artists working on a great text; that is work for adults.”

I agree.

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?

SM: The theatre’s very existence.

MP: You know what? Not to sound smug, but I don’t think I ever took anything for granted. I never felt anyone owed me a job; I was always grateful to work; every time I opened a show or entered a rehearsal hall, I always made a point of being aware that this could be the last time…and this time, maybe it was.

Describe one element you hope has changed concerning the live theatre industry.
SM: I hope it will not be a scary place, that love will conquer fear, that we will feel safe to take risks, that we will find strength together to do what we love and what we believe in.

After the theatres in Britain were shut down, not by the plague, but by Cromwell, change came: women were allowed to appear on stage, playing roles previously forbidden to them. Positive change came after a period of great repression.

I hope that happens again, that theatres flourish, and enjoy even a fraction of the government subsidies offered to so many corporations!

MP: There is so much change happening right now in the world, and the theatre that is meant to reflect it, it is hard to pick one; I suppose my hope is that the ability for a group of people to be in a room and trust each other to take risks and share their vulnerability will not be swallowed up in the current tide to express and define one’s individuality.

Putting on a play has always meant allowing one’s ‘presence’ to feed into and serve the whole. Right now, the ‘whole’ feels fractured.

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

SM: I don’t really have the appetite for “accomplishment” much, anymore. Continuance, yes. Especially teaching, which I have done since my twenties. I have also done some Zoom teaching and mentoring and loved it. You learn so much working with young actors, and it forces you to articulate what it is you think you do.

I am also directing again this year, for Here for Now Theatre and for the University of Windsor. This is the longest time since I was about five that I have not been on a stage: I hope I can still act. So I hope to be on a stage again one day, with old friends and new colleagues.

Out of theatre-school, when asked in an interview why I went into the theatre, I said: “To change the world”. I think, oddly, my goal is still the same. Even if it is only one person’s world.

MP: My goal in the industry ever since I decided that I could direct plays, was to try, to the best of my ability, to make and to allow the people I am working with to be better. To be honest with them, and in a respectful manner to guide the production and the acting and all the elements to a positive finish.

If I work again, that will still be my goal.

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.

SM: “Must be prepared”? That sounds rather onerous, doesn’t it? You don’t have to go if you don’t like the subject matter.

I am not sure that we will see a flood of Covid themed stories right away: we are in the middle of it. We may need some time and distance.

Playwrights and collectives may want to go in the opposite direction, to escapism as entertainment did in the twenties and thirties after the Great War and the depression. But plays can be more current than film.
We might be ready for Covid-themed stories-it is, sadly, a universal theme. I would go see a Covid-themed story… if it’s a good story. Or if I have friends in it! I don’t think I would like a steady diet of them, though…

MP: My friend Mark Crawford has written a one person show that is a terrific story with lots of characters and humour and suspense; it happens during the summer of 2020 and Covid is definitely present. I’m helping him with dramaturgy and staging; it should go on this summer. It is not a ‘Covid play” but Covid is in it. I think in a contemporary story written this year, Covid can’t be ignored.

I have enjoyed the few movies made during lockdown that feature lockdown. How far into the future will people want to hear about the pandemic? If it is anything like the Spanish Flu, not long. But it remains to be seen.

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

SM: Future audiences? I hope past audiences may remember a moment or two. I would like them to remember that I was glad they were there with me, and hope they felt, if only for a moment, that I was speaking to them and for them. I hope I shared enough, so they might, in our shared experience, have felt something, and ultimately, felt less alone.

MP: As a performer and as a director, I have always tried to serve the play, and the playwright, even when I was doing collectives, which can really encourage a 'everybody for themselves environment’(despite the name of the genre.)

I would hope that there are some audience members, especially younger ones, who might someday say: “Hey, remember that amazing MacBeth we saw? Or remember when Seana McKenna creeped us out as Medea? Who directed that, anybody remember?’

That will be enough for me.

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