Self Isolated Artist
As I have been posting these “Artist Profiles’ series on social media, I have been seeing some names appear underneath who are liking or loving the article. Some of the names and faces I’ve recognized and some I haven’t.
When I saw Sugith Varughese’s name and photograph, I kept looking at both and wondering where have I seen this gentleman before?
And then it dawned on me.
Sugith Varughese appears in a recurring role in the wonderful CBC comedy ‘Kim’s Convenience’. I also had the chance to see him perform in two memorable productions of ‘Men in White’ at Factory Theatre and ‘Animal Farm’ at Soulpepper. When I kindly asked him to send me a brief biography of his education and training, Sugith’s highly impressive and professional account speaks for itself. What struck me about his high caliber of work is the fact he was the first graduate from Canada’s first MFA program in film at York University and the first minority writer-director of the prestigious Canadian Film Centre’s feature film programme where his short thesis film ‘Kumar and Mr. Jones’ was the first CFC film nominate for a Genie and went on to win three international awards.
Previously I’ve mentioned how I’d like to have a beer sometime with Norm Foster and a glass of wine with Bruce Dow and just talk to these guys. I’d have either a beer or wine with Sugith Varughese sometime soon (and I hope he would feel the same way too) and just talk to him about everything and anything.
We conducted our interview via email:
1. How have you and your family been keeping during this two-month isolation?
My spouse and I have been stuck at home as her business is hair and mine is the arts, and they both have shut down indefinitely. I think we’ve been managing pretty well, and we are lucky to live in a place large enough that we’re not in each other’s faces. I think late March through April was the hardest as the weather sucked in Toronto and we are trying to go on long bike rides or walks once a day, (masked of course.) Otherwise it’s a lot of reading and obscure cooking shows on some streaming service or another. Missing all social contact desperately. All things considered; it could be much worse.
2. What has been most challenging and difficult for you during this time personally? What have you been doing to keep yourself busy?
To be honest, fear of what we will face if or when our industry starts again. One of my great pleasures in working comes from the way theatre or TV or film create an instant family. That family has a kind of professional etiquette that I fully understand, endorse, and get great joy in participation by having worked long enough in the industry. I mean, we hug as colleagues.
I appear in CBC’s ‘Kim’s Convenience’ and our number one, Paul Sun-Hyung Lee, hugs every single person on the set before he leaves for the night. There’s all sorts of behaviours that I took for granted over the last 30 years of my career that I won’t be able to any longer. So, I stay up late wondering what our future will be like and even if we will have a future.
Keeping busy has been a problem. I have had a few voice auditions since the quarantine began, but otherwise, most of my work has been responding to interviews such as yours. So hardly a full-time activity! I was writing a new spec screenplay when Covid hit and I have been working on that as well, but that’s difficult because it’s set in a hospital and I just don’t have a clue what that will mean post-Covid. So, are creators making period pieces set in 2019? Or do we speculate on a new post-Covid dramatic story world we don’t know about yet? In the face of this existential questions, I retreat to the occasional cooking show.
3. Were you involved in any professional projects when the pandemic was declared, and everything was shut down? How far were you into those projects? Will they come to fruition sometime soon?
Professionally, has Covid changed your life regarding all the work you have completed or may have had planned?
I was in rehearsal for ‘The Seagull’ at Soulpepper in Toronto when the pandemic shut us down. We were just about to go into tech. We had one run through of this incredible play, (it was a new translation by Simon Stephens that had been done in London 2 years ago), in our rehearsal hall before we got the news that we were cancelled.
I’m sure Soulpepper would love to reprogram the play but it’s difficult to know whether they could get the same cast together. And they may have moved on from the themes of the season that got cancelled by the time they can restart their programming. After all, so much has happened like the #blacklivesmatter movement that may be part of any new season for all I know.
I would also have been filming season 5 of ‘Kim’s Convenience’ now and hopefully season 2 of ‘Transplant’. Both are TV series where I have recurring roles but, like all TV production, have been suspended indefinitely. Covid has frankly brought my career to a grinding halt with no word if or when it will be restarted.
4. Some actors whom I’ve interviewed have stated they can’t see anyone venturing back into a theatre or studio for a least 1 ½ to 2 years. Do you foresee this possible reality to be factual?
It’s impossible to know when it will be “safe” to return to work. I suspect we are facing, absent a cure or a vaccine, a new normal where we will have to live with Covid in our every day lives, let alone professionally. I think if actors are saying they won’t work until there’s a vaccine, then 2 years is possible, but who knows?
We’ve had AIDS for 30 years with no vaccine. So it may never be “safe” to return risk free.
I am preparing to return to a new way of doing things, and I think it will be sooner than two years, only because I am part of ongoing enterprises in my TV series that have far more people than me determined to see them return. But it won’t be the same as before and I don’t know what it will be like.
But the issue for theatre: it’s not just actors who need to be safe, but also the audience. And that raises a whole bunch of questions. If you are in the lobby before a show at Soulpepper, you are as far as possible from social distancing as you can be. Even if seats were able to be removed in the theatre to enable the audience to be spread out, how do they assign tickets or use the washroom at intermission? And even if that can be resolved, how do theatres survive with every other seat taken out so the theatre can only have a maximum 50% house? What business model will enable that? That may have more to do with a return to work in the theatre than any risk in the rehearsal hall.
5. In your estimation and opinion, do you foresee COVID 19 and its results leaving a lasting impact, either positive or negative, on the Canadian performing arts scene?
I think the risk to our live performing arts scene is truly frightening. The fine arts, theatre, dance, opera and symphony are not popular like professional sports. They always needed assistance even if they sold out. If social distancing must be our new normal, I don’t know how the performing arts survives. I mean, salaries for actors in the theatre are minimum wage level for many. If you’re lucky enough to work at Stratford or Soulpepper it’s a bit more than that, but if they lose half their potential audience to social distancing, how do they pay Equity rates? Or any of their current union costs? Do the unions then lower rates? I couldn’t afford to do theatre at all if that happened.
The other interesting question is how Covid affects the arts creatively. We are in the middle of a war now, but will creators feel compelled to make art about this war? Will audiences want to see that? Or will they want to escape from what they went through? I know that right now, I don’t want to experience dark content. It’s hard on my heart and soul when I know so many are in pain or struggling. I’m not able to project myself into something dark right now. But we need that kind of art too. But will we be able to take it in?
I have way more questions than answers now.
6. Do you have any words of wisdom to build hope and faith in those performing artists who have been hit hard as a result of COVID 19? Any words of sage advice to the new graduates from Canada’s theatre schools regarding this fraught time of confusion?
The arts are not for the faint of heart at the best of times. But for those who have been hit hard as a result, I just hope they know they aren’t alone. We have all been hit hard. The difference lies only in the resources we each have to cope with all this.
I know that financial, psychological and spiritual assistance is out there, and artists need to reach out and accept that help if they need it. (I’m talking about things like the AFC, CERB, CAMH.) This is a tough time for all, and no one should feel they need to be a hero. This WILL pass and we need to take care of ourselves and each other so we are ready once it does. I hope my friends and colleagues feel they can reach out to me and I know that I will do the same and that’s where the hope lives.
As for sage advice for new theatre grads, well, I don’t know if I have any advice, except to say that everyone’s story is different, and you are the lead player in the story of your life. Use this time as best you can. One thing I feel is terribly lacking in young entrants into the arts that I meet is a lack of real understanding of what’s gone before. A lot of people try and reinvent the wheel. But when I would teach young people, I found that their terms of reference were often so shallow and limited due to a lack of well, reading, and comprehension that much of my teaching involved getting them to read the great plays.
I can’t tell you how to get work, but I can tell you that if you read the Greek plays, Shakespeare, Chekhov and restoration comedies between the time you graduate and your first audition, you will be far more prepared to work than those who didn’t. Read. Study. Learn what you didn’t think you had to learn or didn’t have time for or didn’t care about when you were in school.
I guarantee you didn’t read enough while you were in school so now’s the time. I once had the chance to go to dinner with Ben Kingsley and Bruce Myers (one of Peter Brooks’ company who sadly recently passed from Covid.) And as the dumb colonial at the table, all I could do was listen as they told stories about playing Shakespeare and traveling with Peter Brooks’ company and understanding the literature of their profession in a way that most scholars did not. It was breathtaking and I realized how much they brought to the work because of what they knew.
There’s no excuse for a recent grad not to bring themselves to that level. And it will give you something concrete to do. Action is character.
7. I’ve spoken with some individuals who believe that online streaming and You Tube presentations destroy the theatrical impact of those who have gathered with anticipation to watch a performance. What are your thoughts and comments about the advantages and/or values of online streaming? Do you foresee this as part of the ‘new normal’ for Canadian theatre as we move forward from COVID 19?
I work in film and TV most of the time and I do a play every year, so I feel qualified to comment. While streaming may be a critical way of keeping theatre present during quarantine, it isn’t theatre. There is no theatre without an audience, a live audience in the room with the actors. Every show I’ve ever done was different each night because the audience was different. I always felt I could pick each audience member out of a police lineup. I’d often come in at intermission with a compliment of someone in the 4th row who was laughing at the right time or complaining about the guy in the back who kept coughing right on my good line.
It’s an intimate relationship and actors aren’t kidding when they tell someone, they were a good audience. If theatres resort to zoom monologues as their new season, I understand why they must, but it’s not theatre. It’s a film, I suppose, which is also a legitimate art form, but it’s not theatre.
I hope it’s not the new normal for Canadian theatre. I hope we find a way to have live performances for live audiences again.
8. What is it about the performing arts that still energizes you even through this tumultuous and confusing time?
Well, I love acting. I love writing. I love directing. The hope to be able to do that is what got me through my career. I didn’t need Covid to have long stretches of unemployment. After I was in the business for 10 years, I added up the number of days I’d been on set for something I acted in, wrote or directed. Because that’s all I wanted was to work. Be on set or on stage. In some way.
After ten years, I counted that I’d had 75 of those days. 75. In 10 years. That was it. And that was enough. I am energized at the possibility of working, just as I always was.
With a respectful acknowledgement to ‘Inside the Actors’ Studio’ and the late James Lipton, here are the ten questions he used to ask his guests:
1. What is your favourite word?
2. What is your least favourite word?
3. What turns you on?
The blank page
4. What turns you off?
5. What sound or noise do you love?
A baby’s laugh
6. What sound or noise bothers you?
A bomb blast
7. What is your favourite curse word?
8. Other than your current profession now, what other profession would you have liked to attempt?
An astronaut or a heart surgeon or a chef
9. What profession could you not see yourself doing?
Working on the pork cut line in a meat packing plant, (only because I did that in the summers in university and it cured me of ever wanting to work for a living.)
10. If Heaven exists, what do you hope God will say to you as you approach the Pearly Gates?
“There are a lot of people who want to meet you, and your dad is over there.”
To learn more about Sugith, visit his website: http://sugithvarughese.com.
His Twitter handle @SugithVarughese includes interaction and stuff about ‘Kim’s Convenience’, ‘Transplant’ and post progressive political tweets.
His Instagram handle @sugithvarughese and Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/SugithVarughese