Susan Ferley

Looking Ahead

Peg McCarthy.

Joe Szekeres

I met Susan Ferley several years ago where she and I (along with others, including Derrick Chua) were asked by Jeremy Smith to judge Driftwood Theatre’s Trafalgar 24 (held at Whitby, Ontario’s Trafalgar Castle School). Susan is a highly articulate and intelligent individual when it comes to the live theatre industry, and I was sincerely hoping that I would have the opportunity to speak with her again and share in her love of the live theatre industry.

That opportunity did render itself when I later learned she is the Artistic Director of the Cameco Capitol Arts Centre in Port Hope, Ontario. Since this profile, Susan has stepped down from her role as Artistic Director.

I was grateful Susan was honest in saying it’s been a bumpy ride at the Capitol especially when Covid arrived over a year ago. She has a great deal of respect for the extraordinary Board of Directors and what they’ve done for the survival and flourishing of the Capitol Theatre. Even before we delved into the scripted questions, Susan and I discussed how theatre will change as a result of Covid. She believes virtual theatre will be part of the future, and it’s a challenge not only for her but for all of us who have grown accustomed to loving and to seeing live theatrical shows in an enclosed space on the stage with an audience.

Susan studied in England and received her Master of Arts in Actor Training and Coaching.

We conducted our interview via Zoom. Thanks for taking the time, Susan, to add your voice to the conversation:

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’ve realized how connected I am to work and collaboration. I live on my own; I think of myself as a private person. I know I can survive on my own, but I feel diminished in some ways. It’s striving to find outlets. I’ve been cooking and baking more and realizing how, because I’m so focused on the work, friendships and family relationships were set aside. I’ve realized my personal need to connect with other artists and also with friends and family, and nature.

Do I think of myself as someone in love with nature? No, I’ve often been in dark theatre rooms. Almost every day I go out for a walk. I’m looking out my window right now and seeing the trees glow green; the leaves aren’t fully out but you see that journey walking around and seeing the flowers starting, the forsythia, tulips popping up and daffodils in full bloom, and listening to the birds.

The river here, The Ganaraska, is extraordinary. The sound of it too. If all else fails, I would walk along the river in the downtown area. Right now, because of the current stay at home, barriers have been put up. They don’t want you walking along the river because that’s what draws people to our community often. So, I can’t get close there right now.

This community is so beautiful and has so much to offer.

That’s been lovely, but I’ve had to re-assess who I am, where I am, what’s important and what I’ve missed in my life journey.

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 artistic director of the live theatre industry been altered and changed?

Phew…I’ve always felt the theatre plays a vital role in a community and I think, for me, it’s heightened that awareness.

I’ve been reading. There was an article I read talking about a theatre in San Francisco where it spoke about theatre being an ‘empathy gymnasium’ where we learn about compassion; whether as an individual or as a community, for me, theatre provides an emotional gymnasium, a place where we can release.

I know people are often looking for entertainment and want to laugh, and how important that is to gather in a room and to share a story and find an emotional release. It’s not always laughter, sometimes there are tears, sometimes memory. But just what an important role, for me, but also the arts play in the lives of individuals in a community and also more broadly in a community.

It’s shared journeys, shared stories.

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

(Susan laughed as it appears she just answered the question earlier) Gathering in a room, artists, actors, creative teams, technical teams; it’s the collaboration that is so important to me, that interaction where creativity is sparked. That certainly is missed.

Heightened communication that is intellectual, emotional, psychological; sharing stories and also taking the creation (the production/the story being told) and sharing it. Through the sharing of the story there is also being informed and stimulated creatively as you learn from that interaction more about the creative process that goes into it.

As a professional artist, what is the one thing you will never take for granted again in the live theatre industry when the doors re-open?

(Susan laughs) Just that, the human interaction and communication, the heightened communication, enriched communication through stories. The ability to gather and share an experience.

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

It’s offered time for reflection on how we do what we do. Certainly, and this was very early, with the murder of George Floyd the awareness that has been brought to my/our collective attention. Our failings as artists working with other artists, playing with other artists.

The failings of our institutions. Theatres are creative places and gathering places and welcoming and compassionate, and there have been failures, major failures. And so, hopefully, through reflection and the time being offered, there will be changes in how we work.

Just thinking of theatres as institutions I find offensive, you know. It’s about creativity, challenge and shared stories, and a place going back to whether it’s that idea of gymnasium where things are shared, and out of the exercise of coming together and sharing a story we leave with greater understanding and compassion.

I think there is potential for change, but lots to do. Watching the IBPOC/BIPOC round table from the Stratford Festival last summer was so heartbreaking at times. And then we don’t want to just wallow in that, and then you go, ‘How, what, has to happen to move forward from all this?’

Whether professional or non-professional the need to open, welcome, and be willing to hear, to listen, and to see other stories outside of our own story, and outside of our lens. We now have, one hopes, a heightened awareness of artists of colour.

As a friend pointed out to me, there’s also diversity on other fronts. That awareness is starting to parallel with BIPOC/IBPOC artists so that we hear the artists.

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

Well, with a greater awareness, to support and encourage. With my involvement with the High School Project (from my time at London Ontario’s Grand Theatre) and going off to England, and training and taking a program that was actor training and coaching, to enrich the skills that I have to support artists in development, artists that are emerging.

I know that’s an area I’m interested in working with young and emerging artists, if I can be of assistance in helping them to reach and claim that potential and soaring. I’ve had opportunities to work in training programs and I always am exhilarated by that. The schools certainly have an increasingly responsibility in terms of assembling the IBPOC/BIPOC teachers so that the students of colour see themselves reflected in the faculty and trainers.

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 artistic director, and as an audience member observing the theatre.

I think there will be some Covid themed plays. I’m looking at to see if I can try to bring it to the Capitol Theatre is ‘February: A Love Story’ by Sudden Spark Collective.

The artists involved with that project, Ellen Denny, is someone who came out of the High School Project in London, Ontario and has pursued a career as a performer, but more recently as a writer. She and her writing partner, Emilio Vieira, have created a love story in times of Covid. They describe it as a romantic comedy, and it very much is.

But it’s also about life in the midst of Covid. So, while in my head, I might go, “Oh, I don’t know if this would go work on the subject of Covid,’ I think there will be some. This particular piece, ‘February: A Love Story’ is playful and filled with love and hope. Those are key things to get us through this time.

Because of Covid, the play was also filmed. It may be on a Stratford platform so keep your eyes open.

I think because of the isolation, and certainly I feel it as an individual, but I don’t think I’m alone in that shared experience of isolation from community and shared experience, that theatre can offer that potential for catharsis. Whether that’s coming together to laugh out loud, or whether to come together and through the experience find an emotional release whether laughter or tears.

That is something that we need and want desperately to come together especially during this time. There’s a need to get back to that emotional gym for an emotional and psychological workout. It’s been hard on individuals, human interaction and communities. Theatre will play an important role and if it takes a Covid themed play to do it, so be it. Shakespeare was pretty good at it too when ‘King Lear’ was written during a time of plague and pandemic.

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

Oh, dear, I’m never good about this sort of question, I’m afraid.

I hope I’m viewed as having had a generosity of spirit. A joy and a passionate love for what I do and that’s whether in creating work with a group of people that is shared with another group of people.

A sense of play and a love for all that theatre can offer, all that sharing stories can offer, all that creating and playing together can offer.

To learn more about Port Hope’s Cameco Capitol Centre, visit Cameco Capitol Arts Centre – Experience Entertainment (capitoltheatre.com).

Facebook: Capitol Theatre Port Hope; Twitter: @CapitolPortHope

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