Ted Dykstra and Diana Bentley

The Self Isolated Artists

Melissa Renwick/Toronto Star File Photo

Joe Szekeres

When I received an email from Ted Dykstra (Chief Engineer) today, I noticed at the bottom under his name he calls his Coal Mine Theatre, “Off-off Broadview theatre”.

Very classy and clever, indeed, as he and his wife, Diana Bentley (Co-Chief Engineer of Coal Mine) have modelled their 80 seat theatre after the intimate, exciting and often daring productions that can be found in New York City’s ‘off-off Broadway scene’. To this day, I have never, ever, been disappointed with any of the intriguing and enthralling productions I have reviewed at Coal Mine. I must attribute its success to Diana and Ted, their dynamite slate of plays, and the outstanding actors/production crew members who continue to grace the stage here on Danforth Avenue.

I have had the honour to have seen both Ms. Bentley and Mr. Dykstra perform at some of Canada’s finest theatres, and I must include Coal Mine here as well.

Ms. Bentley gave a daring and brave performance as Filigree at Coal Mine in ‘Category E’. I will always remember how moved I was the first time I saw Mr. Dykstra’s co-creation of, what I believe is, one of Canada’s most famous plays, ‘Two Pianos, Four Hands’.

I was pleased when they agreed to be interviewed via email:

1. How have you and the kids been doing during this tumultuous time of change and upheaval?

Ted: Pretty well. We have an 18-month-old named Henry who thinks he hit the jackpot, as he of course has us to himself 24/7.

Diana: I think, like most people, there are good days and then there are harder days. We are enjoying having this time at home together and with Henry, but of course we miss the other parts of our lives that we love like the Coal Mine.

2. What has been the most difficult or challenging for you during this isolation? What have you been doing to keep yourself busy during the time? (I know with children your attention will have to be on them first and foremost)

Ted.: My son and daughter Theo and Rosie are with their mom, and we miss them very much. They miss us too, but I think they and Henry miss each other most of all! The other thing would be speculating on the future, which is “a mug’s game” but I sometimes do it anyway.

Diana: We split the days so that one of us takes care of Henry while the other works. Right now I’m working on a television show that I’ve been wanting to pitch for a few years, and a one woman show that I have had sitting inside me for a year. Both are exciting and I’m happy for the time to draw my focus to them, but also trying to be gentle with myself. Right now we’re gearing up for a Coal Mine Zoom Board meeting so we’re still working too!

3. I believe ‘Cost of Living’ was in pre-production and intensive rehearsals when the pandemic was declared, and the quarantine imposed. How many weeks were you into rehearsals? Can you possibly see ‘Cost’ perhaps being part of this upcoming 2020-2021 season or a later season?

Ted: We were to start rehearsals March 17. Our New York based actor Christine Bruno arrived March 15, a Sunday. We had her set up in an air bnb close to the theatre, had rented her a mobility scooter, (the play involves two characters who are physically disabled) and stocked her place with groceries. Because she needed to isolate for two weeks on arriving from the states, we decided that we would delay the whole show by a week.

So she would isolate for a week, then we would begin rehearsals at the theatre, skyping her in for the first week. But two days after she arrived, we knew it was game over due to the acceleration of the virus’ spread. So we sent her back on the Tuesday. It was very sad of course.

Diana: We are very committed to making sure ‘Cost of Living’ happens. The big question is when, but that’s the question for everything right now. When we return to making live theatre, when audiences feel safe to come back and then of course what shows we will program. Lots of questions and bridges to cross

4. Any words of wisdom or sage advice to performers/artists/actors who have been hit hard during this time? I’m sure this pandemic has hit hard on the new graduates of theatre schools. Any words of wisdom for them?

Ted: Our jobs have never been assured, by anyone. This is a golden opportunity to learn this. I don’t think any of my neighbours in East York have thought once that they miss the theatre at this time. Rightly so. They have far more important things on their minds. So why are you wanting to do it? It’s an important thing to know for yourself. Good time to think about it!

And if you have to do something else other than your heart’s desire to live for however long, like the rest of the world does, show yourself and the world you can do it well and without complaining. We are so lucky to be living the lives we are. And you can still write, read, create, dream - all the things you love. Don’t stop.

Diana: Have faith. Go inward. Listen.

5. Do you see anything positive stemming from COVID 19? Will COVID 19 have some lasting impact and influence on the Canadian performing arts scene?

Ted: Well if I were the environment, I’d be wishing the virus would stay a good long time, so there’s that! A life doing theatre has taught me a lot about humankind. Unfortunately, one of the conclusions I have reached is that no society, country, nation, continent has ever learned the lessons necessary to stave off their end. And this is, I think, a truth about humanity. We survive. We change, but usually only because we have to.

As soon as we stop “having to”, we start to forget why we were doing it, and comfort and greed once again come to the foreground. Flip side of that? We keep inventing, writing, discovering, expanding in as many good ways as bad. But there isn’t anything we know now about being human on the inside then the Greeks knew 2500 years ago. Maybe we are waiting for a worldwide “aha!” moment. I sure hope it comes. But any time soon? I don’t think so… And would I love to be wrong? Of course! Theatre will continue, and some great plays will come of this time, as they have of every other time. But that’s nothing different. That’s what theatre does. So it will continue to do that.

Diana: Gratitude and not taking anything for granted.

6. Some performing artists have turned to streaming and/or online/You Tube presentations to showcase or perform their work. In your opinion and estimation, is there any value to this during this time? What about in the future when we return to a sense of a new normal. Will streaming and online productions be the media go to?

Ted: It’s not my cup of tea. Theatre to me is meant to be experienced in a room full of people. Theatrical performances are meant to take place in front of people. This raises the stakes, makes it so much more exciting. Watching a live play online, where actors are performing for no one, is what I would call television. And real television is an awful lot better. In fact it’s fantastic right now in terms of variety and excellence. No contest.

Diana: For some people/ artists I am sure that will be exciting and essential. For Ted and I the Coal Mine is very much about the live experience so I’m not sure we’ll follow suit- but anything is possible!

7. What is it about performing and the arts scene that you still always adore?

Ted: Great plays. The community. Great artists. My colleagues, friends. Memories. Moments. The anticipation excitement and hope on the first day of rehearsal. Working with designers, volunteers, stage managers, bartenders who are all infinitely better at their jobs than I could ever be. And the audience. The people who pay good money to see what we do because they love it and want it in their lives. Without them we are nothing. And after 45 years doing this, I can say without reservation that no matter what happens to The Coal Mine, we have been blessed with the finest patrons I have ever had the privilege of working for!

Diana: The artists. I miss them so much.

As a nod to ‘Inside the Actors’ Studio’ and the late James Lipton, here are ten questions he used to ask his guests at the conclusion of his interview:

1. What is your favourite word? Ted: Geselig. It’s a Dutch word that has no direct translation that describes the feeling of comfort, coziness, acceptance, serenity given by say a fireplace in the winter with your favourite drink in hand and a blanket and two or three of your most favourite people in the room who share the feeling and are enjoying it as much as you, with no worries present whatsoever. And it’s snowing outside. The big, slow, thick flakes.

Diana: Cantankerous

2. What is your least favourite word?

Ted: The N word.

Diana: Bitch

3. What turns you on?

Ted: My wife.

Diana: The Giggles

4. What turns you off?

Ted: People who can’t laugh at themselves

Diana: Narcissism

5. What sound or noise do you love?

Ted: My kids’ laughter.

Diana: The sound of our son talking to himself in his crib in the morning.

6. What sound or noise bothers you?

Ted: Anything whatsoever no matter how small that I can hear when trying to go to sleep.

Diana: Loud crunching.

7. What is your favourite curse word?

Ted: It’s a phrase I came up with when I was directing Shakespeare in Calgary. “Fuck my balls.”

Diana: F**k

8. What profession, other than your own, would you have like to do?

Ted: Astronaut.

Diana : Fiction writer.

9. What profession could you not see yourself doing?

Ted: Easy. Stage Management.

Diana: Dentist

10. If Heaven exists, what would you hope God will say to you as you approach the Pearly Gates?

Ted: “You were a good dad, so we’re gonna let the other stuff slide.”

Diana: “High Five!”

Photo of Ted Dykstra and Diana Bentley by Melissa Renwick/Toronto Star File Photo
To learn more about Coal Mine Theatre and its upcoming season, visit www.coalminetheatre.com.

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