Arts·Pandemic Diaries

'I am not a digital artist. I feel like a cobbler in a world of people who no longer wear shoes'

Ken Schwartz has nothing but admiration for his colleagues moving their work online — but for him, theatre's magic can only truly be felt through live performance.

For Ken Schwartz, theatre's magic can only truly be felt through live performance

Two Planks and a Passion's production of The Tempest, directed by Ken Schwartz. Left to right: Jeff Schwager, Jamie Konchak, Chris O’Neill. Costumes by Jennifer Goodman. (Ross Creek Centre for the Arts)

Pandemic Diaries is a series of personal essays by Canadian writers and artists reflecting on their experiences during COVID-19.

I am not a digital artist.

I do not create online content.

No matter how many incentives, financial or otherwise, are presented to me during this unprecedented time, I am not, nor will I ever be, an artist who will distinguish themselves in an online world. I must admit I have been in some anguish about this since the world — in my case, in Canada — changed in mid-March.

I'm an established theatre artist, an artistic director in the thirtieth year of my professional career. I'm a director, a playwright and a teacher. I create work which is immediate and unmediated. The bulk of my work, with Two Planks and a Passion Theatre Company, is created for site-specific outdoor performances that do not employ electricity or advanced technology. The foundation of the work is the congress of human beings: artists who come together every year on a remote rural farm, The Ross Creek Centre for the Arts, to create theatre, and audiences who travel great distances to experience something beautiful, intimate and impermanent.

Today, I feel like a cobbler in a world of people who no longer wear shoes.

Two Planks and a Passion's Fireside Theatre production of The Iliad. (Ross Creek Centre for the Arts)

I am no luddite. I participate in our wireless, interconnected world as much as anyone I know. My phone is never far away. I participate in social media, and I stream the work of artists online every day. I am grateful, during this period of isolation, to immerse myself in a variety of things that take my mind off the crisis we are all living through. But even this activity has reminded me, painfully, that many creators are unable to adapt — and probably shouldn't even try.

The National Theatre in the U.K. recently offered some of their excellent live performances, filmed for cinema broadcasts, for free on YouTube. What a gift. Excellent theatre, expertly filmed, for free, whenever we want. But as wonderful as it was — and transporting in the best way — I soon realized the experience only served to reinforce the terrible situation that I and many of my colleagues are facing.

The broadcasts are not theatrical performances. They are records of performances — a recording of an interaction between artists and audiences that occurred at one time and are currently impossible to reproduce. They are not the experience of the art. They are films of other people experiencing the art. Without the audience members present, the broadcasts would be inert, hollow rehearsals awaiting an audience. That is both the source of their magic and my personal sense of loss and dread. We can revisit things that may have been recorded, but we cannot create new experiences until we have the ability to come together.

I am deeply impressed by how so many artists have mastered the internet as a medium. I am also inspired by how many of my colleagues have rapidly adapted to a world that has been abruptly transformed. I am realizing, however, that while I can imagine and prepare for a day when I will be a productive artist again, I have to accept that, today, I am an artist-in-waiting.

Ross Creek Centre for the Arts, co-founded by Ken Schwartz. (Ross Creek Centre for the Arts)

I remember watching a theatre artist have a significant breakthrough in a production of Our Town that I directed. It was a few shows into a run, and her performance suddenly changed profoundly. It was a speech in which she was realizing, from the perspective of a young person who had unexpectedly died, that we did not appreciate how finite and precious life was until we were in danger of losing it. Following the performance, I remarked how differently she had approached the scene, and how moving it was. I asked her, after having difficulty with the scene for some time, how she managed to suddenly grasp the moment.

"There was a very old man sitting in the front row tonight," she said. "And tonight, I looked in his eyes, and he was crying, and I understood. Because he understood. And then I did too."

I have never forgotten this. It speaks to me about the unique beauty and fragility of the theatre. And rather than forget the lesson or dilute the very real magic that exists in our theatres, I am willing to wait it out. It means that much to me.

CBC Arts understands that this is an incredibly difficult time for artists and arts organizations across this country. We will do our best to provide valuable information, share inspiring stories of communities rising up and make us all feel as (virtually) connected as possible as we get through this together. If there's something you think we should be talking about, let us know by emailing us at cbcarts@cbc.ca. See more of our COVID-related coverage here.

About the Author

Ken Schwartz is the artistic director of Two Planks and a Passion Theatre and a co-founder of the Ross Creek Centre for the Arts, both located in Kings Co., Nova Scotia. A director, writer and teacher, Ken is the recipient of 6 Merritt Awards, The Queen’s Golden and Diamond Jubilee Medals, and the Established Artist Award from the Province of Nova Scotia. A two-time graduate of the National Theatre School of Canada, Ken completed the Michael Langham program for Classical Text at the Stratford Festival and is looking forward to seeing his colleagues again soon — in person.

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