Arts·Pandemic Diaries

Theatre stages may be empty, but virtual rehearsals are keeping our spirits in full zoom

Rob Kempson and his Shaw Festival colleagues are connecting even more deeply with their work — and with each other — during all of this.

Rob Kempson and his Shaw Festival colleagues are connecting even more deeply with their work — and each other

Set of the planned 2020 production of Gypsy at the Shaw Festival Theatre. Set design by Cory Sincennes. (Photo by Mark Callan)

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

Some people got it and make it pay.
Some people can't even give it away.

Mama Rose sings these famous lyrics as part of the breathtaking eleventh-hour number in the musical Gypsy. The immortal words by Stephen Sondheim speak directly to the pain and pleasure of the theatre, even in the best of times. Live performance is never a sure thing; rather, it's an endless list of questions. Will the show be ready for opening? What if the reviews are bad? What if nobody buys a ticket?

Right now, though, there isn't much to buy a ticket for — no matter how much audiences might want to.

Nine weeks ago, the world was different. Nine weeks ago, I was closing the sold-out run of Box 4901 (written by Brian Francis and directed by me) at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre. Produced by my tiny indie company timeshare performance, Box 4901 was — like many independent shows — a labour of love. Featuring an extraordinary cast of 14 actors and an all-queer team, the show was a celebration of community, of connection, and of finding one another despite the obstacles in our way. The fact that we were able to pay everyone decently is a testament to our amazing producer, some substantial fundraising and grant-writing, and the enthusiasm of audiences. The show ran from February 28 – March 8 in what I now think was the luckiest time slot of the year. We missed the pandemic shutdown by one week. One week.

The ensemble cast of Box 4901. Set design by Brandon Kleiman. Lighting design by Cosette Pin. (Photo by James Heaslip)

Many of my friends and colleagues were not so lucky. My heart breaks thinking of those for whom 2020 was meant to offer huge momentum for their independent companies, their theatrical resumes, their careers. The loss we are feeling in the performing arts is unique because it is not tangible and not replaceable. The preparation for these projects is years-long, and that's a difficult pill to swallow for most artists right now.

However, I have found that this particular loss can also live in an in-between, a kind of liminal space — like the one I am currently experiencing in my role as one of two Neil Munro Directing Interns at the Shaw Festival. My first day in Niagara-on-the-Lake was the same day that rehearsals were stopped and the main building was shut down. It was the day that we tried to turn all regular daily activity into lengthy Zoom meetings. It was the day when most Canadians experienced a rapid shift in how we spend our time. And it was the first signal of huge personal loss, as this was a major milestone in my career.

As has been widely reported, the Shaw Festival has managed to keep everyone employed since March 15. We are all being paid (and supported in many other ways) by the company while we attend regular online rehearsals. At this point, layoffs are imminent, as we know that these productions will almost certainly not make their way to the stage this summer; the leadership team has been very clear about that. However, we are continuing to gather online and connect through the work.

I do not recommend six hours of screen time in online rehearsal, so it hasn't always been easy — but it also hasn't been awful. It has provided a structure to my days and socialization despite isolation. The generosity of the Shaw Festival has allowed me to continue doing what I do. In fact, in many ways, their generosity has given the opportunity to immerse myself even more fully in my passion, in a kind of magical oscillation between deep melancholy and profound joy.

Rob Kempson and the cast of Gypsy rehearsing over Zoom. (Rob Kempson)

An obvious statement: theatre is about connection. Like our celebrated production of Box 4901, the spirit of the work is often made real, true, and understandable when an audience arrives to share in the experience with the artists. And of course, that isn't going to be possible in a traditional sense for some time. However, before an audience gets there, the artists spend countless hours discussing and investigating and posing questions and interrogating and exploring the work that they are creating. All too often, this part of the work is cut short in order to facilitate the economic realities of Canadian theatre and the need to work quickly and efficiently. Sure, you can stage a play without deeply diving into every moment of it — but the richness of that deep exploration is a huge part of the craft of making theatre. For an artist, it's delicious.

Right now, with the support of the Shaw Festival, that is all that we are doing. Artists are always complaining about a lack of rehearsal time and an eternal focus on the product; here we are in the midst of a pandemic with no choice but to focus only on the process. We had to (involuntarily) give up a lot, but we're getting to do it — to explore without the pressure of a final product, a review, a sales report.

The incredible bleakness of what's to come has been matched by the unbelievable joy of watching some of Canada's best artists do their work in their living rooms and kitchens. The joy of witnessing them sing (a cappella) with all of the heart and life that would fill a 1500-seat theatre. The joy of diving deeply, again and again, into the analysis of the text and finding new things each time. The joy of coming together to connect around art, our process, and our sense of community. I have never met many of my colleagues in real life, and yet I already feel as though our very first in-person interaction might be an embrace.

Kate Hennig as Mama Rose (in her condo) rehearsing for the Shaw Festival's production of Gypsy over Zoom. (Jacqueline Thair)

Mama Rose's song from Gypsy continues in a rather prophetic way if you consider it with a pandemic lens:

This people's got it,
And this people's spreadin' it around.
You either have it,
Or you've had it.

But she's not talking about COVID-19. She's talking about what it feels like to have the soul of an artist. Negotiating with that unrelenting force inside is difficult when we don't know so much about the future. For now, I'm relishing in the fact that I am finding my own artistic practice through the process. And I know that will carry through into my post-pandemic life as well.

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

Rob Kempson is a freelance playwright, director, creator and artist-educator. In the past, he has served as the Associate Artistic Director at the Thousand Islands Playhouse (Gananoque, ON) and the Associate Artistic Producer at Theatre Passe Muraille (Toronto, ON). He works in a multiplicity of forms, all of which depend upon face-to-face human connection and interactivity. This summer, he was meant to be one of two Neil Munro Directing Interns at the Shaw Festival. More info at robkempson.com or on twitter at @rob_kempson.

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