Down but not out: With theatres closed, how P.E.I. actors are spending their summer
'For a while it felt like I'd lost my identity'
Where is Matthew Cuthbert going? Well, he's not going to the Avonlea train station to pick up a chatty red-headed orphan — not this year, anyway.
The COVID-19 pandemic has cancelled Anne of Green Gables for the first time in 56 years, along with the rest of the Charlottetown Festival and most of the theatre and dinner theatre on P.E.I.
There may be a select few playing outdoors or offering a modified version like The Guild, where a concert called The Songs of Anne and Gilbert will replace Anne and Gilbert — The Musical.
Others, like the Kings Playhouse in Georgetown, were just about to cast their productions when the lockdown began. The Victoria Playhouse was about to celebrate its 39th season and had hired three actors from off-Island for its two comedies, but instead closed its doors to the public and is renovating and cleaning out years of props.
What are the dozens of out-of-work actors doing instead of singing, acting and dancing their hearts out?
CBC News caught up with a few of them to find out.
Emma Rudy, Anne of Green Gables
Emma Rudy, 25, of Stratford, Ont., was about to play Anne in Anne of Green Gables for the second consecutive summer when the pandemic cancelled the season.
"It was a really tragic thing because I know how much she means to the entire Island and beyond," said Rudy. "I did feel grateful I had had the chance to do it already. But it almost stung more, because I knew how great it was."
Rudy said she feels sympathy for fellow actors who were cast in Anne for the first time, because they aren't getting the chance to be in the show — and there is no guarantee they, or Rudy, will be cast in the same parts if the show goes ahead next summer.
"I'm keeping as positive as I can," she said.
Rudy came to P.E.I. at the beginning of June from Ontario to be with her P.E.I. boyfriend and to "help out in the community." She hints she will be taking part in something to be announced soon at the Confederation Centre.
For now she said she is trying to keep her theatre muscles in shape by practising singing and dancing and reading plays, while collecting the Canada emergency response benefit, or CERB.
Catherine O'Brien, The Drowsy Chaperone
"I was really looking forward to a season with the Charlottetown Festival," laments Catherine O'Brien, who was cast as the titular character in the large-scale musical comedy The Drowsy Chaperone, and was also to play Rachel Lynde in Anne of Green Gables.
When COVID hit, she had just opened a show with Young at Heart Theatre, called Fascinating Maritime Ladies — it opened March 11 and was forced to close just a few days later. Young at Heart is a P.E.I. theatre company that creates and performs musical theatre for seniors.
O'Brien is now volunteering with Young at Heart, writing grant applications and developing strategies for next year, while she collects CERB.
I don't really know what my life looks like without being at rehearsals or practising for auditions.— Michelle Bouey, actor
"There is a chance we will not be able to perform in the seniors' homes so we have to come up with some creative ideas," she said. She also volunteers with the Citizens' Alliance and the Coalition for the Protection of P.E.I. Water.
"It feels good to be able to help out now that I do have some time," she said. "Besides that I am gardening and cycling and doing other activities to stay fit and healthy. The arts have been hard hit but so have many industries and individuals. I'm staying positive for now."
Michelle Bouey, Dear Rita
The talented young P.E.I. singer was poised to make her Charlottetown Festival debut as one of the six-person ensemble cast of Dear Rita, a show about the life and music of Cape Breton favourite Rita MacNeil. It was to be staged for three months, July through September, at The Mack theatre as part of the Confederation Centre of the Arts' summer festival.
"I felt ready for 2020. I had lots of travel plans, released a new song, and was looking forward to my first true season with the Charlottetown Festival — something I've dreamed of my whole life," Bouey said.
She said the past few months during COVID-19 have seen ups and downs — a few more downs than ups at the beginning.
"For a while it felt like I'd lost my identity. My career, along with life in Toronto, stopped abruptly and then I was back living on P.E.I. with no job; something I could've never anticipated," she said.
"I don't really know what my life looks like without being at rehearsals or practising for auditions. It's been a slow process for me but I think I've finally reached the point of understanding what my life might look like for the next little while."
And Bouey said she has tried to see the downtime during the pandemic as a small blessing.
"I've had time alone to work on my artistry and also myself as a human. On the flip side of that — a lot of time with one's self can be overwhelming; where you're forced to acknowledge everything you're feeling at all times."
Bouey said the last few months she has been working on new material, has sung in multiple live-streamed concerts, and has sent out personalized sing-a-grams via The Songbird Series (a project where the public can commission a song from an out-of-work theatre artist and send the video to a friend or family member). She has also been taking lots of long walks.
"It's been a challenging time for everyone. The whole world is hurting. So no matter how frustrated or down I might be, I'm committed to looking at the positive and to search for the silver lining in things," she said.
Rebecca Parent, Watermark Theatre
Rebecca Parent is well-known to P.E.I. audiences. She played Anne for several years in Anne and Gilbert —The Musical at The Guild in Charlottetown, and has appeared in many roles at the Watermark Theatre in North Rustico.
She was one of the eight-actor cast preparing to stage the Agatha Christie classic The Mousetrap and Horton Foote's The Trip to Bountiful this summer at the Watermark as well as participating in The Play Reading Series and teaching acting workshops in the Teenage Acting Conservatory. Rehearsals were scheduled to begin on June 1.
Instead, Parent has been sewing, making non-medical face masks for Cozy Cheeks and Green Eye Designs. She also works for Fresh Start Fauxmage, and is a co-ordinator for Sheatre, an organization which uses theatre for social justice.
"I had been so looking forward to returning to the Watermark, particularly because of the company," she said.
"I'll greatly miss my extended community. I find solace in knowing that I am only one of many artists in the same boat. I also remind myself that the true magic of theatre is worth waiting for, to be done properly and safely."
Justin Shaw, Watermark Theatre
"Basically, my life is measured in Post-it notes right now," says Justin Shaw, 29, who was learning his lines to play alongside Parent and other cast members at the Watermark this summer when COVID-19 hit Canada.
"I've taken this period to reflect upon the kind of work I want to create, and approach it at my own pace."
Shaw moved to Hamilton from P.E.I. in February, six weeks before the lockdown. He has been working on a few projects, including developing a new solo show, working with guidance from The Guild's writer in residence Rob MacDonald.
Shaw jokes he has also "taken the exciting leap into 2009" by starting a blog, called Island Boy, where once a week he shares an essay reflecting on experiences from his childhood, life on the Island and what's it's been like since moving away. Read it on Facebook at Justin Douglas Shaw.
Shaw has also entered what he calls the "weird world of podcasting" with his best friend and frequent collaborator Benton Hartley — they call their podcast Half a Star, which can also be found on Facebook.
"We interview guests from across the country and ask them to share a story born out of a bad idea (i.e., an idea that would earn a half-a-star rating)," Shaw explains.
He is collecting CERB, he said, since "shockingly, not many people want to pay to watch me tell jokes from my living room."
"I'm sad I can't work, visit home and work at Watermark this summer, but I'm grateful for my partner Diana (and our dog Phoebe) for being so loving and supportive during this uncertain time," Shaw said.