Buddies-at-Home is a series of content shared by Buddies staff, working from home during physical distancing – from recipes, to playlists, to musings on living in isolation. This contribution is from our Artistic Director, Evalyn Parry.
Early on, maybe it was week two or three of the pandemic, as I stared at my staff in their little squares on the screen, someone asked me a question. I can’t remember what that question was now, it must have had to do with calendars and deadlines. Maybe something about when we were going to announce our season? Or would Pride be cancelled, and if cancelled, when was it going to be rescheduled?
At that point, our plans stretched about six weeks into the future. We had cancelled Mine by Jenna Harris, the production I was directing, a week before the first preview; cancelled a tour of Obaaberima to Montreal; cancelled our club nights and cabaret activities until May, laid off all our hard-working hourly staff, and were waiting to see if any of the rest of the season and Pride could be salvaged. I felt like I was in freefall. It already felt like 100 years had passed since the day we closed Buddies.
Anyway, with a resigned shrug to the screen, I simply threw a question back:
“What is TIME?”
There was a pause, and then we all started to laugh. A long, deep belly laugh that went on – an extended laugh of recognition.
What IS time? In this strange, difficult and extended period of quarantine and existential unknowing that we are all living inside of, this question has now become both a joke and a shorthand answer for my team, when we hit that wall of unknowing again: the inability to plan with any certainty, the sense of impossibility to do our jobs in the way we used to, the questions that don’t seem to have discernable answers: cosmic existential riddles.
What is a theatre without any people in it?
What is a theatre season?
When will people feel safe to gather again inside an enclosed space?
Questions sent out like tendrils, astronauts, explorers travelling into an unknown future space.
I’m an advocate for questions. One of the foundations of my artistic practice is striving to find the right questions to ask. Questions hold power and possibility. Finding the right question to ask myself or another creator can be the key to unlocking creative discovery. A really good question keeps revealing new layers. A really good question is a reminder that life is not fixed, but in a state of constant change, and that we can keep trying new responses, new ways of answering.
The second week of lockdown, unsettled by the speed of the industry’s push to move live performing arts onto digital platforms, I started a list: Questions for COVID-19. This list was an attempt to locate myself, to track my own thoughts, to relate to this overwhelming situation without trying to fix it or change it.
The list keeps growing.
There are practical questions, existential questions, possibly some insightful or good questions, some questions that simply arise out of frustration. It’s mostly a way of reminding myself not to rush to find answers, but to stay with the questions, refine them.
The magnitude of change that this pandemic brings with it, the ways that we will need to adapt to survive the change, and, the possibilities for re-making our already-broken and deeply unjust society for the better….all these things require—and deserve—deep, collaborative, creative, new thinking.
It’s going to take time.
And frankly, it seems like we actually might have time, if we can accept that the new world doesn’t need to replicate the old one.
Fast forward to a few weeks ago, probably week five or six of isolation. Buddies Rhubarb Festival Director Clayton Lee and I were having a talk about what the festival might look like next year if we are not able to physically gather together, or in a circumstance where we can gather only in small groups, under physical distancing guidelines.
I live for conversations with my creative colleagues and other artists right now. These conversations are the best antidote to the news. Artists are so good at opening up new pathways, breaking down and questioning our assumed ways of doing things, the structures that have defined our sector and that are so easy to get caught inside of.
Anyway, we were having a good conversation about possible new ways of approaching this annual festival of experimental performance. At some point the conversation circled, as it inevitably does, to how strange time feels right now, how we’re charting the changes in our own feelings, thoughts and bodies from hour to hour. Offhandedly, Clayton offered that COVID-time was like dog years: 7 years to every human year.
In dog time, thus: every hour is about 7 hours long, a week is about 7 weeks…. and by the time we get to the end of this eighth week of isolation, we will have basically passed a whole year in this new reality…in dog years.
I live with a dog, some of you will have met him at the theatre over the last few years, his name is Fox. An outstanding companion even during ordinary times, over these eight weeks of COVID-19 isolation, he has been a lifesaver for me. For one thing, he helps structure my days, never late to remind me of his morning walk, or that it’s his dinner time at 5 pm on the dot.
Also, he keeps me present. This has always been the thing about dogs: every day is basically a great day, as long as there is food, a walk and a kind human. He loves his humans with unabashed enthusiasm. In the 9 human years (63 dog years) that we’ve been together, this lockdown has probably been the best time of all. So much walking! So much time with the humans at home!
We walk together through this slow, strange spring. I pause to let him get deep into the smells he finds on every post and pole, and while he’s smelling, I remember to breathe.
I know some people are struggling to remember what day it is. This hasn’t been my particular issue (though believe me, I’ve had other issues), because the other sentient being I live with is my beloved wife, who is a front line health care worker. So in March, while things in my IRL reality were rapidly shutting down, hers were ramping up.
Suzie works in the Intensive Care Unit of Toronto General Hospital. She is a Spiritual Care practitioner, a role that provides spiritual and emotional support for critical care patients and their families. Whatever medical reasons have landed a person in the ICU, it is always a life-or-death situation, an extremely difficult and challenging time for a patient as well as for their family and loved ones, dealing not only with whatever is going on physically, but also mentally, emotionally and spiritually.
For the last two and a half years, five days a week, she has been walking families through some of the worst days of their lives. Through her own spiritual training and practice she has become more comfortable with, and accustomed to, the process of death and dying than most of us. Of course I am biased, but Suzie is an extraordinary human. She finds great meaning and satisfaction in the work, and loves the team of critical care nurses and doctors she works with. But regardless, it is A VERY INTENSE JOB.
And that was pre-pandemic.
Now, with her Intensive Care Unit dedicated to COVID-19 patients, the daily death toll and the sense of hourly tragedy is utterly overwhelming and pretty indescribable. And we here in Canada have it comparatively good—we have managed to mostly avoid overwhelming our medical system as in Italy, Spain, the United States. Even so, it’s unimaginably intense, particularly since the hospitals stopped allowing visitors in order to slow the spread of the virus. Suzie spends much of her day dressed in full PPE regalia, carrying an iPad from room to room, making contact with families of critically ill and dying COVID-19 patients over FaceTime and using this incredible—and still utterly insufficient—interface to connect loved ones to say their last goodbyes.
One of the most devastating parts of this virus is that people cannot mourn together: that physical distancing measures have eliminated the possibility of our most basic human rituals of grief and loss in the ways we have known. Holding each other. Rocking each other. Being with each other.
Suzie and I do very different work, but we both share a deep, abiding need for meaning-making. To do work that feels meaningful, and which allows us to find meaning in our world. We also are both used to working with (a)liveness: People in a room together. High stakes, emotional situations, playing out in real time. Humans trying to find meaning together. Patients and families. Audiences and artists. Asking the big questions about WHAT IT ALL MEANS.
Before the pandemic, I would regularly reflect on how Suzie’s daily work reality puts my own into deep perspective.
After a stressful day at the theatre—and I can tell you, there have certainly been many in the last 5 years since I became AD at Buddies—I often remind myself, half-jokingly: NOBODY DIED TODAY. Of course it’s a false comparison, her job to mine.
In the theatre community, the 2019/20 season will go down in history as the one cut off in its prime, abruptly and with little warning. Countless productions, plays and creative projects succumbing to the virus, killed by COVID-19. Artists and institutions left in shock, mourning, cut off from their work, their collaborators, from audiences and the stages and spaces that have defined our art practice and our vocation.
It’s interesting to me that we talk about theatre “seasons” although we aren’t really talking about something that’s connected to the rhythms of the natural world, like “peach season”. I think we are just speaking about the span of time during a calendar year when our theatres produce plays on stage. For many theatres in Toronto, the season lasts from about September to May or June. Arguably, a lot longer than most agricultural seasons; more like a school calendar year, yet you never hear about the “school season”.
As we contemplate the unknown future, and when we will be able to open our buildings, my colleagues and I are asking, will there even BE a theatre season next year? Perhaps a shorter season? What will the season look like? Like an El Niño year, where an extended cold spell affects the growing season around the world. Like the way climate change is already altering crops and predictability, a world whose weather patterns are already altering seasonal activities and realities around the globe.
What about a “fallow” year? A time where we allow the soil to rest, to replenish the nutrients? Where we creatively focus inward instead of outward, cultivate the soil rather than produce?
One of Suzie’s patients, who died early this year, before the pandemic, offered her some Buddhist wisdom before he passed: three short sentences, just seven words, that have become a mantra for both of us.
Everything changes. Everything is connected. Pay attention.
When Suzie comes home from the hospital, often hours past the time her shift was supposed to end, Fox dances with joy around the apartment. He grabs his stuffed toys and throws them in the air, and runs over to me at my computer to let me know she’s home.
These days of quarantine, we share our evenings together. Which is truly a great pleasure. It took a while for me to get used to being home every night; in the old world, it was a rare night that I was home, since being out at the theatre, seeing or being a part of live performance is such a big part of my social and professional life. I’ll be honest, in this time I’ve been finding it very hard to watch the online offerings of friends and colleagues. When Suzie comes home, I just want to be together in the analogue world. We cook, drink a glass of wine and we tell each other about our days.
At 7:30 pm, our street in Parkdale comes alive for about five minutes, with neighbours coming out onto their porches and banging pots and pans in support of healthcare and front line workers. I love this ritual part of the day.
Sometimes Suzie and I play Bananagrams, sometimes we read or write, sometimes one of us reads aloud to the other, sometimes we watch a movie (ah, the movies, that medium that over a century ago figured out how to successfully translate theatre onto a screen!). On the weekend we have video visits and cocktails with friends. It’s quiet and I’m getting quite used to it. Everything has slowed down.
Not at the hospital of course. There, even as new infection rates are slowing down, critical care has ramped up. There have been a lot of days lately where Suzie comes home numb after a day filled with trauma and grief, lays down on the couch with Fox and goes to sleep. The only way to process the amount of suffering and tragedy that she has been witness to in her day. She regularly naps through the 7:30 pot banging; last week she even slept through Fox getting sprayed by a skunk in our driveway and the ensuing chaos of me trying to deskunk him.
Meanwhile, I’ve been cooped up on zoom meetings, staring at faces imprisoned in their tiny boxes on my screen for too long, caught up in spreadsheets and budgets for a thousand possible future scenarios. No one in my personal or professional world has died, not yet. In our performing arts sector, I am aware a mortal reckoning is coming, but it’s going to take some time for it to play out. At the same time, I am painfully aware of the general precarity, vulnerabilty and higher mortality rates in our queer, trans and 2Spirit communities. Of systemic inequities that mean in this moment, even the internet is not a space we all have equal access to.
For now we are trapped inside our houses and heads asking existential questions, mourning projects, productions, grants, gigs, scripts, identities, opportunities, careers, wondering how to make our next project work for digital, wondering how long the CERB will last, wondering what will happen next.
I often rage against the stressful, overworked health care system that Suzie works inside of, frustrated that it doesn’t allow for more respite and balance for front line workers. She is so often frustrated by the unrelenting, unhealthy pace of my job in the theatre, the production schedules that never seem to let up, theatrical seasons that never really seem to end.
In the new world ahead of us, can we create less exhausting and illness-inducing structures and schedules for collaborating and working in theatre? Can we change our expectations from such intense and short periods of work and extend them to allow for more life balance and less stress?
Can I actually just take this moment to be present and not try to turn it into anything?
How has this time already changed me?
What would life look like if after this, everyone—including artists—actually had a guaranteed basic income? Imagine how profound that change would be.
What would change for you?
Everything changes. Everything is connected. Pay attention.
Portrait of Evalyn’s wife Suzie and their dog Fox at home, May 2020