The art of patience Winnipeg's creative community waits out pandemic – and wonders what the art world will look like after it
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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 09/04/2020 (1035 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Actors. Musicians. Authors. Theatre-makers. Dancers.
Collectively, we celebrate them in Winnipeg as the “creative community.”
So what happens when the “community” part is taken out of the equation? What happens when a segment of the population that tends to thrive on interaction, whether with audiences or with each other, is suddenly forced to sequester itself in response to the demands of isolation in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic?
We reached out to a sampling of Winnipeg’s creative types to check in on how they’re coping with weeks of isolation — and an unprecedented degree of uncertainty about the future of the arts.
Starting a new job and moving into a new home are two of the acknowledged Top 10 stressors in the average lifetime.
Keep in mind that such lists were created before the COVID-19 pandemic.
But those two items are recent facts of life for Rodrigo Beilfuss, 36, the newly minted artistic director of Shakespeare in the Ruins. He can look around the second-storey office at his River Heights home and still see books he has yet to unpack since moving here in September from Ontario, where he spent the previous four years working at the Stratford Festival.
Other sources of stress: his wife Elizabeth Holl, an interior designer for MMP Architects Winnipeg, is 71/2 months pregnant and is due June 5. (Curiously, childbirth doesn’t seem to make the lists. It should.)
The icing on the stress cake: On March 31, not long after taking the helm of SiR in its 26th year at Trappist Monastery Provincial Heritage Park, Beilfuss had to announce his inaugural production, A Winter’s Tale — a collaboration with Théâtre Cercle Molière and the company’s first bilingual production — was officially cancelled due to the pandemic.
“Last week was one of the worst worst weeks I’ve ever had professionally,” he says of phoning everyone contracted to work on the show to tell them it was postponed to 2021.
Collectively, that might be enough to make most mortals roll up into the fetal position in a cosy closet. But the Brazilian-born Beilfuss bears it all with admirable equanimity, although he acknowledges it is all worrying.
“It’s hard to really understand how much of a toll it’s taking,” he says. “I think I may only understand what I went through once I’m through this whole thing.”
At least he’s not alone. His fellow artistic director Ari Weinberg of Winnipeg Jewish Theatre started an email chain — with the heading “AD Therapy” — that allows all the ADs in town to commiserate.
“Many of us, we’re not really sleeping well,” Beilfuss says. “We’re basically working in our heads non-stop.
“Having said that, I’m very lucky. I’m doing OK. Being up at home with a four-year-old, in a way, keeps me distracted when I play with him because I actually have to completely unplug and be in his world. There’s that beauty about it.” – Rodrigo Beilfuss
“Having said that, I’m very lucky. I’m doing OK,” he says, acknowledging his young son Zeke. “Being up at home with a four-year-old, in a way, keeps me distracted when I play with him because I actually have to completely unplug and be in his world. There’s that beauty about it.
“The other side of having small kids with you is that you kind of have to shut off part of your brain and pretend really that everything is fine. It’s exhausting,” he says. “The biggest impact I’m feeling right now is this blending of the personal and professional. That’s what all of us are feeling right now, not just theatre people.
“Our personal and family lives are blending in with work lives,” he says. “In many ways, we never stop working because we are checking our emails while we’re also putting our kids to bed.”
Yet in a way, a theatre professional has practice bearing up under stress. After all, any given opening night is no cakewalk.
“We are kind of built to roll with the punches and be improvisational by nature,” he says.
Theatre can be an ephemeral affair, especially at an outdoor site-specific theatre like SiR, with success or failure riding on the vagaries of weather, mosquito counts or reviews. But now, everybody feels the fragility of it all, he says.
“The rest of the world is kind of understanding what it’s like suddenly when you rely on help from the government and you don’t know when your next paycheque will be coming in next,” Beilfuss says. “That was already a reality for theatre workers.
“Now everybody is kind of living the same uncertainty — the same precariousness of life,” Beilfuss says. “Literally, we’re all in this together.”
Donations to SiR can be made via the company’s website at shakespeareintheruins.com. “With so much uncertainty in the air, community support and donations are hugely important and vital right now,” Beilfuss says.
— Randall King
Jaimi Deleau was warming up in a dance class at the Royal Winnipeg Ballet when artistic director André Lewis came in with bad news: he was sending the company dancers home and the studio would be closing its doors.
It was another heartbreak in a growing list: first, the U.S. tour of Wizard of Oz was scrapped, then the rest of the season — which was to include a celebratory retrospective commemorating the RWB’s 80th anniversary — was cancelled.
“Doing our performances is what we train all those hours and rehearse all those hours to do, so it’s been extremely difficult to cancel everything we’ve been working so hard for,” says Deleau, a member of the corps de ballet. “It’s been a whole lifestyle adjustment.”
That was nearly four weeks ago, but Deleau hasn’t exactly hung up her pointe shoes.
“When I was first sent home, I rearranged all the furniture in my condo to create a workout/dance space for myself,” she says. “I think staying active is super important, not only because I’m a dancer, but just in general to move your body every day.”
In addition to her Instagram Live and boxing workouts, Deleau has started doing ballet classes the RWB is offering via Zoom.
“It’s been really great just to see all the dancers and have one of our ballet masters give us what we’ve been calling ‘kitchen classes’ just to sort of be able to do some sort of dancing and keep our bodies doing what we’re normally doing.”
Still, it’s not the same.
“We’re used to dancing eight-plus hours a day,” Deleau says. “So, going from that to having a few feet of space to dance at home, it’s a huge adjustment — but we’re all just making the best of it.”
Being a dancer — and, more specifically, a RWB company dancer — is a fundamental part of Deleau’s identity. She’s been dancing since she was three, and came up through Royal Winnipeg Ballet School Professional Division, which she was accepted into at the age of 10. So there’s been some grief, too.
“Being a dancer is part of who we are. It’s what makes us the people that we are,” she says. “It’s definitely been difficult to accept that part of my life has to be put on hold right now. I’ve been trying to look forward instead of dwelling in the upsetting situation now. We will get through this, and we will dance again. That’s been what’s keeping me going right now.”
She’s using this time to connect with family and friends virtually as well as to work on other passions, including taking a university course towards a degree in kinesiology she otherwise wouldn’t have had time for. She’s also using it to reflect.
“There’s certain things we take for granted, like maybe I did take for granted that every day I got to go into the studio and do what I love all day,” she says. “Now, having that taken away from me, it’s reminded me how much I love what I do and how happy I am I get to do it. And hopefully, very soon, I’ll get to do it again.”
— Jen Zoratti
For Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra music director Daniel Raiskin, being in isolation in Amsterdam with his wife, two teenagers and a bookcase filled with orchestral scores just waiting to be played has been frustrating.
“Like everywhere around the world, dealing with the impact of COVID-19 is a stressful and demanding affair, also here in Amsterdam,” the Russian-born Raiskin writes in an email interview.
“Amsterdam, one of the busiest tourist attractions in the world, looks more like a ghost town now, with all non-essential businesses, restaurants, cafés, all public venues being closed,” he says. “We are allowed to walk outside, but no groups of more than two persons are allowed and we try to strictly maintain 1.5-2 metres physical distancing. This is awkward and unpleasant.”
Raiskin is usually on the road 250 to 275 days a year — working and performing with the WSO takes up half of that time. The rest of those days are with orchestras throughout Europe and Asia, and all of those concerts have been cancelled due to the pandemic.
Living with all the spare time is an adjustment, he says.
“Though I am blessed being with my family during these troubling and unsettling times, all of us, we miss social contacts, and even spending so much time together in the space of our home in Amsterdam is something we need to get used to,” he says.
Raiskin has also turned to his musical past — he was a concert violist before he turned to conducting orchestras — but putting bow to strings has proven to be no simple task.
“My own viola is in Winnipeg, as lately I started to practise a little and even play occasionally, like last year at our annual WSO spring gala,” he says. “So after two weeks here in Amsterdam I really had a very strong urge to play something and was able to borrow an instrument and a bow from a very good friend here in the Netherlands.”
Raiskin’s last performances with the WSO were two Back-to-Back Beethoven concerts, with pianist Alexei Volodin, held March 6-7. Raiskin said he had no trouble returning to Amsterdam, has no symptoms of COVID-19, and was not asked to be tested for the novel coronavirus.
He had planned to come back to Winnipeg in the middle of March, but the WSO told him to stay safely in Amsterdam. Concerts for the rest of the 2019-20 season were cancelled and the WSO announced layoffs in March, including the entire orchestra.
“The news of all the musicians of WSO, 30 staff and 14 Sistema Winnipeg teachers being laid off as of March 29 was one of the most devastating things I had to accept in my life,” Raiskin writes. “Knowing how much hardship all of us have to endure and not being able to get together and comfort and support each other through simply playing great music is really hard. I am heartbroken and think every day about the ways we can as an organization, community, city and province help each other to get back to our normal operations as soon as possible.”
Raiskin says musicians will be called upon once again to recharge people’s “spiritual batteries,” once the pandemic fades, but he recognizes the tough financial times awaiting all arts groups, not just the WSO.
“I’d like to share with you my grave concern about an obvious lack of attention to the cultural sector, performing arts organizations and all others that have been actually hit the hardest by the current COVID-19 pandemic, as they were the first to be shut down,” he says.
“Most cultural organizations around Canada, Manitoba, Winnipeg face an uncertain future with large deficits to solve, and unless provincial and federal governments step in and offer serious relief programs, I do not know if the public has the capacity to carry us through this crisis.
“WSO is a keystone, a linchpin of the performing arts ecosystem in Winnipeg: Manitoba Opera, RWB and our highly valued Sistema programs are all depending on our well-being and operational and artistic success.”
— Alan Small
Quietly nestled in the West End, 36-year-old Jane Testar is keeping busy.
A writer, comedian and actor best known for her work in musical improv troupe Outside Joke, sketch comedy troupe Hot Thespian Action and the host of the CBC Comedy Factory Podcast, Testar has been sharing snippets from her life of social distancing online, most recently with her exceptionally dramatic — and increasingly intoxicated — viewing of the Netflix documentary series Tiger King.
She’s been holed up alone since March 17, and it’s going “mostly fine, with a few five-minute bouts of really not fine.”
“I’ve grown to really appreciate ‘me time’ as I’ve gotten older,” she says. “But this is a lot of me time. It is getting a bit tougher. I’m running out of things to clean and I’m a social person, so it has been difficult being so cut off.”
For Testar, her 2020 plans included taking classes at the National Theatre School in Montreal, working on a show, and — as a self-described “baby-crazy person” — spending a lot of time with her friends who have recently had or are expecting children. Now, all those plans have been postponed.
In lieu of travel and spending time with adorable babies, Testar has been keeping busy with reading, cooking and streaming TV.
“I’ve been comfort-watching,” she says. “Mostly sitcoms I love and have seen 100,000 times like Parks and Recreation, 30 Rock and Brooklyn Nine-Nine. But I recently watched Tiger King.
“That was a mistake. Now I’m worried about COVID and the tigers. And the whole state of Oklahoma. What is going on there?”
“For an actor, your next gig is everything. I’ve had to fight back thoughts of ‘I’m never going to get another acting job again,’ or ‘The government will cancel the arts forever.’ The unknown can make you pretty loopy.” – Jane Testar
The documentary provided a much-needed break from dwelling on the new reality of her life and work.
“As an artist/performer, you tend to live a more precarious life as opposed to the nine-to-fivers,” she says. “But I had a really exciting gig coming up that was cancelled for this year. And for an actor, your next gig is everything. I’ve had to fight back thoughts of ‘I’m never going to get another acting job again,’ or ‘The government will cancel the arts forever.’”
“The unknown can make you pretty loopy.”
Though she’s not baking sourdough bread (“going to leave it to the professionals”) or making TikTok videos (“In my day we danced around like an idiot in front of a mirror with a hairbrush in private. And that’s how we liked it”) as many millennials are currently doing, she does believe in naps (“the secret elixir of life”) and has a strong opinion on one of the hottest Winnipeg debates of recent history: Should Prime Minister Justin Trudeau have bought his doughnuts from Oh Doughnuts or Tim Hortons?
“Tim Hortons is not a Canadian company, people,” she says. “Justin Trudeau did the right thing.”
She’s also spending as much time as possible connecting with friends and family virtually.
“I have some amazing groups of friends and we’ve been pretty good at organizing group FaceTime/Zoom get-togethers,” she says. “Those have been really special and make me feel normal.”
As for toilet paper, the unofficial currency of COVID-19, Testar currently has three rolls, and is starting to get a little anxious about being able to get more. She’s even considering getting a bidet.
“I’m pretty disgusted by the people who are hardcore hoarding the stuff,” she says. “There’s nothing wrong with stocking up but keeping huge amounts for yourself is just plain un-Canadian.”
— Frances Koncan
David A. Robertson
With five kids home from school, you’d think Winnipeg’s David A. Robertson would be having trouble finding time to write. The Swampy Cree author, however, has managed to make the most of his time at home — and, it turns out, has been more productive on the page than ever.
Like many writers, Robertson holds down a day job — he manages publishing and communications for the Manitoba First Nations Education Resource Centre, a job he continues to do from home during these times of social distancing.
“I’m lucky to have it — we’ve had no layoffs and we’re able to do most of the stuff we need to do from home,” he says by video call.
Before the COVID-19 pandemic shifted so much work from offices to homes, Robertson — who won the Governor General’s Award in 2017 for the picture book When We Were Alone (illustrated by Julie Flett) — would spend a good three or more hours writing and editing. “I’d get up around 5 or 5:30 a.m., write until around 6:30 or 7, get the kids up and get them ready for their day. At night, I’d usually write once all the kids except the two older ones are in bed.
“I’d plan my projects based on word count; for a book I’d write 1,500 words a day; if it’s editing I’d do three chapters a day.”
Robertson has two books slated to be published this September — The Barren Grounds, the first book of the Misewa Saga, a middle-grade fantasy coming from Puffin Canada, and a memoir, Black Water: Family, Legacy, and Blood Memory, coming from HarperCollins.
“Stories will always be important. I think they’ll be even more important than they were before because of how we’ll have to interact.” – David A. Robertson
The recent increase in Robertson’s productivity is thanks in large part to the daily schedule his wife Jill has created for the entire family while the seven of them (including the five kids, ranging from five to 16 years of age) are all at home.
“I do what the boss says,” he explains, laughing. The five to six hours a day he now spends writing are plotted out around his day job and managing the kids: “It’s ‘You’re writing between three and five,’ then ‘You’re researching between eight and nine at night,’ ‘You’re writing between nine and 11,’” he says.
During the current social-distancing scenario, Robertson has written 30,000 words — including the second book of the Misewa Saga, which he’s also managed to edit — and has completed the final edit of his memoir. “I think getting this work done is almost a distraction technique,” he says.
In addition to the financial ramifications of having three forthcoming book tours or events cancelled, Robertson has felt the sting of not being able to connect face-to-face with readers, which has always been an important component of his writing life.
“For what I want to do in terms of reconciliation, it’s really important. Not being able to do that has been difficult,” he says.
He’s taken to posting online videos on platforms such as the Instagram’s live component of its stories feature, where he’s been reading from his published and upcoming books and connecting with readers. “I’ve been answering questions, letting people get to know me a bit. Those things have been important — I’m a social person, and it’s a way for me to feel like we’re in a community together, connected in some way,” he says, adding, “and if parents want to let their kid listen to me read for 20 minutes, it gives them a bit of a break as well.”
While no one knows what the literary world will look like on the other side of the COVID-19 pandemic, Robertson is certain it will remain just as vital. “Stories will always be important. I think they’ll be even more important than they were before because of how we’ll have to interact,” he says. “We’ll need more of them — they teach us, connect us, create community, do all these things we’ll need.
“And they document. There will be a lot of stories written about all of this. That’s important too.”
— Ben Sigurdson
Galleries, museums and artists will to need to rethink how they present works to the public once the pandemic fades.
Those that are able to engage and connect with longtime members and gallery visitors, as well as devise new ways to attract the next generation of art lovers, will continue to survive, says Stephen Borys, the director and chief executive officer of the Winnipeg Art Gallery.
“If we don’t, we won’t be relevant and we won’t be there,” he says.
However, he says art won’t vanish once the pandemic threat subsides, people return to their regular lives and the economy regains its footing after a sharp downturn. He says art is part of surviving.
“I cannot think of a time when we need art more,” Borys says. “Art — whether it’s a musical work, a painting or a drawing, has often been produced in the most difficult situations.”
Like virtually every arts and cultural group in Winnipeg, the WAG has been affected significantly by COVID-19. The gallery closed on March 14, with staff members working from home and leaving a new exhibition on the works of Group of Seven painter L.L. FitzGerald all set up but without anyone to see them.
“We have that until September. That may be a show that will never be seen,” Borys says.
Two other upcoming exhibitions, Kwaata-nihtaawakihk — A Hard Birth, which features Métis art (May 30), and To Draw Water, which will include Indigenous works from North America, Australia and New Zealand (Sept. 30), have been postponed. Many regular art programs and events WAG also hosts have been set aside for another day.
Plans to open the Inuit Art Centre in the fall remain as scheduled, Borys says. Construction — an essential service under provincial guidelines — continues with workers following social-distancing rules, but the gallery director says plans can change in an instant and delays can happen, depending on the pandemic’s progress in Winnipeg and across Canada.
In the meantime, the WAG — and Borys himself — have taken to social media to show off some of the countless pieces of art the gallery has either on display or in its vault. WAG@Home offers visitors to the gallery’s website, wag.ca, a chance to interact with different pieces, while Borys, who is working from home, has taken to Facebook, Twitter and Instagram for My Daily Art.
“It’s been a huge benefit,” he says. “My Daily Art — it’s in Week 3 — and each day I take an object connected to the WAG and write about it. It has become my go-to moment of meditation and a way to connect with others.”
Most people are either resigned to life in isolation to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus or are chafing against restrictions and social-distancing guidelines. Borys has found a silver lining, though.
“I’ve had more time to reflect, meditate, write and think,” he says. “I’m amazed with how much I’ve used art for comfort, for entertainment, for enjoyment and learning. It’s reassuring (to remember) that art plays a critical role in our lives.”
Society is turning to scientific studies and medical reports on COVID-19 to be informed about the pandemic, Borys says. When Borys goes online, he sees recitals from people’s living rooms, photographs of scenery and friends and others sharing their favourite pieces of art. They’re encouraging others or giving themselves an emotional lift, he says.
“And it’s not just artists posting — everyone is turning to art to share their thoughts and stories,” Borys says. “I don’t know if people realize they are using art to communicate.”
— Alan Small
Alan Small has been a journalist at the Free Press for more than 22 years in a variety of roles, the latest being a reporter in the Arts and Life section.
Literary editor, drinks writer
Ben Sigurdson edits the Free Press books section, and also writes about wine, beer and spirits.
Frances Koncan (she/her) is a writer, theatre director, and failed musician of mixed Anishinaabe and Slovene descent. Originally from Couchiching First Nation, she is now based in Treaty 1 Territory right here in Winnipeg, Manitoba.
Jen Zoratti is a Winnipeg Free Press columnist and author of the newsletter, NEXT, a weekly look towards a post-pandemic future.
In a way, Randall King was born into the entertainment beat.