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Theatre and the Mind

People sillouette on stage

Theatre has always had a special place in my heart. It’s helped me to grow as a person, get in touch with my creative side, and make lifelong friends. I graduated from Douglas College in 2018 with a diploma in theatre. Since that time, I’ve been lucky enough to work on incredible projects and meet some great people. With almost all live theatre on hold, I decided to check in on a few of my friends and see how they’re doing.

“What’s next? I don’t know where to begin now.” Bryan Kazun, a recent Douglas College Theatre Graduate, sums up what just about everyone is feeling.

Studying theatre was already seen by many as an impractical choice. Graduates usually don’t find much work immediately—especially not work that pays. Many, if not all, theatre students get into the study out of pure love for the art. What happens when the future of your passion is in question? How do you cope when you don’t know what’s next for something you were preparing to dedicate your life to?  With the world of live performances paused, many theatre graduates have a hard time staying optimistic

.Like many students graduating during the COVID 19 pandemic Howard Dai, Simon Fraser University (SFU), initially had big plans. “I could’ve graduated last summer, but I decided to wait so I could graduate with my friends” said Dai. “We were going to get an Airbnb and ride in a limo to and from the convocation.” Instead, he got what resembled a pizza box with his diploma and graduation cap. “It was very anti-climactic.”

“School preps you to work in the real world independently, but it feels like being kicked out the door into a new circumstance that nobody is trained for.”

Dai was studying at SFU for the past four years, but his love for the arts has existed for much longer. “From grade nine onward, I knew I wanted to do theatre.” With questions about a second wave and an uncertain timeline towards things being “normal,” Dai has considered giving it up “for my own sanity; at least in the meantime.”

Give up? Howard Dai? If you have had any local theatre involvement, you’d know those two things don’t go together. Dai has made a name for himself around the Vancouver area. From putting on free and accessible shows in Queen’s Park with his Open Stage project, exploring new and innovative interactive theatre with The Rex Project, or even just volunteering around the community. “Whenever I’m feeling anxiety or stress, my tactic to not think about things is to do more things!”

With no school and no projects lined up, he is enjoying having the downtime but also says: “It’s scary. It feels helpless. I can’t fix anything. I’m not doing anything to work more. I feel like I’m not doing anything to build steps for my future.”

For Dai, theatre represents something the world desperately needs right now: unity. “To see people on stage working together regardless of race or any other difference… I think that’s the model we should use for the world today. I think if everyone took theatre school, we would treat each other a little better.”

Training in theatre requires sharing a closeness and trust with people in your ensemble. With the pandemic limiting how much contact we can share, many students studying theatre will miss out on crucial parts of the training.

During his Arts New West podcast, Dai interviewed Keri Minty, an instructor at Capilano’s Musical Theatre program, who said something that’s stuck with him ever since.

“The thing that is heart-wrenching, honestly, for most of us, is to find out that the thing that we love to do the most, is one of the most dangerous things you can do on the planet … that the thing that we have done all our lives to share ourselves, and to share joy and sorrow; that is the thing that could kill someone else, is just unthinkable.”

Dai will continue to do what he has always done, look for new opportunities and apply for grants. He’s not sure what the new world of theatre will be like but is doing his best to have a hope for the best prepare for the worst mentality. “I’m trying not to overload myself, especially in this pandemic. I’m getting better with self-care and not saying yes to everything.” Before adding, half-joking, “I mean who knows, this might just keep going forever and ever.”

It’s hard to believe that only a few months ago I was sitting in Douglas College’s Muir Theatre, surrounded by other alumni, enjoying a performance of Goodnight Desdemona, Goodmorning Juliet. There’s a tradition after the opening night of a show at Douglas for the cast to give a short speech and present gifts to the people who helped out. I had helped with research, so eventually, it was my turn to come up and take their token of thanks. Bryan Kazun, who had just given an impressive performance, shook my hand, gave me a small envelope, and a hug. I made my way back into the crowd, smiling at the gesture.

Performance? Shaking hands? Hug? Not in our current world.

Kazun, who recently graduated Douglas College, has many concerns about live theatre’s future.

“Theatre is a very personal thing. It’s a group activity. People need to be with each other, sit with each other and talk with each other. When you can’t do that, it destroys the purpose.” He also adds that he is not sure how productions will make up for smaller audience sizes from a business standpoint. “They could do more runs, but that would be tiring on the actors and everyone involved. Plus, it would increase the costs for the organizers.” As for acting while in the new normal. “It’s going to be a challenge to navigate restrictions while on stage. In some ways, it can be a fun challenge to act with your scene partner while standing six feet away, but it’s going to be hard to get back to what it was.”

“I feel like I’m wasting time. You graduate with all these tools that you’re ready to use, but you can’t use them. It makes me sad and it’s very stifling.”

Kazun says that at first the idea of staying inside wasn’t a problem for him. “I’m a very introverted person by nature. The extra free time let me do things like reading a book or playing a video game.” As time went on, however, he found himself heading into a bit of a darker place. “As the days wore on, my mental state began to deteriorate because nothing was happening. I found myself getting irritable, isolating myself, just feeling like a waste. I felt like things were not right and that it was my fault. Sometimes I still feel that way, or I’ll feel like there are opportunities despite the pandemic and I’m just not finding them. It doesn’t feel good.” Lately, Kazun has been doing a little better “I found a job that pays OK and I’m getting out the house every day. Being able to get out of the house and have something else to focus my energy on really helps balance out my mental state.”

As someone who has been involved off and on with theatre for almost my whole life, I was able to relate to everything Dai and Kazun told me. I had been through parts of my life where theatre was my everything; all I wanted to do see, hear, feel, was in a theater. I have also had years where I wanted nothing to do with it. This pandemic has made me realize how much the old cliché “you don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone” is true. My last time on stage was May 15, 2018, with some of my best friends from college. It was one of those weird, avant-garde type shows in a dark room with nothing onstage but chairs. You know the type, every annoying “artist” does it. I hadn’t invited anyone out to it because I was a little embarrassed and figured nobody would like it. Afterwards, I decided to take a break from theatre to focus on other pursuits. Had I known there was a countdown until all live theatre was on hold, I never would’ve stopped going up and never would’ve stopped inviting people.

When asked for any final thoughts, both Dai and Kazun shared a sense of optimism. Kazun was echoing a message that captures the whole idea of theatre “You’re not the only one. There are other people feeling this. There are so many people being hampered by this. It’s not just you.”

Dai sent out a virtual hug to anyone reading. “Sending love to anyone working in theatre or has just graduated from theatre school. It’s hard. I wish I could be in the studio again and hug people again. I didn’t realize how much I missed hugging friends.”
I think back to my favourite quote about theatre:

“The theatre is the only institution in the world which has been dying for four thousand years and has never succumbed. It requires tough and devoted people to keep it alive.”

– John Steinbeck


Theatre has survived the last four thousand years of death. It can survive four thousand more.