I’m not sure most Canadians realize how truly bleak a time it is for those in the performing arts in this country – for the dancers and actors and stage managers, for the technicians and designers and directors.
These aren’t only individuals on pause from professions that have been harder hit than almost any others by the pandemic, but artists cut off from the passion that animates them – and that most have already made great sacrifices in financial and social stability to pursue.
The playwright Rosamund Small brought it home for me this week when she posted on Twitter a list of the words that keep coming up in her Zoom conversations with theatre friends staring down another nine months of dark stages: “Forgotten. Loser. Nothing. Pointless. Abandoned. Darkness. Alone. Ruined. Disappear.”
Canada’s performing artists desperately need a boost to morale now – and, when it becomes safe to do so, they need a champion who can lead audiences back to theatres and performance halls.
And so the current vacancy at Rideau Hall comes at a pivotal moment.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau should consider selecting a leader from the performing arts to be appointed as the next governor-general of Canada.
There’s no shortage of well-known and respected theatre and dance artists who would excel at the ceremonial aspects of the role – and who could naturally take on the performing arts as one of the causes that all governors-general champion.
Karen Kain, the acclaimed ballet dancer and soon-to-be former artistic director of the National Ballet of Canada, comes to mind immediately – the very picture of the poise traditionally associated with a viceregal representative, and at the right stage in her life and career.
Kain has excelled around the world as an artist herself and then again as a leader of artists. As the founding board president of the Dancer Transition Resource Centre, she’s well aware of the challenges performers face when they must “pivot.”
The ex-ballerina even has a slightly curmudgeonly husband who would stand in well for Prince Philip while she does so for the Queen: Pantomime producer and perennial onstage bad guy Ross Petty, who would be well prepared for any booing from anti-monarchists.
Another truly inspiring leader in the performing arts who would be an excellent choice for the role is Philip Akin, who recently stepped down as artistic director of the Obsidian Theatre Company after 14 years directing and programming award-winning productions and encouraging the development and success of Black Canadian artists.
Akin is one of Canada’s wisest and most widely admired theatrical veterans – and has had a major impact on large institutions such as the Shaw Festival, where he regularly directs and sits on the board, and the Stratford Festival, where he was the first Black Canadian to play Othello.
The only issue I can foresee with his appointment is that, unlike Kain, he has yet to be awarded the Governor-General’s Award for Lifetime Artistic Achievement – and so he’d have to forgo that honour he well deserves.
Of course, Canada is blessed with many classical actors who already have ample experience embodying sovereigns in public. I won’t name them all, but Martha Henry, a Stratford Festival mainstay since 1962 and one of the very first graduates of the National Theatre School, is an obvious candidate. She may be in her 80s, but she just tackled a six-month run playing Prospero in The Tempest in 2019, so clearly has demonstrated the stamina for the role.
This may seem like a lark of a list – but I am serious that sending a signal now and in the coming years that the performing arts are as central to this country as science and academia, journalism and diplomacy is much needed.
Employment in the arts, entertainment and recreation sector was down more than 25 per cent in November, 2020, from the same period in 2019 according to Statistics Canada – meaning that part of the economy has suffered even more than accommodation and food services.
And yet, while mayors and premiers have consistently been talking about supporting local businesses and restaurants during this crisis, I’m not sure I’ve heard a single call from a prominent politician to stream some content from your local theatre company.
By contrast, in Britain, Prince Charles and Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, have been voicing concern and showing support for the performing arts through the pandemic. They attended a rehearsal for a streamed play in December and organized and participated in a video recital of ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas alongside acting royalty Daniel Craig, Judi Dench and Maggie Smith to raise awareness for the Actors’ Benevolent Fund, of which Charles is patron.
These kind of gestures are significant, as some estimate that performing arts attendance might not get back close to prepandemic levels for four years or longer. Ultimately, I’m hoping that no matter who might be our next governor-general, the person who will likely end up representing Charles when he becomes the next monarch might cheer our stage artists here at home as heartily as Charles does over there.
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