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Interview With Arkady Spivak of Talk Is Free Theatre

Last week, Talk Is Free Theatre announced the return of live performances to Barrie with a series of cabaret-style shows presented in local backyards!


I have been eagerly awaiting the return of live theatre, and as a long-time patron of Talk Is Free Theatre, I knew I had to reach out and find out more about this exciting new endeavour.

I was lucky enough to arrange a phone interview with Artistic Producer, Arkady Spivak to chat about this new series as well as how theatre can thrive despite these trying times.


Let’s rewind back to March. What was the beginning of the shutdown like for TIFT?


Well, I must say that it felt more inconvenient than catastrophic.


Although we were in rehearsals, literally a week from opening the first in the world multidisciplinary immersive arts festival, with performances both in Barrie and Toronto.

So, we continued working on the shows, knowing that we will be doing them the moment it’s allowed.


It wasn’t like a loss at the time in any way.


It was more trying to figure out what was possible where, because that was not just a problem, but it was an evolving problem that nobody really knew what it was. We knew that we just needed to reroute a little bit to continue doing things knowing that we’ll be doing them, but yielding to the safety criteria and parameters. And just to figure out how we can use it in an intentional way to continue our programming. At the same time, right at the beginning and at all points throughout we made the decision that we are okay to wait instead of rushing to create more online.


Although we more than used our share of Zoom. We do online classes on Zoom, we did cast gatherings, online interviews with our company members about five times a week for about two months. But in terms of the actual work, it’s not the whole idea of live or in-person vs digital, that didn’t scare me. It just felt that digitally, the audience is really not getting any sort of convention, and part of what we do is commitment to convention. Such as arriving, being part of the crowd, knowing that if at any point you have to get up from your seat and go, you’re potentially putting yourself on the line – Somebody will embarrass you, or whatever. If not everyone is putting themselves on the line for the experience, it’s not going to be exciting.


So, we waited for as long as we did. We knew that the only project that we didn’t get to do as part of our Barrie season was The Plural of She Festival, which we were planning to do in residential homes anyway. We just took them outside to the backyard from the living room.

So, that wasn’t any sort of adjustment.


I should also just rewind back before the COVID-19 situation. We had just arrived back from

Australia where we had toured three immersive productions. Cancelling a local season is okay, it’s painful, but it’s much easier than cancelling a tour to the other side of the planet. We managed to squeeze it in the only two available weeks between the bushfires and COVID-19. There was also an element of “Oh my goodness, we just pulled one off”, so we thought, “Okay, let’s wait to see.”


Can you speak to the effect the pandemic has had on theatre in the Barrie area?


I think it's not as extensive as in other parts.


Particularly, in urban, not metropolitan places. For example, there are places that only have a big presenting house for touring productions of theatre and all its other forms, but not local, grass-roots programming. Barrie does not really have a touring network, but it has great grass-roots initiatives like us, Theatre By The Bay and a bunch of others for theatre. As a result, because we are not stranded in a very specific facility, although we have two wonderful places run by the city for ongoing use, we are not stranded in any particular reality.

We can pivot any way. Talk Is Free, we’ve done a show in the past for 35 people, and then we’ve done a musical for 700 people and everything in between. We can do it in Barrie, in Toronto, Collingwood, in Sydney Australia, just tell us where it is open and we’ll be there. I think because of the vision that exists here, across the arts sector, and the support, it’s minimal in comparison to other places.


Having said that, we still have to really relaunch our audience development because the audience that we’ve been developing for years is now not going to be there.


You mentioned that The Plural of She was already a part of your lineup. Where did you find the other acts you’ve added on during a time when live theatre has been paused?


Now I’m going to contradict myself, and say online.


The two shows weren’t already part of our programming. One was Beau Dixon’s wonderful Beneath Springfield: The Maurice Ruddick Story and as part of Plural of She, E-Transfer. Both of these works I saw on Facebook Live, or on YouTube.


It was one of the very few occasions where that restriction almost amplified the work rather than defeating it. It was actually very helpful. You know, Maurice, the whole story is he’s stuck in the mine, so he is speaking through a keyhole – Well, what do you think the computer screen is? Theatre is all about navigating a space, it’s about establishing a space and then filling it as largely as possible. He was able to do that. Beau worked with us as a musical director on a project five years ago. He’s a wonderful musician, actor, and he has a part-time residence in Innisfil, and so it kind of makes sense for us to use this story. Also, the whole idea that he is stuck in the cave, I mean, that’s how I feel we all are right now.


The only addition to Plural of She was E-Transfers, which I also saw on YouTube. I was invited by an artist of ours. In an effort to broaden the whole definition of what it means to be a woman and how women are seen over all the gender-defying and gender-evolving politics and structures, we wanted to add a female-identifying artist, not just biological women. Suddenly women became larger than everyone, and that was the whole point!


In a way, where we could, we took complete advantage of what this time has allowed us to rethink and to notice. As much as it was a scary time, it was also very healthy for us to go through that process.


What inspired this series?


What I didn’t want to do is yield to reality as much as to manipulate it. What I mean is that we will be doing work, only it’s going to be done better than before COVID-19.


What I love about the idea of being outside is that it’s almost like a blank page. It signifies the restarting of the operation because frankly, all of our original theatre was outdoors.


I actually submit for everyone’s consideration, that we lost a lot of audience the minute we went into gated buildings. You just don’t walk in and see the thing with your kids, they have to go park, and jump over snowbanks, and check their coats, and get their tickets, and get the tickets scanned… By the time people get to their seats, they’re exhausted.


It signifies the beginning, it also signifies an opportunity for both artists and the audience to recreate the space that they feel passionate about in the moment in time. And also, roll with all the punches. There might be a raccoon jumping on someone, (not that I’m going to plan to do that) or a bird can poo on somebody’s head. We are taking this whole unpredictability of the time as an art form as an intentional thing. We are embracing it, we are not fighting it.

There’s also something about lack of pretense. It’s eight artists creating shows, two of them were purposely created for this, the rest already exist and are adapted. I find that when we talk about backyards, we think of kids playing while the parents are indoors cooking or whatever. The kids in this case also being very gifted artists. Who is to say that a great talent can not be in a backyard?


To a degree, after we announced Plural of She we were invited to go to Adelaide, Australia with site-specific work. For two of them, it made so much sense and the works benefited greatly by being staged in the house, in a residential house. So, I felt like if I did Plural of She as it was now, even as it was planned before Australia, it would have been repeating myself, and I also did not want to do that. The whole situation sort of saved us, and we said “Now we’re going to do backyards.” Yes, we’re still using a residential house, but a living room is not a backyard.


When it comes to protocol, what precautions are you taking against COVID-19 and how will they be enforced?


The biggest precaution is that we’re reducing the audience to a level that it still feels like there’s a crowd, but it’s still as small and basic as we could go to call it a crowd. Except for one or two cases, the audience is limited to up to twenty people and the one that is not, it’s twenty-five. The seating will be staggered to fulfill all of the social distancing parameters.


Then the question is, what happens if it rains? Well, we can shift the time of the performance, if it rains somewhat, we can just take umbrellas and do it. It’s like fighting the lesser evil. With twelve or fourteen people in the audience, which is the maximum capacity, I can phone them in half an hour and tell them all to come an hour later.


It’s as flexible as it is restricting.


Our precautions are up to date, we are monitoring all of the requirements for Stage 3. In terms of audience safety, there is nothing we are doing to reinvent it, it’s pretty clear and logical.


What has the response from the community been like? I heard that you already have eight sold out performances!


It doesn’t take a genius to sell out sixteen seats, but we are also starting from scratch.


What’s amazing is that the audience is divided into two. There are people who have bought all of the eight available performances, and I’m saying to them, “You realize you’re going to have to go to the theatre, or to the backyard, every other day?” It’s not like a season, or a subscription which has four or five installments, but one is before Christmas and three are after at two month intervals. This is every other day. But people are so eager to do that in defiance of the norms. But it isn’t really in defiance, it’s all safe.


We also understand that some people are rethinking their whole approach to participation in public events. And I want to tell them that that’s okay, which is why we have the contribution or opportunity for people to record their applause and send it in and we’ll play it as part of the score we’ve created, like a soundscape. We know that people will want to wait, and that’s absolutely fine, we respect that.


Although we are dealing with a lesser audience, we have also reduced the ticket prices by about half, from $46 to $25. With all the theatre social distancing parameters doesn’t mean that everybody will have to pay $400 for a ticket.


We’ve really gotten more accessible in many ways. We’re even accessible to the squirrels right now!


In a way, the pandemic has made theatre more accessible to people.


I was just going to say the same thing.


The health hazard of this is not made up, it’s real and the medical professionals are still trying to figure out what it is.


But I think we owe it to ourselves to discover where we are winning, and how we are going to take advantage of that whenever possible. People who love structure and repetition and the mechanical approach to things and didn’t want anything new about their lives are probably suffering.


Theatre is all about launching into the unknown, even if it’s with people who you’ve worked with for a long time, or you’ve seen Hamlet nine hundred times, at the beginning of the day, you’re still exploring unknown territory. Theatre makers are used to it.

The problem is, that also our profession in the form that we knew it will be the last thing to restore. That’s also okay.


Earlier you mentioned Share Your Applause. Where did this idea come from?


I don’t remember, to be honest. I think that like with anything – a good idea is a good idea when it’s informed from six different directions, like a roundabout and gives as many benefits back.


Ultimately, I was thinking that there are lots of people who actually want to see us succeed, they’re reaching out and asking us to make a page for donations and that kind of thing. I know that there are people who are really engaged in our success, but may not be able to come for a number of reasons. So we wanted to acknowledge that, to say that was okay, and to say that people are part of an artistic vision, affecting social change, in more ways than just going to the theatre. They can be part of our lives in so many other ways.


I know it’s an uncertain time, but will we be seeing more theatre from TIFT as we continue to (hopefully) move out of the pandemic?


Absolutely.


What’s really rewarding to me is that I can commit to two months at a time. I can be closer to the general needs of society at a given time.


If I’m programming something for May of next year, what will the showbiz scene be next May?

We have a number of things we are beginning to work on in various stages of discussion. They’re both shows which have not performed yet, and some new projects. I’m not so much trying to excuse a live gathering as coming at it from a different way of allowing artists more time to create their work, so they don’t have to create something in two weeks.


We’re beginning to work on something that might be seen next May, like actually work on it artistically as opposed to all of the planning and then going to rehearse. Artists start the work last, and shouldn’t they be first? It’s the marketing people that should go last.


Talk Is Free Theatre’s series of live performances are set to take place in Barrie backyards from September 9th to October 4th.

Be sure to get your tickets ASAP as eight performances are already sold out!

Can’t catch one of these live performances? Share your support by sending an MP3 file of your applause to richard@tift.ca by August 15th.

For tickets, COVID-19 safety measures, and more information, please visit: http://www.tift.ca.


Thank you so much to Arkady for taking the time to speak with me about all the wonderful work TIFT is doing to bring live theatre back to Barrie.

Both Sides of the Curtain is wishing the entire company all the best for this incredible endeavour, and hopes that we will continue to see live performances starting up again across the county.


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