Queer Theatre Toronto
Steven Elliott Jackson on Creating Theatre in the Midst of a Pandemic
Looking back, it’s almost like I knew that 2020 would be a shitshow for the theatre community and the rest of the world in general. By coincidence, in 2019, I decided to part ways with two annual theatre festivals that I founded almost a decade ago. The Toronto Queer Theatre Festival began its life as Gay Play Day and has provided opportunities for dozens of local area LGBTQ+ playwrights, including myself, to have their works produced in front of a live audience in a festival environment.
Similarly, the HamilTEN Festival features 10-minute plays by playwrights from Hamilton and surrounding areas. Before COVID-19 arrived, I decided that my work with both festivals was done and felt that some new blood should take over the reigns to help the festivals grow and evolve. Unfortunately, neither festival was able to proceed in 2020 due to the pandemic.
I had also decided not to produce or create any other theatre productions in 2020. Instead, my goal was to get two of my scripts made into short films. Digging Up Dorothy was shot in late 2019 and Stroke of Fate was filmed in February of 2020, just weeks before the lockdown came into effect. Both films were official selections at several film festivals in 2020, but most festivals were either postponed, cancelledm or became virtual experiences. COVID-19 put my dream of walking down the red carpet on hold! As frustrating as that was for me as a new filmmaker, I imagined that 2020 was even worse for theatre artists.
Steven Elliott Jackson is an award-winning playwright from Toronto. His play, The Seat Next To The King, won Best New Play and Patron’s Pick at Toronto Fringe in 2017. Other playwriting credits include Brothers And Arms (Toronto Fringe), Real Life Superhero (Winchester Street Theatre), The State Of Tennessee (Theatre Passe Muraille – 2nd place, Toronto Fringe New Play contest – 2007), Statue Of Limitations (Kingston Fringe Festival), The Leaves Beneath The Trees (Newmarket National Ten Minute Play Festival) and The Interview (Toronto Queer Theatre Festival). In 2020, his play, Three Ordinary Men, won Best New Play for the Hamilton Fringe Festival and was a finalist in the ScreenCraft Stage Play contest. It will premier in 2022 as part of Cahoots Theatre’s 35th anniversary season.
I recently reached out to Steven to chat with him about the different ways that the pandemic has affected his craft.
Hi Steven! Can you tell me about some of the work you have produced during the pandemic?
Steven Elliott Jackson:
I was pretty busy right off the top. I did a few ten minute play contests like Operation 24 where I did an early draft of “The End Of The Parade” which I am now expanding. I also worked twice with Rebecca Perry and Ryan G Hinds. The first was “Sarah/Frank”, an audio piece about Sarah Edmundson who changed their gender and fought in the Civil War. This was amazing because I also got to work with David Kingsmill and the idea of sound being more integral to the story. This premiered at Toronto Fringe and did a small circuit of smaller fringes that will hopefully bring appeal to a live version. I also did Next Stage Community Booster with “The Kindness Of Murder” with Perry, Hinds and Andy Trithardt, which was fast and furious. On my own, I have been writing like a madman with lots of ideas and bringing play readings online. The first was “The Woman He Painted” which was followed with “Moron” and I’m planning another for March.
You have been busy! I have to be honest with you. Watching “live theatre” online has been a frustrating experience for me as an audience member. I think part of it might be that it makes me long for an actual theatre experience in person with other theatre goers, their annoying habits included. What has it been like for you as a theatre creator during a global pandemic?
Well, I too find it frustrating because we desperately want to create a theatre experience but we’re trying to present it in a cinematic way like movies. Even working on such a piece with “The Kindness Of Murder” was odd in that it never felt clear what we were creating. I was very happy with the work that Ryan did as a director and the cast of Rebecca and Andy. I think we all tackled it with our best foot forward.
That being said, as a theatre creator in times with no real live theatre, it has been a chance to challenge myself and not taking that for granted. I’m still a writer even if there is no theatre. I don’t write plays for me to act in (heaven forbid I would be horrible). I thankfully checked in with myself and was aware that I needed to find other avenues to write and ways to keep my creativity from being hurt.
I found online contests and readings the best way to keep my mind active and these have been very rewarding. I did Operation 24 through Assembly Theatre which was great to test something that I now can give even more time to. As a historic writer, I did lots of reading this year and this research lead to a number of plays written that I’m now testing through play readings online. I also loved the ability to touch base with other artists through zoom and remaining creative with them.
Do you think the pandemic will have a lasting effect on how theatre is produced or presented moving forward?
Well, I would say the pandemic and the larger perspective on race will have a huge effect going forward. Funding for shows will definitely change and what gets produced will change as well. It will be a cautious first year when theatre is allowed to resume, but I’m hoping that the lack of live presentations with music as well will bring a newfound respect that has been lost with the digital age. Staring at screens is fine short term, but I think this time has taught about its limitations and the value of the arts. We need to fund arts better and we as a society need to appreciate it more and pay for it. It’s someone’s life and it won’t sit there tolerating the lack of appreciation.
What productions of yours do we have to look forward to when things return to “normal”?
That’s a tough one because normal isn’t coming back and I think in many ways that’s a good thing. I will have two shows next year in the Fringe. I deferred this year as the risks of health and safety and ability to pay artists fairly were not possible with restrictions likely. I also will be presenting my 2020 Hamilton Fringe Best New Play, “Three Ordinary Men” through Cahoots next year directed by Tanisha Taitt for its premier. For the same reasons as Toronto, I couldn’t guarantee safety and finances of presenting it in Hamilton this year. I also have a few other things on the back burner but those are hush hush for now. We all need a few secret projects!
Steven Elliott Jackson’s award-winning play, The Seat Next to the King, is available for purchase on Indigo and Amazon.
About the Author
Darren Stewart-Jones is an award-winning theatre producer, director and a member of the Playwrights Guild of Canada. His short films Digging Up Dorothy and Stroke of Fate are currently showing on the film festival circuit.