March 12 began and ended on dramatically different notes for the HamilTEN Festival. At the start of the day, this blog published a preview piece regarding the role of the Festival in the Hamilton theatre community. The article featured an interview with the Festival’s new Artistic Director, Annalee Flint, to whom the 2020 edition marked her first season in the role. By the end of that day, the Festival had publicly announced the cancellation of the 2020 event in its entirety, due to COVID-19. The Festival became one of the first events in Hamilton to cancel an April performance and one to cancel so far in advance. Since that time, companies and festivals have followed suit, cancelling performances well into the summer.
I sent 21 questions to Annalee Flint, the HamilTEN’s Festival’s Artistic Director, who is also the founder of local theatre company, Flint & Steel Productions. From the 21 questions, I asked her to pick and choose a minimum of 10 to answer. The unedited responses formulate the interview below.
1. What were you most looking forward to in the HamilTEN Festival this year?
I was most excited to see the pieces go from words on a page to shows on a stage. It sounds a bit cliché but I think it is really fun to see how things get presented versus how I imagined them in my mind when I first read them. I also enjoyed helping the playwrights bring their vision to life by answering questions for them, whether it was tips on lighting or suggestions on staging, and I was really looking forward to seeing if/how they implemented things and how it all came together in the end.
2. Describe the moment you knew HamilTEN would be cancelled this year.
I think it was once I heard that the schools were going to be closing. Prior to that I felt like there was a chance things could carry on as normal, but once I heard the schools were closing I knew that we couldn’t, in good conscience, allow the festival to carry on.
3. How did you feel the day after the announcement was made?
I actually felt a bit relieved. As sad as I was that the festival wouldn’t happen this year, I was glad to know that the artists wouldn’t be stuck, at the last minute, having the festival cancelled on them. I think that was the biggest worry for me, at the time. I knew how I’d feel if I were one of the artists and as crummy as it would be to have the festival cancelled, not knowing for weeks and then having it cancelled anyway would be much worse.
4. Do you feel any differently now (compared to then) about the decision?
As it turned out, it was only a few days later that it became very clear that the festival couldn’t have gone on even if we wanted it to, due to the closure of non-essential services and the public-gatherings ban, but at the time, I didn’t know how quickly things would move. Seeing how things have progressed with cancellations and distancing measures, it makes me feel all the more certain that we made the right call when we did. I’m glad that I didn’t wait any longer than I did to make the announcement because it was inevitable and holding off on making the call would have just added stress to the artists, the audience, and me.
5. We’re a month into physical distancing. How are you feeling?
I’m having my ups and downs with things. The uncertainty of everything makes me feel very uneasy but I’m trying to appreciate the good things that are happening too. The artists rallying together virtually, the community spirit of DIY mask-makers, the car-parades going by houses for birthdays. Small things, but new ways to interact and feel connected to other people in the world, it makes things seem a bit less dark.
6. Name one thing that you took for granted six weeks ago that you now miss.
Browsing. I’m a shopper that loves to compare when I shop. Even for things like groceries or drugstore items. But now, because we’re only supposed to be out when necessary, I feel like I can’t do that and that I have to just rush through my choices when I shop. Time to browse is definitely something I didn’t realize I’d miss.
7. What is one professional achievement that you are proud to have accomplished so far this year.
I am proud of the site-specific work I created (along with Kyle Guglielmo) for Frost Bites. It was my first time creating site-specific theatre and my first time collaborating on writing a piece. It was produced by my theatre company, Flint & Steel Productions, and was called amo, amas, amat. It was inspired, in part, by one of my favourite poems, Edgar Allan Poe’s Annabel Lee, and took on a life of it’s own from there using other poetry and languages. I got to perform bits in French (for the second time in my life) which was very fun and we incorporated movement into the piece as well. I think what makes me most proud is after one of the shows, an audience member who is a frequent local theatre-goer, came up to me and said, “I loved the movement, I’ve never seen you do anything like that before”, and that was really great because I was trying to do something a little different from what I normally do and push myself outside of what is expected of me.
8. How are you spending your time during this period of physical distancing?
Watching lots of reruns of old Blue Jays baseball (the two World Series wins, and the 2015 José Bautista bat-flip, anyone?) and unpacking boxes. I moved in November and had made very slow progress on really getting stuff unpacked. I’m happy to report that I’m making headway there and I even got a spiffy new desk for my office so I have room for a lot of the stuff in those boxes!
9. How have your priorities shifted over the past two months?
I’ve realized that I have to actually work to take care of myself and that I should really make time for that. In the past, I operated as if I would be fine if I just kept on going the way I always had. Recently though, I’ve had the time to sit with my thoughts and pay attention to my body, which has allowed me to really notice that if I’m not taking the time to take care of myself, I’m not going to be any good at taking care of other things or other people.
10. Are you maintaining your practice as an artist during this time? If so, how?
Not specifically. To be honest, I find it a bit overwhelming to try to do that during these times. I am in awe of the people who are able to not only keep up with their day-to-day lives, but can also find time to put new art out in the world, perform something online weekly, or help out with a charitable cause. That being said, I am writing bits and pieces of things, when inspiration strikes, but I’m trying not to be too hard on myself or force myself to create when I just don’t have it in me at the moment. I think I may still be in the denial phase of grief. I think we are all collectively grieving a way of life and a feeling of security that will no longer be there when all this is said and done. But I know that I will keep creating art eventually, I’m just not putting a clock on it right now.
11. Do you worry about your artistic practice and how it may change?
I miss getting in a room and working with other artists and being able to perform for an audience that is right in front of me, but I know that the time will come when I’ll be able to do that again. I do wonder how the community will consume public events once all this is over. Whether it’s theatre, sports, or concerts, I think there will be some changes that effect where people decide to spend their time in public.
12. Have you started making sourdough bread?
Haha, no. I find bread a very daunting thing to make. I did make a pretty wicked cheesecake last week though!
13. What have you been streaming or watching?
Frasier, seeing how well it holds up since I watched it as a kid (pretty well, except for the occasional cringey joke that you’d expect from a 90’s sitcom) and as I mentioned before, old Blue Jays games. Man, I miss baseball!
14. What play, performance or piece of art should everyone be visiting (or revisiting) during this time?
One of my favourite plays is a rock-opera style musical called Nevermore: The Imaginary Life and Mysterious Death of Edgar Allan Poe (what can I say, I’m a sucker for Poe). I’d recommend anyone give that soundtrack a listen (it’s on Spotify currently, if you’re interested) or if you just want a taste or to get an idea of the aesthetic, they have a filmed version of the song “The Raven” on YouTube. It’s one of my go-to videos when I want to see something theatrical.
15. Is there anything else that is helping you look after your wellbeing during this time?
My friends and family checking in on me is a great help. It’s nice to know there are people thinking of me and it ensures I’m not too isolated. I can be really bad at initiating conversations myself but I’m always grateful to have them. And of course, I am lucky to live with my partner, so I’m never too alone, even in isolation.
16. How long do you think this period of physical distancing will last?
I honestly don’t know. I imagine some of it might be relaxed during the summer (partially because of the trajectory of how things are going and partially because I think it will be hard for a lot of people to keep this going for that long) but I think that the large-gathering parts could be in place a lot longer than that, even longer than I care to think about. It’s really hard to speculate though.
17. Name a Hamilton-based artist who inspires you (and why).
I’m not sure I could name just one. I think anyone who is getting out there (virtually) is inspiring. I see so many people performing music, or reading plays, or showing off artwork; and there are so many people appreciating it too. It’s a great reminder to me that art never stops and that is so important and so inspiring right now.
18. What long-term changes do you think will be implemented as a result of physical distancing, if any?
I’m not sure. Part of me likes to think that we will learn as a whole what mistakes we shouldn’t make in the future and we will take what we’ve learned from this and improve society. The other part of me knows how history often repeats itself and how short the collective memory can be sometimes so I fear whatever changes get made won’t be strong enough.
19. What are you most looking forward to doing again once gathering restrictions are lifted?
I’m most looking forward to seeing my family in person, being able to run out to a store whenever I feel like it, and having new baseball games to watch. Also, I had tickets to see Hamilton: The Musical in Toronto before everything started getting cancelled. In an ideal world, I’d be looking forward to them remounting that and getting to see it, but I know that might not happen.
20. Do you think the pandemic will change the HamilTEN Festival? Why/how?
Next year’s HamilTEN Festival will have any of the artists that were supposed to be in this year’s festival, as long as they are available, so there will be a bit of a change to the typical submission process due to that. Otherwise, I think it will be generally the same, as long as public-gathering restrictions have been lifted.
21. Do you think the pandemic will change live theatre? Why/how?
I think that in the short term, theatre artists need to be creative in how they reach audiences since the primary way theatre is experienced is not available to us now. That will necessitate new ideas which may be incorporated into some theatrical events going forward. Theatre has always changed, grown, and adapted to the new technology of the day; so I can’t really say the pandemic will be responsible for that. I’m sure there will be brilliant theatre artists that will make some great things come out of this period, whether it’s new stories, methods, or even outreach. But other than audiences being a bit hesitant when the public-gathering ban is lifted, I don’t think things will fundamentally change. It’s hard to know for sure though.