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Ludwig Van
Toronto Montreal

FEATURE | Anna Chatterton: An Independent Theatre Artist In A Time Of Plague

By Paula Citron on September 8, 2020

Independent playwright/librettist/actor Anna Chatterton talks about working through the trauma of seeing four years’ work cancelled by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Anna Chatterton (Photo courtesy of the artist)
Anna Chatterton (Photo courtesy of the artist)

The year 2020 was shaping up to be a banner one for Anna Chatterton. At 45, the über-talented playwright/librettist/actor was entering her mid-career with all the stars aligning together.

And then came COVID-19’s March Madness and lockdown. In short order, Chatterton was catapulted from a glittering professional high into a yawning nothingness.

Calgary’s Alberta Theatre Projects, one of Canada’s top regional theatres, cancelled the run of her new play Cowgirl Up, which was supposed to open on April 15. The remount of her opera Rocking Horse Winner, which should have opened on April 23, was put on hold by Toronto’s Tapestry Opera, while her play Switched, slated for May, was taken off the boards by Hamilton’s Theatre Aquarius. As well, Tarragon Theatre cancelled the first reading of a new music theatre piece, written with composer James Rolfe. In limbo was a tour of her solo show Quiver to the small town of Waterford ON. Says Chatterton, “To say it was a devastating series of phone calls is an understatement.”

Chatterton’s achievements in the recent past speak to her artistic prowess. She had two back-to-back nominations for the Governor General’s Award for Drama, (Within the Glass, 2017 and Gertrude and Alice, 2018, the latter co-written with Evalyn Parry). The opera Rocking Horse Winner, which she wrote with composer Gareth Williams, won the Dora Award for Outstanding New Production in 2018. Her solo play Quiver was nominated for a Hamilton Literary Award for Fiction in 2019, while a particularly prestigious commission was adapting C.S. Lewis’ novel, The Horse and His Boy, for the Shaw Festival’s 2019 season. Operas for which Chatterton wrote the libretti have been produced in Dublin, Chicago and Los Angeles.

Anna Chatterton (Photo courtesy of the artist)
Anna Chatterton (Photo courtesy of the artist)

I reached Chatterton via Zoom at her home in Hamilton where she lives with partner Jim Ruxton and daughter Frida. Ruxton is a media artist and electronics engineer. Says Chatterton, “All the theatres have cancelled their seasons, so will my play ever happen? Who knows? Some plays will die a COVID death, others may no longer be relevant. One thing I know for sure is that there will be 10,000 pandemic plays down the line.”

When I ask Chatterton how things are going financially, she explains that Alberta Theatre Projects paid out her writer’s guarantee ($4000), while Tapestry Opera gave her 10% royalties based on projected box office. She also applied for CERB. “Nothing, however, can take away from that fact that there are some things that are unrecoverable,” states Chatterton, “and by that I mean the intangible loss of momentum of your work, the halting of a trajectory of a career.”

Chatterton admits that her first reaction to the lockdown was a frenzy of activity, or as she says, she jumped on the bandwagon by applying for every possible paid virtual or audio gig, and every possible government grant that she heard about. For example, the CBC’s Play ME Podcast featured an audio recording of Cowgirl Up for the series The Show Must Go On, which featured plays that had been cancelled. Ottawa’s National Arts Centre (#canadaperforms) presented a livestream performance of her solo play Quiver, while the Playwrights Guild of Canada sponsored a ten-minute livestream reading of Quiver. Chatterton also got a grant from the Hamilton Arts Council to perform a 15-minute excerpt from her play Switched on Zoom for Hamilton Arts Week.

In a frightening turn of events, however, the artistic damage that the lockdown had wrought on Chatterton’s psyche caught up with her. “After the initial flurry had died down,” she explains, “I fell into a deep depression that lasted for months. I watched TV all day. I just wasn’t writing. I really was in the depths of despair. What’s the point? I kept asking myself. Everything I had been working on these last four years had been cancelled. Being a freelance artist is precarious at best. Life is already unstable, and all I could see before me was cobbling a living together by ferreting out grants and seed money. In my darkest moments, I thought about another career. Should I go for my Ph.D.? Medical school? Gardener? It was that dire.”

Anna Chatterton (Photo courtesy of the artist)
Anna Chatterton (Photo courtesy of the artist)

Several things helped snap Chatterton out of the doldrums. One was the acceptance of the fact that nothing is a sure thing. Prior to the lockdown, she had a surety of projects. She also resolved to be in the moment and concentrate on the now. The last, and most important was the realization that making work is what makes her happy. “I need creativity in my life,” she says. “I’ve learned a valuable lesson. I’ve come back invigorated and inspired.”

A key factor in her recovery was getting a $5000 Digital Originals grant from the Canada Council to work on a project with partner Jim Ruxton. Breakthrough will be a solo play performed live on YouTube that uses live video processing software to manipulate video in real time. “Putting a work online is something I would never have done before,” she says. “It’s really experimental, like live screen accompaniment.”

Other works in development are a theatrical song cycle created with actor Christopher Stanton, a collaboration with actor Claire Calnan and Japanese actor Haruna Kondo, an opera for two deaf actors and two singers with composer Gareth Williams developed through Theatre Passe Muraille, and a children’s opera for the Canadian Children’s Opera Company with composer James Rolfe.

As for that reading of the music theatre piece with Rolfe that the Tarragon cancelled in March, it’s slated to have a two-day, on-line workshop Sept. 10 and 11. And lest we forget, that tour of Quiver to the Old Town Hall in Waterford is scheduled for Nov. 5 to 8 with social distancing protocols in place.

Says Chatterton, “If you give an artist money to make art, we will make art.”

#LUDWIGVAN

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Paula Citron

Paula Citron is a Toronto-based freelance arts journalist and broadcaster who hosts her own website, paulacitron.ca. For over 25 years, she was senior dance writer for The Globe and Mail, associate editor of Opera Canada magazine, arts reviewer for Classical 96.3 FM, and dance previews contributor to Toronto Life magazine. She has been a guest lecturer for various cultural groups and universities, particularly on the role of the critic/reviewer, and has been a panellist on COC podcasts. Before assuming a full-time journalism career, Ms. Citron was a member of the drama department of the Claude Watson School for the Arts.
Paula Citron
Follow me
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Paula Citron

Paula Citron is a Toronto-based freelance arts journalist and broadcaster who hosts her own website, paulacitron.ca. For over 25 years, she was senior dance writer for The Globe and Mail, associate editor of Opera Canada magazine, arts reviewer for Classical 96.3 FM, and dance previews contributor to Toronto Life magazine. She has been a guest lecturer for various cultural groups and universities, particularly on the role of the critic/reviewer, and has been a panellist on COC podcasts. Before assuming a full-time journalism career, Ms. Citron was a member of the drama department of the Claude Watson School for the Arts.
Paula Citron
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