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  • Natalie Wisdom

Toronto-based Broadway Couple: Eric Craig and Jacqueline Burtney.

[Interview Date: November 6, 2020]

Eric: Matilda, Fun Home, Sunday in the Park with George and more.

Jacqueline: Matilda, Jesus Christ Superstar on Broadway, The Stratford Festival and more.

Where were you on March 12, 2020, the day Broadway and other theatres began to shut down? And what was the week leading up to it like for you?

Jacqueline: I was in rehearsal the day that Broadway closed; is really what I remember. The only thing I remember before that, was Eric telling me there’s this pandemic going on, and he thinks it’s going to come to North America, and he thinks it’s going to be really serious. And I said, “Honey, it will be fine. There’s nothing to worry about. That will never happen here.” And then, I was in rehearsal for Spamalot. One of our producers came in, sat us all down and said, “Broadway closed. And we are going to stay in rehearsal as long as possible. We don’t think anything will happen in Canada, and we’re going to wash our hands every fifteen minutes for five minutes throughout the day. We’re going to limit contact.” Even though we’re dancers; we’re partnering with people; rolling around on the floor. We were doing dance improv in one of my shows.

This was at the Stratford Theatre Festival. We started rehearsals February 17th, and continued throughout that week from when Broadway closed to March 17th. They finally came in and said, “We have to shut this down completely. Go home, and you’re going to be home for two weeks. And we’ll come back.” Our closing date was November 3rd, so we would have already closed. They can’t postpone it any longer. It was going; “We’re going to put it up this summer; we’re going to put it up in the fall; we’re going to have a Christmas season…” Which we’ve never done. And then it was, “We’re going to do the same season, next season.” And then, we got word that they can’t possibly do that. And that was when it hit me. That’s when I thought, “I have to change my life.” That was in July, I think. My lifestyle and my expectations. We got word that they wouldn’t be having any musicals, and all the plays had to be really small casts. And both of my shows had 25-plus cast members in them.

Did you initially anticipate that live theatre productions would be closed for this long?

Eric: For this long? Probably not. I thought it was going to bad. Around the time that Jacqueline was shut down for three weeks, I had already been quarantining for two weeks, because I knew stuff was going on. And I knew I wanted to visit Jacqueline in Stratford. I had just closed a show. So, I closed a show, quarantined for two weeks and thought, if I go to Stratford, I would not be bringing anything with me to the company. I was doing Sunday in the Park with George.

Jacqueline: You went to two commercial auditions, and that’s what freaked you out.

Eric: Yeah! The very last audition I physically went to, I guess, in 2020, would have been right after I closed the show and right around the time that I was doing the quarantine thing. And I went, and everyone was in masks. And they were like, “Bring your own pen to sign in.” Everything was really serious already; there was hand sanitizer stations multiple places between the street and the audition room. This would have been the second week of March. It was on a Friday. It was for a U.S. National commercial, and they canceled the callback, because they weren’t going to shoot it. Because they weren’t going to be shooting anything. That was the last experience. I thought, “Ok, here we go. It’s on its way.”

Jacqueline: And I was in Stratford, and they hadn’t yet said two weeks. And they said, “We’ll let you know when we’re coming back.” And I was in an apartment an hour and a half away from Toronto. And all I wanted to was go to my home and be with my family. Eric was quarantining and couldn’t get to me. So, there was 48 hours where we didn’t get any information. I’ve never experienced anything so long in my life. I packed my bag and unpacked my bag so many times within 24 hours.

Eric: That’s what we do in this business. We have such a stark example of the way we say, “Ok, we’re in the middle of real physical danger and in the context of a conceivably life-ending event for so many people. We’re just going to see if we could go back into rehearsals. We’re going to see if we can do a play. On the off-chance that we can still do a play and charge people to see it, we’re going to make you wait in this place instead of going home to your husband.” It was safer in Stratford; they had had no cases. In Toronto, we had some.

Jacqueline: As far as performances go, I don’t know.

Eric: As soon as I heard that Broadway was closed, I thought, “That’s it for 2020.” I didn’t know theatre would stop the way that it has, but I thought it would be a good long while.

Jacqueline: I honestly thought two weeks.

Eric: I had seen Contagion though.

What has the atmosphere been like in Canada during this pandemic, especially in regard to the arts and live entertainment industry?

Eric: Mixed. It’s a funny thing. We said many times over the course of this year, we feel very taken care of by our government. And that’s not specifically geared towards artists; the government has just been very good to people who have lost income, generally. We have been very fortunate that our government has basically taken care of us through the whole thing. It’s been every month since March. It’s nuts. It’s easy to access and (has) been responsive.

Jacqueline: We’re able to go online and just click, click, click. As far as eligibility. And then, click bank information for direct deposit, and then, within three to five business days, there was money in your account.

Eric: In Canada, we're self-employed as actors, so unemployment doesn’t apply for us.

Jacqueline: However, they’ve changed the rules for contract workers, so we can have unemployment, but that’s new.

Have you made any big decisions as a direct result of the pandemic? How have your priorities changed, if at all?

Eric: (To Jacqueline) Well, you’ve started a new business, haven’t you?

Jacqueline: Well, to be honest, I feel like I’ve always been wanting to have another source of income that wasn’t acting, because I know from personal experience how fleeting it can be. Especially in Canada. It can be hard to get those longer contracts. You’re either doing puddle jumps or you’re doing the long festivals. And hopefully, you’ll be back next year. I’ve always been into Interior Design stuff. That’s been nice about the pandemic. It has given me the space to figure that out for myself.

Eric: I think any person who diversifies their interests and their experiences, is not only going to be a more successful performer but just a happier person. Going to have a richer life. We have this idea that the life of the artist is the noblest, and I think it’s so misguided and so detrimental to our happiness and the quality of art that we make. We need to open to a richer and varied life, so we can be humans and not just artists.

What has kept you sane over the past several months?

Jacqueline: Our dog, Ben! Even just to get us out of the house every day, because you gotta take him on a walk. Even just having the schedule of feeding him in the morning, taking him for a walk, feeding him at night. Letting him out to pee. It just helps having some kind of rigidity.

Eric: And, also, his worries are so stupid! It’s so nice! To be able to look at this little fella who’s just like “Oh, my foot is itching!” And you’re like, “Oh, maybe the things I feel that strongly about will be ok too.”

Jacqueline: Our house has been a godsend as well. Because we’ve been doing all these renovations. We started in May, as soon as we could go outside here in Canada. We started digging out our backyard. Taking out our old retaining wall, putting in a new retaining wall, out of the old one. And then, built an actual space that we can be outside. And built it all ourselves for under $5,000!

Eric: We’re really proud. Almost all found-materials, which is really exciting.

Jacqueline: I’m the worst. I’m waking up every morning, and I think, “Hmm, what can I paint today?” I painted the bathroom yesterday.

Eric: We need progress, right? You need forward momentum in some aspect your life. You can’t really find it anywhere else these days. We’re so fortunate that we happened to be able to buy this house two years ago, that we happened to get married at the end of last year. We’re lucky to be stuck in this investment that does need work. And we’re kind of forced into this physical and emotional intimacy that we were craving already. Jacqueline was going to be an hour and a half away for ten months of 2020, and instead; now we have this staycation honeymoon.

Jacqueline: I think the isolation has been really hard, and I’m a person who only likes hanging out with Eric, really. I miss being able to go and see my parents and not having to feel guilty about going. That or just being able to see the nephew whenever we want and not having to check the numbers that day, and see if we can go. It’s just really heavy on my mental health.

Eric: All of that. And, I don’t think I knew to what extent I tied my self-worth and my identity to my work. I think I knew. You know that you’re just a fragile shell of a human, barely making it through. But then, when it gets taken away… And I’ve been one of the lucky ones. I have been employed through most of the pandemic, because most of the work I was going to do in 2020 were workshops. New scripts that are being developed. And all of that moved online, so all of the work that I’ve been doing has been over Zoom. It’s incredible; it’s beautiful. And I feel guilty complaining that that hasn’t been enough, but I do feel a loss of self. Those tiny little moments; you don’t realize how important the walk from the rehearsal hall to the bus stop is. The little moments with people. There’s something so alienating and sad about finishing rehearsal, closing your laptop, and then just being in a room by yourself. The creation of theatre is such a communal experience. I like it because it connects me with people, and it just hasn’t felt that way. I’ve been employed, but I haven’t felt like an artist.

As a couple, how has this time together changed your relationship, if at all? Have you learned new things about each other? Developed new habits or rituals you wouldn’t have, otherwise?

Eric: Our relationship is so good!

Jacqueline: Yeah, what a first year of marriage! The ultimate test. We can only count on each other.

Eric: Yeah, I still want to be married to you through this!

Jacqueline: Yeah, even more, you know?

Eric: I have been so impressed with Jacqueline. It’s one of those things where you can look at somebody through such dire circumstances and go, “They’re doing a really good job. I had better pull my socks up.” It makes you feel like, “if she’s on my team, it will all be fine.”

Jacqueline: Our partnership has become incredible. It’s become stronger, which is a huge positive.

Eric: We’re so comfortable saying, “Hey that’s annoying.”

Jacqueline: That’s true. It would take a half hour to get to that place before. To get to the point where we’re not hurting each other’s feelings. We know exactly how to say it and that we still love each other.

Eric: I know that you have my best interests at heart. We’ve been through such difficult times, and you’ve always taken care of me. So, if you’re like, “Unload the dishwasher!” I know that you just need me to unload the dishwasher.

Jacqueline: Eric always unloads the dishwasher.

Eric: Natalie’s not even collecting these stories. I just orchestrated this whole thing for the dishwasher.

Jacqueline: Do we have rituals?

Eric: We do the same thing every day. Whoever gets up first feeds Ben, and then we sit down with the coffee.

Jacqueline: You know when things are rituals at our house when Ben starts demanding that we go into the same room that we were in for hours. We haven’t been to a restaurant, so we always go to the den to watch TV at night. It’s just what we do now.

Eric: Ben will be like, “So?” It’s like Netflix, when they’re like, “Are you still watching?” Ben will be like, “Why aren’t you watching TV? That’s what you always do.”

Jacqueline: Every day at 5 PM, he’s like, “Where’s dinner?” And that’s what’s important to us now! Lol.

What guesses do you have regarding what theatre may be like when it does come back? In what ways do you think it will be different?

Eric: We have a great experience of what theatre will not become because of an experience that Jacqueline had.

Jacqueline: I did a show in a Zorb. Do you know what a Zorb is? It’s a giant, plastic bubble. Those ones where you go inside, and they fill it full of air. It’s a hamster ball, so I did a show in a hamster ball. They’re not as hard as you think they are. You can’t do anything; you can basically walk and move your arms a little bit. I managed to do one jump. It was awful. So the National Arts Center gave twenty-thousand dollars to three companies in Canada. And the only rules were, you have to create theatre that is a projection of what is going on in the world right now, or what you think the future of theatre is, and what it will look like. And, they decided to do a wedding, which they tried to say was real. They put it in the newspaper, “There’s a wedding happening at this time, in the park.” It was a fake wedding, and they wanted the whole wedding to happen in these bubbles. They had the wedding party, and the bride and a violin player, an officiant...

Eric: But the whole thing is a dance piece. In these bubbles.

Jacqueline: I did the whole thing in the Zorb.

Eric: It was beautiful. Really lovely. But it was a nightmare to do.

Jacqueline: You can only be in there a certain amount of time before you suffocate, so eventually they unzip you, and all your breath that you’ve been breathing explodes out in to the air. In a COVID explosion. So, it’s not going to be in Zorbs. I can promise you that.

Eric: I think we’ll get theatre back, in stages. I know the first time I experience it, even just seeing people in movies-shaking hands is a little bit shocking. I can’t imagine being on stage with a group of people in the dark. I can’t begin to imagine that, so I have to imagine it’s going to be an overwhelming experience.

What do you miss the most about live theatre?

Eric: I don’t know how to answer that other than to say it’s who I am. Jacqueline has been blessed with a variety of loves and passions that she pursues in her life. And I don’t have that blessing in the same way. What I have discovered over the course of 2020 is that there is one thing I really love, in terms of vocations, and it’s theatre. It’s what I love; it’s who I am. So, what I miss the most is my identity. Having given up as much as I have in order to pursue this lifestyle and not to be able to do it seems like a really raw deal.

Jacqueline: I think I miss the community aspect of it. Rehearsals. And walking home with your friends and having those conversations. Being in the room. I even miss the tiffs you have with other cast members. “I want my pom poms to come out of my skirt this way, not that way!” And I do miss having separate stories from Eric. The ones you give when coming home, telling one another what happed that day. We wake up in the morning, and it’s like, “So, how’d you sleep?”

Eric: There’s no news. The closest you ever get is, “Guess what just happened in the living room?”

What’s your favorite theatre memory?

Eric: One of them is definitely being onstage as Trunchbull in Las Vegas. There was something so magical about that theater. There were so many balconies. It was such an isolating track; you were alone the whole show. But you had moments when you would look out in the audience. And I would look out in that ridiculous costume, and there were tiers and tiers and tiers. And a sort of magical moment. And it was a crazy week, because, of course, we were in Vegas, so I did all five of my tracks that week. And I remember looking out as Trunchbull thinking, “This is what I wanted.”

Jacqueline: Mine is being in New York on our first preview of Jesus Christ Superstar, sitting on the stairs. It was right after the end of Simon Zealot’s number, and it was the first break that the audience could clap. The way Des had designed the show, it was the first break where there could be applause. So, we all sat down, and there was a second where the audience was silent. And then, there was a burst of applause. And we sat there for five minutes while people clapped, and we were all crying. Because we had just uprooted this Canadian company and uprooted all of our lives to do this Broadway show. And we had no idea what Broadway was or what would work on the stage. But in that five minutes, we all thought, “This was so worth it.”

What is the thing you’re most excited to do when live theatre is back?

Jacqueline: Watch my love in a show! I want to watch Eric in a show so bad. Be in an audience and clap for my love.

Eric: I think even just knowing it happened. We haven’t watched a lot of the online stuff, partly because it just doesn’t feel the same. We did watch the Disney plus Hamilton screening, and there are a couple moments where you’re like, “Oh, I just would need to feel that energy in a room again, just to be in a group of people that big.” It’s the opposite of the pandemic, in every way. To be rammed in with hundreds of other people, all feeling the same thing. It’s the exact opposite of what this feels like right now. And that sounds great.

What advice do you have for young Broadway hopefuls during this time?

Eric: The same advice I would always say: Don’t believe them when they tell you, “you have to do this and only this.” Pursuing other passions will only make you a better actor.

Jacqueline: If this is what you love to do and what you want to do, and this is your life’s passion, rewrite the script. So, create theatre. Be the change in theatre that we need right now, because you were driven to do it, and everyone else is tired and scared.

Lightning Round:

Favorite Broadway Musical:

Jacqueline: Mamma Mia

Eric: Fiddler on the Roof. It’s the perfect show.

Favorite Broadway Play:

Eric: Amadeus

Jax: I don’t know!

Favorite role you’ve played:

Jax: Miss Honey

Eric: Bruce in Fun Home

Dream role:

Eric: I take issue with the insistence that Tevye has to be a big guy. He’s a starving milkman! And additionally, I take issue with the fact that Sweeney Todd needs to be this hulking menace. Why does he need the knives?

Jax: Vonda Jordan from Venus in Fur.

Favorite Movie Musical:

Jax: Sound of Music

Eric: Once

Movie that you think should be a musical:

Eric: Jurassic Park. I think it might be very stupid, but I will pay any amount of money to see it. I think the key is you don’t show the dinosaurs until the very end.

Jax: I always want Serendipity, the movie, to be a musical.

Favorite Theatre Tradition:

Jax: I miss the five-minute call and not being ready. And having to rush to put on your mascara.

Eric: I think it’s the transition from the street into the theater. There’s that slightly different energy. And then, you wander from dressing room to dressing room, avoiding getting ready for the show. And kind of launching into the world. Street-to limbo-to new world.

Favorite Toronto Restaurant:

Eric: Leslie Jones, which is where we had our wedding reception.

Jax: Mine is Kyouka in the Beaches.

Favorite Theatre Superstition:

Jax: Don’t put your shoes on your table!

Eric: My personal one is, I don’t know if I’ve ever gone onstage without checking my fly within a second and a half before I go onstage. And there’s something about not whistling backstage that’s so charming. I always forget.

Favorite Dressing Room item:

Eric: Bottle of Port

Jax: The diddy bag. I miss my diddy bag. I miss getting the diddy bag at the beginning of the show.

Rehearsal bag staple:

Jax: Muscle cream: Arnica and Tiger Balm.

Eric: Keep-cup. Coffee goes in my cup on the way to rehearsal and gets filled with water at rehearsal. So, there’s a tiny little bit of residue of coffee at the bottom. So, with the colors, it looks like I’m walking around with a glass of Chardonnay. Oh, and I should probably specify- the Port is for after the show.

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