ART BEAT – Artist Feature – Pierre Brault Pandemic-Ready Performer and Playwright

Tanis Browning-Shelp

As our theatres have gone dark these many weeks, Pierre Brault has been setting the stage alight online. “When the pandemic hit, it was clear to those of us working in the performing arts that we were in big trouble,” Brault says. “We were losing our entire raison d’être—performing for a live audience.”

The practised playwright and performer (actor, comedian, and musician) says that the buzzword for the pandemic is pivot. “Performing artists need to develop new approaches,” he says. “When the plague closed theatres during Shakespeare’s lifetime, he wrote his sonnets. This pandemic is both a great challenge and a unique opportunity for us to realize what we have to do from here.”

When Canada’s theatres closed, the National Arts Centre and Facebook acted quickly to create #CanadaPerforms, a program that provided one-time funding for artists to perform a live 45-60 minute session online. Six thousand five hundred artists applied right away and Brault was among the first selected.

Actor and playwright Pierre Brault rehearses his solo play Will Somers 1 at the Gladstone Theatre (with the theatre’s empty seats behind him) in preparation for livestreaming it for #Canada Performs on April 17. Director AL Connors operates the computer and switches on stage for lighting and sound effects. Photo By Jamine Ackert

Actor and playwright Pierre Brault rehearses his solo play Will Somers 1 at the Gladstone Theatre (with the theatre’s empty seats behind him) in preparation for livestreaming it for #Canada Performs on April 17. Director AL Connors operates the computer and switches on stage for lighting and sound effects. Photo By Jamine Ackert

“We saw a lot of performers go online immediately,” Brault says. “But, of course, you need content in order to do that.” As a stage actor, Brault is in a unique position. He has written and performed several solo plays (no need for physical distancing). And Brault’s experience performing them for live audiences has made him aware of what he calls their beats and rhythms. “Having performed my plays so many times, and in some cases hundreds of times, I know where audiences react and can play to that while livestreaming the works.”

While most of the #CanadaPerforms actors presented their plays from home, Brault was able to perform his from the Gladstone Theatre. “When I performed the abridged version of Will Somers 1 on April 17, I had the entire stage, I had privacy (no barking dogs), I had access to lighting, and it was my director AL Connors’ brilliant idea to show the theatre seats behind me, to remind people where we were.”

Livestream audience member Natalia Vesselova remarked in the real time comments during Brault’s performance: “I have seen the show before at the Gladstone, but what a privilege to be in the front row!”

At the opening of the performance, Brault looked behind him at the empty seats and said: “I like to think of good theatre as being like an energy—a fire as it were. The fuel comes from the playwright (his or her words), the spark comes from the artists (the actors, the designers, the directors), but the real energy, the oxygen, comes from you the audience…and I think I’ve taken that for granted over the last little while. I don’t think I ever will again.”

Using humour to cope with difficulty is one of the things that drew Brault to the character of Will Somers. “He was the Court Jester for King Henry the 8th and for three bloody monarchs after that,” he explains.

His ability to laugh at dangerous situations is not unlike our situation today. “And, as a playwright and actor, I’m serious about humour or, rather, humorous about being serious.”

Will Somers 1 chronicles the Fool’s experiences with Henry from when he first entered the court through to the King’s death. Brault’s latest solo play Will Somers 2 chronicles his experiences with Henry’s children King Edward the 6th, Queen Mary, and Queen Elizabeth the 1st.

Brault was happy with the result of the #CanadaPerforms show and has been overwhelmed by the support of the Ottawa theatre community during this challenging time. More people watched the live streamed performance than could have filled the Gladstone Theatre that day. A virtual tip jar was available for people to donate to performers and the theatre. And live streaming made it possible for people to see Brault perform who had been unable to do so in recent years. “People with mobility or scheduling issues, or people who had moved to other cities or countries, told me they were so happy to be able to see me again,” Brault says. “This show gave us a prototype for performances going forward.”

Livestream performances of Will Somers 2 and Blood on the Moon, Brault’s award-winning play about the trial of James Patrick Whelan for the murder of D’Arcy McGee, were planned for May 15 and May 29 respectively. “If these performances are successful, there will be more live streaming to come,” Brault says.

After residing in Old Ottawa East for more than 16 years, Brault moved to the Byward Market this past November. But with his son still living in the neighbourhood, OOE remains home. Brault’s recent work includes writing and performing in a two-man show called Dief the Chief: October 1962. It was performed at both the Diefenbunker and the Gladstone Theatre last year. Brault also teaches a stand-up comedy course out of the Absolute Comedy Club. He is now “pivoting” to teaching the course online.

Author Tanis Browning-Shelp (http://www.browning-shelp.com) pens her Maryn O’Brien Young Adult Fiction series, published by Dog-Eared Books, from her home in Old Ottawa East. Contact tanis@browning-shelp.com if you have information about artists or art events that you believe would enrich our community members’ lives.

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