This Toronto theatre-maker is staying ‘booked and blessed’ during the pandemic

Jay Northcott amplifies underrepresented voices, untold stories in their art

Jay Northcott, Pandemic
Jay Northcott, a theatre-creator and artist, stands outside their home in Toronto on May 29, 2021. Northcott has been directing, writing, and performing from their home for the past year as they eagerly await the re-opening of theatres.  Courtesy Jay Northcott

For Jay Northcott, the show must always go on, even during a pandemic. 

Northcott, whose pronouns are they/them, is a multi-disciplinary freelance artist and theatre-maker located in Toronto. Between directing, writing, producing and performing, Northcott has been able to make a living with theatre throughout the pandemic — and is actually securing more gigs than ever before. 

“I’m booked and blessed,” Northcott said. “That’s never happened to me.” 

This sentiment is not one that has been widely shared by Canadian artists in the past year. In 2020, one in four Canadian artists lost their jobs, according to Statistics Canada’s Labour Force Survey and the Canadian Association for the Performing Arts. Artists were working 36 per cent fewer hours, and job loss in the arts sector accounted for 11 per cent of total jobs lost in the year. 

However, in 2021 alone, Northcott has finished 12 theatre projects and has nine more scheduled to take place before the end of the year, something they did not anticipate. 

“When the pandemic first happened, all the shows got cancelled, and everybody was scrambling for six to eight months,” Northcott said. “But now, people are creating new and different things.” 

In the last few months, Northcott has worked with prominent theatre companies across Canada such as Soulpepper Theatre, Canadian Stage, and Gwaandak Theatre in Whitehorse. Each project has been closely tied to Northcott’s values, identity, and beliefs, whether it be working as the Indigenous arts program producer for Paprika Theatre or directing a show about white supremacy’s impact on the queer community for Pencil Kit Productions.

Another of Northcott’s passion projects is the ENBY Ensemble, an initiative from Cahoot Theatre in Toronto that took place in the winter and spring of 2021. The project brought together six non-binary artists and two non-binary facilitators to collaborate over 10 weeks and develop a creative showcase. Northcott describes the project as “the first of its kind in Canada.” 

Ximena Huizi, Jay Northcott, Pandemic
Ximena Huizi, left, and Jay Northcott artistic-facilitated The ENBY Ensemble, a project that took place in the winter and spring of 2021. The ENBY Ensemble brought together eight non-binary artists together over Zoom to produce a creative showcase filled with performance, music, art, media, and experimentation.

Ximena Huizi, Northcott’s co-facilitator for the event, echoed their sentiments, saying the ensemble was a rare chance for a group of “smart, charming, generous, and talented” non-binary artists to work together in a safe space. 

“Because we were all non-binary, there was really no contextualizing that had to be done around our experiences,” Huizi said. “There was just this feeling of being able to have conversations and explorations and jokes and art just exist from a freer place.”

As with most of the productions Northcott has worked on in the last year, all the workshops and the final ENBY showcase took place on Zoom, which was a challenge Northcott said both facilitators decided to “lean into.” They had pre-planned video components but also left space for live discussion between the artists, which both agreed was the best part of the event. 

“We were able to just hold space together and spend time doing exercises that are generative in the Zoom world,” Huizi said. 

Northcott agreed, saying while they believe Zoom will never be the ideal platform for theatre to exist on, the co-facilitators and artists still managed to create a “good atmosphere and ambience” for their production online.

Watch The ENBY Ensemble Production:

Though Huizi and Northcott deem the project a success, they are still eager for the time when Zoom is not a necessity and in-person theatre performances can recommence. Huizi has aspirations to create with the ENBY ensemble in person and work with Northcott again. 

“They are one of those weird, exciting, challenging, brilliant minds,” Huizi said of Northcott. “It would be a dream and desire to work with Jay in actuality.” 

Northcott shared sentiments, adding that to the many reasons they are counting down the days until the lockdown is over. However, they also do not take for granted the amount of work they’ve been able to procure during the pandemic. A fully booked schedule is not something they’ve always been able to acquire. 

After completing their degree in theatre performance in their home province of Alberta in 2015, Northcott struggled for years to get acting gigs, saying they were considered “too ethnic and too queer” to book roles in straight plays. 

Though this rejection was devastating at the time, Northcott says it ended up being a gift. It forced them to learn new skills in order to succeed and taught them lessons about “demanding space” for themselves as an artist. 

“I said, ‘I have to learn how to be a producer, I have to learn how to direct, I want to do drag, I want to do performance art,’ because no one took me seriously,” they said. “And now, through the pandemic, I’ve had the opportunity to work with amazing companies.” 

While all the cancellations and uncertainties of the last year have been difficult to navigate, Northcott said the pandemic has also taught them valuable lessons about perseverance, adaptation and connection that they will appreciate for the rest of their life. 

“The pandemic has made it seem possible that I can do anything, anywhere.”

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Posted: Jun 9 2021 12:19 pm
Filed under: Spotlight On Small Biz Unique Business