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The Distancing Diaries: ‘Dance Nation’ Star Mitchell Butel on Being Creative During Quarantine

21 April 2020 by Nick McCarthy
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Mitchell Butel – the four-time Helpmann Award winner, Artistic Director of the State Theatre Company of South Australia and star of State Theatre and Belvoir’s Dance Nation – talks to us about what he’s up to and how he’s keeping the joy of theatre alive each day.

How has COVID-19 personally affected you?
The show I was performing in for our company – Clare Barron’s magnificent “Dance Nation” (I was Dance Teacher Pat) – was cancelled mid-season. We’ve alas had to cancel all our company’s shows up till September. My family are also spread across Australia so travel restrictions mean it will be a while before I see and hug them again.

What is keeping you inspired during this time?
It’s a strange and challenging time for all of us. And for some more than others – those without regular work, those with cancelled gigs. I’m inspired by the ways in which people have been kind to others in this time – whether it be through financial support, reaching out to those who might be lonely, to the generosity of so many ticket buyers who have donated their ticket costs back to arts organisations because they want to commune in the theatre again once the crisis is over. People are taking a big breath it seems and thinking about others perhaps more than they normally would. That’s inspiring. And all our health workers, nurses and doctors – they’re BEYOND inspiring.

How are you staying creative?
While we’re not performing, our company is busy commissioning new works. Developing these plays with our writers (many Zoom calls!!) is so exciting and satisfying and seeing how the crisis might impact the works is fascinating too. Not being in a constant show-to-show cycle also gives one time to think about why we make theatre and its function and value. I dare say the crisis has only heightened how valuable and important it is, as well as how keen we are to make it again.

How are you practicing self-care?
In South Australia, you’re allowed to go to the park to exercise (at a social distance). I’ve started jogging! Who knew you could get such a natural high from it!! There’s been the odd lounge room push-up too. I try to turn the phone off for a few hours a day as well. Notifications begone!

Mitchell Butel and company in “Avenue Q”

What is something (or a few things) great that you’ve watched?
I’ve loved watching plays or theatre documentaries that I’ve been meaning to get to like “Best Worst Thing That Ever Happened” (about MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG) that made me cry and “Oh, Hello,” which made me roar with laughter. I love seeing late show hosts in their casual clothes interviewing stars in their kitchens. It’s all so equalising! “Tiger King” was fun but “Unorthordox” has been the most compelling television I’ve seen in a while. If Shira Haas is not an international huge star within a few years, there’s no justice in the world.

What is something that you’ve enjoyed reading?
I’m reading “Life Isn’t Everything“, in which 150 of Mike Nichols’s friends discuss the mastery, wit, and originality of this wonderful director and comedian. Such a window into a brilliant mind. I also loved reading Nicholas Berger’s essay “The Forgotten Art of Assembly” in which he says artists shouldn’t be rushing to move everything online during the crisis, that it’s ok to use this time to “start building a better future and to reimagine those structures that have gone un-interrogated”.

What are you listening to?
I’ve directed two of Jeanine Tesori’s musicals (“Violet” and “Caroline, or Change”) and I’m really enjoying listening to her new work with playwright, David Henry Hwang called “Soft Power.” It’s delicious. Beyonce’s “Homecoming” concert is often playing while I’m cooking too, I’m not going to lie.

Have you gotten into cooking or baking? What’s something that you’ve enjoyed making, and if you can, can you share the recipe?
Being a lifelong theatre nerd, performer, and director, it’s rare for me to have this many nights at home. I’m finally learning that there are other flavours to add to a dish besides sweet chilli sauce. And I’ve finally learned how to poach an egg successfully.

How are you staying physically and vocally ready to return to your show?
See above note about Beyonce’s “Homecoming.” Just trying to emulate some of those moves or riffs keeps you in shape.

How do you think people can support theatre and the arts community and engage with it during this time?
I urge everyone to donate to the Actors Benevolent Fund or similar organisations in their countries and advocate to government for arts funding. Help artists stay afloat so they’re ready to leap back under the lights. Meanwhile, it’s fantastic that there’s so much theatre and performing arts content online – from National Theatre Live, BroadwayHD.com, Australian Theatre Live to our company’s own digital platform, Stay In With State. But I hope people remember that it’s the gathering that makes theatre really special, so I want audiences to come back in droves when it’s safe to do so. But beyond that, read some plays. Stop to think about ideas that COULD make great theatre. Come up with some new ones. Write them down. Or send them to someone who can bring them to life. And keep putting a few dollars in a jar so you can take your special friend to a show someday soon!