If you're a Portland parent, chances are you're at least passingly familiar with John Ellingson's work. For a spell in the 2010s, he appeared in every single mainstage production at Northwest Children's Theater, where he's also taught classes and done scenic painting for more than a decade. (Now, he's the company's associate artistic director and resident set designer.)
Onstage, he's been a giant, a pirate, the spirit of death, a cow, a chimney sweep, Winnie the Pooh... you name it. Ellingson is also a trained clown, a puppet builder (his Northeast Portland home includes a basement studio filled with feathers and rulers and scissors where he dreams up stuff like this), and a new father, whose daughter had her first birthday this week. As social distancing measures have ramped up across the globe, live performances sustained an early and critical hit, creating an uncertain future for artists of all stripes. We asked Ellingson how he's dealing with that uncertainty, what he thinks the future might hold, and how he's finding peace as a parent in the midst of a global crisis.
Your first instinct is to [have a ] "show must go on" mentality, and I think the most interesting thing about this whole worldly moment is that if we don’t get to the worst of it, just staying away could actually help get rid of the situation, which is so counterintuitive. All that we’re used to providing, the sheer act of providing that and getting together, is in fact the one thing that’s going to keep this a more deadly situation.
Our biggest question ... is how do we keep arts alive for children? How do we keep arts alive in general? If you look at Seattle, it’s unfortunately a perfect four week ahead image of what’s probably headed our way, which is death to the arts. And that’s happened to the arts over and over again. What’s more important: human safety or going to see a play? Absolutely human safety, but I am very curious—I think I’m less curious what’s gonna happen in the instant. It all depends on how long this lasts and how long it takes to recover.
[Northwest Children’s Theater was] about to launch a tour, and we do own the equipment to livestream. Our gut reaction was "I don’t even know if this is possible." Like, if we could stream Elephant and Piggie and let kids watch it at home for a while, is that better than no theater? Yeah! However, we're doing Wizard of Oz next year, and [the licensing company said] "Under no circumstances will any of our licenses be allowed to be filmed or livestreamed." It was just such an interesting response. I feel like there are times to stick your feet in the mud. This isn’t the time to argue what theater is and what theater could be.
My biggest fear as me, as a human being, is I’ve been working in the arts since I was 8. I’ve never worked a till, I’ve never done anything but perform and what goes around with it—I paint and do other skills, but it’s all been through that one lens. That has served me very well, but in moments like this, it makes me incredibly unemployable, and I don’t know what getting another job would be like. So that’s a little scary. I don’t know what I would do. I mean, I am married and I have a husband who has a for-profit job, and we can tighten. I understand that I’m in a privileged situation because of my husband’s job, but even that is finite.
When [my husband was] stressing that I can’t leave the house and I seem[ed] a little perturbed about it, I was like, it’s not that I disagree with you. It’s not that I think that’s not the right thing to do. It’s that I know full well what will happen if it snows and we can't do our holiday shows. I know full well what will happen if we can’t do classes or perform the next show. We just won’t exist. We will shut down. And that is the fact.
So what do I do? For now, I think it’s "try to survive," and I’ve always survived by being creative. At first I was like, “I’ll build some puppets for no apparent reason down in my puppet shop.” I have a need to do, so this particular stay-home is against my nature. I feel trapped in a cage. So there’s that. After that I start unraveling and I pour a glass of wine and I freak out a little bit and I hold my daughter very very tightly. I don’t like to think too far forward at the moment. That’s where I’m at today.
Last night we were going to the grocery store—we’re trying to go every four to five days hopefully, trying not to hoard but trying to go less frequently. So I’m in the store, and it’s a little bit somber, everyone’s sterilizing, and I’m like, "Oh right. I’m gonna make a cake. It’s still [my daughter's] birthday." That was surreal. Just going, okay, so her first birthday, I’m gonna always remember—I’m not sure what the end of the memory will be, but this is the beginning of a moment that will always be attached to her first birthday. I got a little teary in the store.
We're asking everybody to send her a video for her birthday. I'll compile it all so when she's older, she’ll get to listen and watch, which had never occurred to me. Again, I like to think of things in the moment. It’s all about silver linings. I was supposed to work all day tomorrow and be in tech. I am not, so I’ll get to be home for her actual birthday. That’s a silver lining. And maybe we’ll get this awesome, love fest video that she’ll get to watch when she’s older. So that’s a silver lining."