JG Chayko in theatre
Credit: Chris Stanley

When I was a child, I spent my Saturday mornings at an arts class where I took ballet, tap, and theatre. It was natural for me to be on the stage. I told my first stories with my body through dance, then a few years later, my grade six teacher cast me in the school play of Tom Sawyer where I had my first acting role. From that moment on, I dreamt of a life on the stage.

I saw the lights of Broadway on my horizon and marvelled at the glamourous lives of movie stars on the Sunset Strip. I was born to be an actress.

My journey to the stage did not take me to the lights of Broadway. Life inevitably got in the way — finances, marriage, divorce, and little setbacks that knocked me off course. I kept working toward my goal, though, performing in local shows and even training with a professional dance company — and then came rheumatoid arthritis (RA).

I took some time away from acting to become familiar with the traits of my disease and recognize the new limitations that came with it. I got on the right treatment, and gradually returned to my theatre life — and then a few years later, along came the COVID-19 pandemic.

While I had some control over my RA, I had no control over a worldwide pandemic. The theatre industry shut down. I continued to fuel my passion by performing old radio shows and focussing on my writing work.

In 2022, the theatres reopened their doors, but I still wasn’t sure I was ready to return. Acting in any capacity, whether onstage or in film, requires good health and resilience. A disease like RA is unpredictable at best — one day I can feel vibrant and strong, the next it can feel like a truck ran over me while I was sleeping.

The extra risk of contracting a novel virus on top of fighting a chronic condition was not appealing — but I could not fathom the idea of never gracing the stage again.

In the summer of 2023, a director I’d worked with asked me to be his choreographer for a musical he was directing in the fall. My heart leapt in excitement at the idea of returning to the theatre with my dance roots. I could already feel the cool air of the theatre on my skin and hear the soft creak of the wooden stage beneath my feet — but then my excitement faltered.

Did I have the stamina to take on this task and did I feel ready to do it? The last show I had done in 2019 felt like a lifetime ago. In the end, it was my thespian heart that decided, and I accepted. It was time for me to take that first step back in an altered world.

Working as a choreographer behind the scenes was the perfect way to baby step my way back to the stage. We had an intimate cast of four women, one director and one musical director. I structured my teaching around my disease activity. Our little group practiced safety and consideration, masking when symptomatic and staying home when ill.

The show opened to standing ovations, selling out every night and earning some award nominations. I was proud of the work I’d done and not only filled with gratitude at returning to theatre life but rejuvenated with fresh hope at what could still be accomplished.

A few weeks later, I was cast in a new show, a dramatic piece called Next Fall to open in the spring of 2024. This time I was on the stage instead of hidden in the wings.

This role required physical stamina, focus, and the emotional chops to bring the character to life. There was no time for brain fog here. In a live performance you only have one chance to deliver. There were no understudies for our parts, so our modest cast of six made a concerted effort to stay healthy and keep each other safe.

As it turned out, I wasn’t the only one in the cast with a chronic condition. One of the other cast members also lives with a type of inflammatory arthritis. Together we made it through three months of rehearsals and performance by using the tools and experience acquired living with a chronic condition in a pandemic world.

Working as a performer is challenging in the best of times, but any livelihood can be sidelined. There will always be risks and adjustments to make. Like a tectonic shift, life can get a little shaky due to illness, trauma, or external circumstances, like a pandemic.

It’s a shakeup that can make us feel like we have lost control, but if we can be patient and take some time in that space between our old life and what comes next, we can rediscover the base on which to rebuild. It might not look the same, and that’s okay. The structure is always there to support us.

The theatre is in my blood. My great-grandparents were vaudeville performers. They passed their legacy of the stage to me. My theatre life is always with me, and whether I’m onstage or on the page, there’s always way to keep it thriving.

I don’t know what the future will bring or how it will shift my life again, but I’ll deal with it when it comes. I control what I can in the moment and let time and patience do the rest. Sometimes it’s just about taking that first leap to see where I land.

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