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'Fighting for our lives': Canada's theatre industry tries to plan for uncertain 2021

Alexis Gordon walks through the garden outside the Festival Theatre in Stratford, Ontario on Monday November 2, 2020.
Image Credit: THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn
December 23, 2020 - 5:30 AM

TORONTO - Outdoor productions. Concert versions of musicals. Shorter shows with no intermission.

As the Canadian theatre world grapples with closures due to the COVID-19 pandemic, producers are thinking of ways to safely put on live performances for audiences in the coming months, as a vaccine rollout offers the possibility of productions resuming.

But with constantly changing guidelines and uncertainty over when crowds can gather again, those who mount shows say they're trying to be as nimble, flexible and innovative as possible, knowing that everything can be shifted on them at a moment's notice.

"Our new philosophy here is: Nothing is certain until after it has happened," John Karastamatis, director of sales and marketing at Toronto-based Mirvish Productions, said in an interview.

"Building the plane while you're flying it is a really apt description of how we've been operating," said Kevin Loring, artistic director of Indigenous theatre at the National Arts Centre Canada.

"Our weekly operations are planning, planning, planning — and then at the same time, unplanning, unplanning, unplanning."

Mirvish halted productions in March and the start of its new subscription season has been pushed to September 2021. The theatre giant had hoped to safely stage the sound-installation production "Blindness" before the new year, but rising COVID-19 case counts and more lockdowns scrapped that plan.

In an interview early last month, Karastamatis said they still want to put on "Blindness," once lockdown ends. Safety measures at the Princess of Wales Theatre would include patrons sitting physically distanced onstage with a "very powerful air circulation system." There would be no concession stands, no physical tickets and no intermission.

Financially, Mirvish wouldn't even break even from the production but wants to do it as a symbol of hope for the theatre community, said Karastamatis.

Mirvish has also considered doing concert versions of musicals, including the homegrown hit "Come From Away," because it would cost less than putting on an entire production, he said.

"The big fear is that the artists that exist won't have a way of practising their art," he said. "And the industry that has been built around the performing arts will wither and die, and it won't exist anymore. And we, as an industry, are fighting for our lives."

Ottawa's National Arts Centre says it's been thinking on a more local scale these days rather than counting on productions with international artists or even those from other regions in Canada who might face travel restrictions.

Beyond the typical pandemic protocols like masks, sanitizer, distancing measures and virtual tickets, the NAC is also looking at more solo works or outdoor projects, said Loring.

The NAC's Indigenous theatre is creating an online audio project, featuring Indigenous storytelling about the land of certain locations within cities.

The organization is trying to plan seasons for the next year or two with budgets that "have been deeply slashed," while also taking things "week by week," said Loring.

"The vaccine is promising and hopeful, and as soon as it's available to us, we'll all take it. But we'll still have to combat the reticence to come back into public spaces," Loring said.

Like many arts institutions, the NAC went in a digital direction when the pandemic began, including livestreaming performances on Facebook as part of a partnership with the social media giant.

"We've had to really rethink our business, reshape our business, find ways to get art to people, find ways to get money into the hands of artists," said Robyn Gilcrest, the NAC's senior director of visitor experience and patron services.

Sponsorship partners are vital but tough to find, with every sector facing cutbacks and layoffs, said Loring.

"The big fear is that we're going to lose so many artists in the ecology as this thing drags on — people just jumping because they don't see anything for the next few years," he said.

Earlier this month, the Grand Theatre in London, Ont., announced its first deficit in 21 years due to the pandemic.

Stage and screen star Colm Feore said he has friends and colleagues in the industry who've startedworking factory jobs to get by.

"It's been absolutely catastrophic,"Feore, who narrates Audible.ca show "True North Heists," said in a recent interview from Stratford, Ont.,home of the Stratford Festival.

"And particularly in Stratford, where we live and my wife (Donna Feore) is a director-choreographer. She was busy working on 'Chicago' and Steven Page's, new musical, 'Here's What it Takes.' And I was doing 'Richard III' — we were in full swing, and then it just stopped. And a couple of weeks later, we were all released from our contracts."

The renowned Stratford Festival had to issue nearly 500 temporary layoffs amid the COVID-19 pandemic in March.

To help reach audiences and provide work to artists, the southwestern Ontario theatre company launched its own streaming service, Stratfest@Home, in October.

Organizers plan to announce the festival's summer programmingby early March. Beyond the usual COVID protocols, they're considering digital program books, new ventilation systems in venues, Plexiglas separation indoors and no-contact service. They're also considering shorter plays that won't need an intermission, to prevent crowds from gathering.

Stratford is also looking at physically distanced experiences outdoors, like the Shaw Festival in Niagara-on-the-Lake did with concerts in the fall. The Shaw also staged some indoor concerts under strict pandemic protocols and announced its 2021 season in October, with plans to return to the stage in May.

"People cry, because it's just such a privilege to gather with humans and hear live music," said actor-singer Alexis Gordon, who was part of the Shaw outdoor performances after a summer spent cutting and wrapping cheese at a Stratford dairy to make money during theatre closures. She's also in two projects for Stratfest@Home -- "The Early Modern Cooking Show” and "Up Close and Musical."

The past year also has theatre companies wanting to stage shows that reflect the current racial reckoning and social justice issues.

"I think that representation and diversity conversations that are being had are going to shape the work and the nature of the work and the ways in which we work for the years to come," said Loring.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 22, 2020.

News from © The Canadian Press, 2020
The Canadian Press

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