The COVID-19 pandemic has been devastating for Toronto’s arts organizations, but if there’s a silver lining, it’s that pivoting to online has expanded both their audience reach and artistic range.
“We’ve just jumped into other mediums,” says Celia Smith, chief executive officer of Luminato Festival Toronto, which is offering an array of original digital programming on its website as it waits for the day it can go live again. “We’ve gone from doing primarily visual and performing arts to going fully into using all media.”
Not only Luminato. Many companies and festivals have found themselves becoming film producers, podcasters, creators of video talk shows and audio dramas. In the process, some have also attracted bigger audiences virtually than they could ever hope to see at a live venue. Early in the pandemic, Outside the March, an immersive theatre whose work is seldom seen outside Toronto, suddenly found itself with an international success after its phone-based Ministry of Mundane Mysteries got a rave write-up in The New York Times. This past holiday season another indie company, Against the Grain, also had an unexpected border-crossing hit with its uniquely Canadian film interpretation of Handel’s Messiah.
Opera Atelier, meanwhile, teamed with up-and-coming videographer Marcel Canzona to create Something Rich & Strange, a thematic film starring renowned soprano Measha Brueggergosman that has been showcased on the websites of Chicago’s Harris Theater for Music and Dance and the Royal Opera House at Versailles, and will be doing the film-festival rounds this year.
“The reach this is giving us, and the long-term impact that it will have, is invaluable,” says Opera Atelier’s co-artistic director Marshall Pynkoski. That project also paved the way for the company’s upcoming film version of Handel’s The Resurrection after its live production had to be cancelled due to COVID last spring. When Ontario’s public health restrictions made even a live-streamed theatre performance impossible, Opera Atelier turned The Resurrection into a full-fledged movie, once again helmed by Canzona. The show’s vocals and musical score, performed by the Tafelmusik orchestra, were pre-recorded at Koerner Hall, with the cast lip-syncing their roles during the shoot. (Film and television productions are still permitted during lockdown, but it required Opera Atelier to work under ACTRA – Alliance of Canadian Cinema, Television and Radio Artists – contracts and follow their stringent health protocols.)
Like their lip-syncing singers, Pynkoski says he and fellow artistic director Jeannette Lajeunesse Zingg had to adjust to the ways of film. They found themselves storyboarding scenes in advance and directing and choreographing with multiple camera angles in mind. “It’s a really thrilling learning curve, we’ve enjoyed it tremendously,” he says. “What we’ve missed enormously, though, is a live audience.”
Where some arts groups have become filmmakers, others have turned to audio recordings. The venerable Tarragon Theatre reimagined its current 50th-anniversary season as “Tarragon Acoustic,” presenting a five-decade retrospective of its plays in the form of audio dramas. Soulpepper, Toronto’s largest not-for-profit theatre, has also taken the acoustic route for its spring programming. Around the World in 80 Plays offers a menu of eight international classics, including works from Italy, Argentina, India, Iran, Jamaica and Nigeria, all performed in the style of radio productions.
“I wanted to build something that was COVID-proof,” says Weyni Mengesha, Soulpepper’s artistic director, explaining her choice. And even then, as with Opera Atelier, there had to be a late pivot. The plays were originally to be recorded in a studio by former CBC Radio producer Gregory Sinclair, until the lockdowns put the kibosh on that. Instead, the project had to be done remotely. “Gregory did an incredible job helping us create these home studios for everybody,” Mengesha says. Each actor received a package at home with equipment and instructions on how to put together their own closet recording studio.
The season, which launched on April 21 and continues through June 30, includes world masterpieces such as the Persian poet Farid ud-Din Attar’s The Parliament of the Birds and Nobel Prize-winning Nigerian playwright Wole Soyinka’s Death and the King’s Horseman.
Even those performing arts companies that can’t move their seasons online are still maintaining a vigorous digital presence in various ways. The Canadian Opera Company and indie mainstay Crow’s Theatre are among those offering podcasts to keep patrons entertained and informed. The Toronto Symphony Orchestra has been live-streaming concerts between lockdowns, while the Stratford Festival has built a Stratfest@Home subscription package on the bedrock of its 15 Shakespeare productions originally filmed for cinemas.d
Although online programming isn’t a significant revenue generator for arts groups – and all are itching to return to the stage – the pandemic has revealed the value of a digital complement to live performing.
“We’ve parsed through the data of who is currently attending our festival digitally and there are a lot of people that maybe haven’t known what we’ve done before,” Luminato’s Smith says. “If you think the ideas we’re talking about matter, if you want to inspire and provoke, why wouldn’t you want to reach as many people as possible, regardless of how you do it?”
The Resurrection premieres May 27 at operaatelier.com; Around the World in 80 Plays runs through June 30 at soulpepper.ca; Luminato Festival Toronto’s digital programming is available at luminatofestival.com.
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