Entertainment choices galore as audiences emerge from lockdown
Next to Normal, the title of Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey’s Pulitzer Prize-winning musical, could also describe what audiences can expect as the performing arts emerge from pandemic restrictions.
In Ontario, the province has lifted capacity limits on venues and the requirement that attendees show proof of vaccination. Mask-wearing is now optional. Arts organizations are consequently gearing up for a spring and summer that might almost be like 2019 – the year before COVID-19 upended the world.
Luminato Festival Toronto is among those embracing the return to live performances. After pivoting to a mostly digital event and rescheduling to October last year, the international multidisciplinary festival is back in its customary calendar slot – it runs June 9 to 19 – and promises a spectacular programming lineup that will be mostly outdoors and free.
“We want to make the festival as accessible as possible,” says Luminato CEO Celia Smith, who also notes that the festival is expanding its reach across the GTA as far as Vaughan and Brampton. The choice of outdoor venues, including parks and plazas, is pragmatic too, should there be a COVID-19 resurgence. Smith says it’s also a good way to ease audiences into live performances again. “Having events outside with lots of space to move I think will give people confidence to come back,” she says.
The Shaw Festival is also playing it safe. Although its theatres in Niagara-on-the-Lake are back to full capacity, the festival isn’t selling seats in the front rows, “at least through May,” says the Shaw’s executive director/CEO, Tim Jennings. “Because of the moisture transfer from actors, frankly, who are unmasked, we thought there should be an extra barrier between them and the audience,” he explains.
We’ve all been so isolated, and I think there’s a real longing for coming together again.— Graham Abbey, Artistic director of Festival Players
Such caution is coupled with optimism. The Shaw, like Luminato, is coming back big. This year’s 60th anniversary season is, in fact, the largest in its history, with 13 productions in its three theatres as well as outdoor entertainment and other ancillary events.
In Prince Edward County, a younger festival is also bigger than ever. For their 16th summer season, the Festival Players have unveiled an ambitious program that includes theatre, contemporary dance, a musical tribute to poet and famed county resident Al Purdy, plus a four-night stand-up comedy festival with such headliners as Gavin Crawford, Colin Mochrie and Elvira Kurt.
“COVID in 2020 forced a reset for us,” notes the Festival Players artistic director, veteran Stratford Festival actor Graham Abbey. It led the peripatetic company to find a home at the Eddie Hotel and Farm outside Wellington, where they’ve built an outdoor pavilion to produce shows. They are also using the hotel’s handsome, century-old barn as an indoor venue. “The doors can all be opened to get a nice breeze through, so we’re somewhat COVID proofed,” says Abbey, who admits he has one eye on the latest virus variant emerging globally.
In Toronto, theatres have moved cautiously to reopen – and even then, were blindsided by the Omicron wave this winter – but most of the city’s established companies are producing live shows again this spring. Tarragon Theatre, that august generator of new Canadian plays, has been going full throttle since March, with two more works, Chloé Hung’s Three Women of Swatow and The Herd by Kenneth T. Williams, set to have world premieres in April and May, respectively. Canadian Stage and Soulpepper Theatre, the city’s two largest public theatres, are also live again, while commercial heavyweight Mirvish Productions, which had to close the much-loved Come From Away due to COVID this past winter, is preparing to open the much-anticipated Canadian production of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child in June.
Live musical performances are back, too, from the Canadian Opera Company, which has spring productions of La Traviata and The Magic Flute, to the Aga Khan Museum. The latter is presenting an array of global music, ranging from Syrian-born jazz clarinetist Kinan Azmeh and his band to Ukrainian avant-garde cabaret artists Dakh Daughters.
Amirali Alibhai, the Aga Khan Museum’s head of performing arts, says one of the consequences of the pandemic is that he’s been able to book in local artists with international reputations who might otherwise be touring the world. “We’ve discovered that there are masters amongst us,” Alibhai says, noting, for example, that the renowned sitar and surbahar player Irshad Khan is based in Mississauga.
A variety of entertainment is also on offer at other performing arts venues across the GTA, including the Flato Markham Theatre, Mississauga’s Living Arts Centre and the Rose Brampton. Shows range from the Dora Award-winning residential-school drama The Mush Hole – visiting both the Flato Markham and the Rose – to Broadway musical legend Bernadette Peters, who will play the latter theatre in May.
Further afield, the Scugog Council for the Arts is bringing together live indoor and outdoor events with virtual ones for its small-town BIG festival. The multidisciplinary arts fest, which includes everything from a vintage jazz concert with violinist Lenny Solomon to an evening with Indigenous playwright and humorist Drew Hayden Taylor, runs April 30 to May 8 at 22 venues in Port Perry and throughout the Scugog township.
Although producers are anticipating some hesitancy from audiences – the Shaw Festival’s Jennings says he’s budgeted conservatively even for this year’s major musical, Damn Yankees, which in normal times would be a big box-office draw – there’s an overall confidence that a combination of vaccinations and cabin fever will bring people out.
Indeed, Steven Schipper, executive artistic director of the Rose, claims his theatre’s recent programming has been breaking attendance records. “What we’ve been seeing so far is exhilarating,” he says. “There’s a sense of normality.”
“We’ve all been so isolated, and I think there’s a real longing for coming together again,” Abbey adds.
Jennings got a sense of that in 2021, when the Shaw, thanks to its famously prescient investment in pandemic insurance, was able to stage the largest theatre season in North America and drew some 50,000 patrons.
“People would come to a performance for the first time, having been locked in their houses for 15 or 18 months, and they would have these hugely emotional responses,” he says. “They’d start weeping like they’d gotten a piece of themselves back. I think the pandemic has proven to a lot more people just how necessary art is.”
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