Just as Canadian musicians, theatre managers, gallery programmers, film exhibitors and the many, many others who make up this country’s battered arts and culture sector were planning their busy Christmas season, along came a new wave of COVID-19 restrictions. The Globe and Mail spoke with a handful of Canadian artists and industry leaders about what it will take to survive a sudden blow of public-health measures.
After recording his album Songs for Hard Times, the 32-year-old Saskatchewan-born country-folk artist Zachary Lucky and his band recently completed a tour of the Prairies before his Ontario dates were cancelled.
We went through this last year. I had $30,000 worth of shows cancelled. We had CERB [Canadian Emergency Response Benefit] then, but who knows now? We lost another $6,000 with these recent cancellations. Maybe a job at Home Hardware is in my future, I don’t know. You lose your work – it’s so intertwined with who you are. There are dark sentiments on my latest album, but it’s where I was at. It wasn’t intended to be an easy listen. I don’t even think I necessarily recorded it for other people.
This recent tour was supposed to float us through springtime. We got on the road for a couple of weeks of shows, and it was good to feel normal again. All we want to do is go back to work. Don’t get me wrong, the precautions that are being taken are the right thing to do. It’s just unfortunate. I’m hanging on like a leaf in the wind here. – As told to Brad Wheeler
Caroline Brooks of the Ontario harmony trio the Good Lovelies lost the final three shows of the group’s Christmas Tour. Fortunately, they had taped a performance at the National Arts Centre, available to be streamed through Dec. 30.
It’s been a rough week and a half. After all this time of not being able to be on the road, when this tour started it was quite amazing to be in these rooms again. We hadn’t played in front of people in two years. It was so exciting to start bringing in money again.
Our Christmas shows normally do very well. But this time we were noticing gaps in the audience. For good reason: People are scared. Toward the end of the tour we had to pull the plug. People didn’t feel safe any more. The Massey Hall show [in Toronto] this week was postponed to next Christmas out of an abundance of caution. Also, the overhead costs of putting on a half-capacity show there was an issue.
We lost three shows, including our hometown concert in Port Hope, Ont. Our Christmas concerts account for our biggest income of the year. Three cancelled shows doesn’t sound like a lot, but with an expensive show on the road, as you start moving through the tour you begin covering your expenses at a certain point and begin making money. To lose these three final shows is quite a blow. – As told to B.W.
Mario Fortin operates three independent Montreal-area movie theatres: Cinémas Beaubien, the Park and the Museum. He was forced to shut down business with just four hours’ notice.
I’m devastated. Go to any department store and you’ll see people in the aisles with no distance and sometimes with masks below their nose or whatever. Us? No, pfft, finished.
I’ve heard from different sources about what government support might be available. If in their wise calculation they decide I’m not entitled to a grant, it’s a debt, which is okay because it will make my bank manager happy because the mortgage will be paid. But what about the 49 employees who are now unemployed? They’ll get employment insurance, but will they come back? If they don’t come back, who am I going to hire? If I hire someone, who is going to pay for the training? That’s not covered by any level of government.
Christmas is our busiest season – we’ve purchased chocolates and candy and that inventory is going to gather dust. We’ll have to give it away for full price. That’s not covered by any plan from any province, city or country. Last year, we were told we’d be closed for four weeks, and it was four months. Is it the same this time? I don’t know. – As told to Barry Hertz
Kathy Vito is audience services and ticket operations manager for The Cultch in Vancouver, where East Van Panto: Alice in Wonderland had been packing audiences in to the York Theatre. On Dec. 20, the B.C. government announced all seated venues must cut attendance to half-capacity. The Cultch box office got very busy exchanging some tickets for the live show, which had been scheduled to continue until Jan. 2, to its digital production. On Dec 27, the Cultch announced all remaining performances would be online only.
A couple of weeks ago we started getting a few inquiries about the variant and what we’re doing about it. Then it started to increase, and [last Monday] the taps were fully on. People were really concerned, calling us about feeling uncomfortable. “What’s happening with my tickets? Can I switch to digital?” It was quite the day. Most people are understanding, so I’m grateful for that. A lot of the people I talked to were, like, I’m so sorry for bugging you, you’re probably swamped with all sorts of questions today.
We do have a person occasionally who takes it out on us and demands things that we may not be able to do. And I often get the escalated calls, people who don’t want to talk to anyone but the manager. I always try to remind my staff: Don’t take this personally; we’re dealing with people’s anxieties about the variant and what’s going on in the world. Take it with a grain of salt and try to focus on the people who are understanding, which is the majority.
We’re not just ticket-takers; we’ve become counsellors. We’ve sort of been talking people through their anxieties. I know I feel a real sense of responsibility to make sure our patrons feel safe and taken care of. And that’s my mantra throughout this whole thing: People are just appreciative if they have someone to talk to. – As told to Marsha Lederman
Adam Francis Proulx, an actor and puppeteer, was playing Tweedle Dum and Tweedle Dummy, as well as the Cheshire Cat in Alice in Pantoland at the Neptune Theatre in Halifax until Dec. 17. Reimposed physical distancing restrictions in Nova Scotia and plummeting audience confidence led the theatre company to shut down the holiday show that was set to run until January.
My parents got to see Alice in Pantoland Tuesday [last week] and that was great and then we got a couple more shows in and then restrictions went into place. On Friday in the afternoon, we got an e-mail saying that that night’s show would be our last. We were all very grateful that we got that one last show.
I’m staying here just because I am doing some work out here in January – virtual work, so it’s more likely to go ahead. I have someone in my apartment in Toronto, so that’s a no go.
Neptune went to great lengths to make sure that we were cared for. They were only required to pay us out one week, but for everybody involved, they went above and beyond that. So it’s more of a psychological bummer in that sense, but it’s not lost on me that it’s horrible for the theatre and for the sector.
One of the most emotional moments of the surprise closing night was watching some of the younger people in the company taking their bows. I’ve got a decade-plus behind me where I’m in a position where I will be okay. But these people just coming out of theatre school, like, it makes my head spin, right? What the loss of a few weeks means to me is very different from what the loss of a few weeks means to them. – As told to J. Kelly Nestruck
Kate Sandeson is an assistant stage manager in Toronto.
I was supposed to work on Leopoldstadt, which is a brand new play by Tom Stoppard who is a theatrical hero of mine. I had the amazing opportunity to go to the U.K. for three weeks in October, work on the show, shadow and learn all of the stuff that goes into it for when they came to Toronto.
On [Dec. 19], we got this e-mail from the U.K. company saying that Mirvish Production and the company together decided to pull the show just because it’s such a complicated endeavour to get about 30 or 35 people over from the U.K. to do the show here. They were also employing a lot of Canadians as well; all of the children in the show were Canadians. My contract was supposed to start in January with rehearsals for the young company – and it was to continue until the show closed in March.
Because I’m a contract employee and because of the work that I managed to do over the summer with a television company, I am able to get unemployment [insurance benefits] – but it’s significantly less than what I would be making at a show that Mirvish is producing at the Princess of Wales. So it definitely means a whole kind of new world of budgeting; my husband and I now we have to kind of 180 and plan completely differently for the next three months. – As told to J.K.N.
Jason Dubois is director of operations and development of Vancouver’s PuSh International Performing Arts Festival, which is scheduled to run Jan. 20 to Feb. 6.
When the new provincial health orders came down in B.C., we were kind of hoping they would extend through to Feb 6, because then it would be clear and we could make a plan. But they extended to Jan. 18 and the festival opens Jan. 20, so it still feels like the program is landing in a bit of an unknown place.
We all along have been planning not to sell to full 100-per-cent capacities; we’ve been working with 75-per-cent capacity. Because of the announcement, we’ve shifted to 50 per cent. We won’t sell beyond 50 per cent, thinking that those restrictions could be extended. Assuming some restrictions lift before the festival, we intend to sell up to 75-per-cent capacity, just to allow patrons some space for comfort and safety.
We have shifted a few things in the last couple days with relation to the industry series. We would normally be welcoming 50 to 60 international programmers, artistic directors, festival directors, presenters to see work and network. Much of that content we are moving to online.
We’re doing the best we can. There are many things beyond our control. Some things may be smaller, some things may be cancelled. I think a couple of years in the pandemic has sort of prepared all of us to live in that kind of ambiguity.
We are broadly still feeling optimistic, because it feels like we need to be if we’re going to march forward, but definitely not as optimistic as we were when we announced the program on Nov 24. At that point it felt like, okay, the world is headed in a direction where by the time we hit January, things are going to be pretty good and audiences are going to be comfortable coming back into theatres. – As told to M.L.
On Dec. 17, the Quebec government announced that theatres would be going down to 50-per-cent capacity on Dec. 20. But when that day came, theatres were entirely shut down instead. Joëlle Lanctôt, one of the performers in the year-end sketch show 2021 revue et corrigée at Le Théâtre du Rideau Vert, was robbed of the ritual of a final performance.
Many of us doubted that the show would go all the way to Jan. 8, but I don’t think anyone thought it would happen the way it did [last] Monday. I felt strange, then a sense of emptiness – and then, after that, I went to get my things from my dressing room and saw the sets and costumes were being wrapped up.
Most of 2020, I didn’t work at all. I had a show cancelled in June, 2021, but in advance; it wasn’t the same experience. This was my first time getting back up on a stage since the pandemic started, so I count myself lucky to have had 25 performances in front of full houses before it closed. I feel privileged to have had that time. Revue et corrigée – these are sketches related to the news, so even in two months, they will have aged badly. It’s not a show we can do in the future; it’s a format that returns, so we can always hope to be part of the team next year. But it’s starting to be difficult to hope or to make predictions. My impression is that there might only be certain months of the years that we can revive our art form. (Translated from French.) – As told to J.K.N.
These interviews have been condensed and edited
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