Sean Cullen had just finished a sound check for the comedy routine he was scheduled to deliver at the Kingston Canadian Film Festival when he got the word: the festival was cancelled, go home. It was March 12, COVID-19 had caught up with Canada, and events were being shut down across the country. Driving back to Toronto, he knew most of his upcoming gigs were going to be cancelled and that people would need something to laugh about, big time. So he came up with the idea to launch what he is calling the #Covid19OnlineComedyFest, posting short routines several times a day – some bits from old routines and some new coronavirus-related comedy. Like one bit about his decision to give blood later that day.
“I don’t want them to take too much; I need some,” he says in one bit, wearing a rumpled white t-shirt, holding a microphone and sitting in front of his washer-dryer.
“Last time they refused my donation because I’d taken it out at home and just brought it in in a box, which was leaking,” he later adds in the short routine.
“Let’s get some levity out there and some comedy and try and ease people’s minds a little bit,” Cullen said in an interview from his Toronto home, where he is learning the ins-and-outs of broadcasting on the fly. He has also invited other comedians to take part and post with the same hashtag.
“It is literally the least I can do.”
As the world has gone into social-isolation mode as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, culture as we know it has been cancelled. Theatres and galleries have shut down, tours have been postponed, artists of all sorts have lost gigs.
But when the going gets tough for artists, the artists get creative. Within days of the virtual lockdown, there was a groundswell of creativity. Projects sprung up, big and small. Musicians – marquee names such as Yo-Yo Ma and Canadian indie bands including Arkells and Said the Whale have been streaming live performances. Neil Diamond serenaded us with Sweet Caroline with a message: “Hands, washing hands. Reaching out. Don’t touch me. I won’t touch you.”
The VSO live-streamed its Beethoven Festival finale during that first, head-spinning weekend. Tapestry Opera live-streamed a concert the next weekend. The Metropolitan Opera is showing performances every night.
Plays are being streamed too. I watched Mine – about the online videogame Minecraft – live from the Cultch in Vancouver with my Minecraft-loving 11-year-old. Zee Zee Theatre and the Frank Theatre, also in Vancouver, released a pre-recorded performance of their show Trans Scripts, Part I: The Women, on what would have been their closing night. In Winnipeg, the Canadian Museum for Human Rights filmed a tour of two of its galleries and put it online; more are planned. Edmonton’s Citadel Theatre announced a Stuck-in-the-House Series, where it shares performances daily by a local artist who has been affected by the shutdown.
The National Arts Centre and Facebook Canada have teamed up for Canada Performs and announced a $100,000 relief package that will fund grants for professional musicians and other artists.
The motivation is multipronged. Give artists a creative outlet during this dire time – and some income as most or all of their work dries up. And give audiences interesting, comforting or, at the very least, distracting art. It’s also a way to create community at a time of isolation.
The art offers some immediate relief and will also serve as a document of an extraordinary, unprecedented event.
Some events were simply moved online – not that there’s anything actually simple about that. Jael Richardson, founder and artistic director of the Festival of Literary Diversity (FOLD), has been busy working out logistics and getting familiar with the software so she can present her April festival online, using Zoom.
“When everything started to fall apart – I think especially with the news that kids would be out of school until April 5 – I think that was the catalyst that made us all realize, like, ‘whoa, what’s going on,’” says Richardson, who is also the author of The Stone Thrower: A Daughter’s Lesson, a Father’s Life. “There was talk about cancelling or postponing. And neither of those felt really right to me.”
She mobilized early and just about everyone was on board with the move from Brampton, Ont. to cyberspace. (One guest bowed out, saying they don’t do virtual.) The online festival runs April 30 to May 3.
A silver lining: the festival’s reach is expanded, as audiences can tune in from anywhere, including people in remote or marginalized communities.
“A virtual option ... really allows people who have never participated at FOLD or been to FOLD to really get a window to what we do and what we’re about and how things maybe look different than other events that they’ve been to.”
Elsewhere, brand new cultural events have been birthed in the midst of the chaos. Vancouver filmmaker Joel McCarthy created The Vancouver Quarantine Performance Project. “When the writing was on the wall that everything was going to be cancelled, I wanted something exciting to get people to look forward to,” says McCarthy, whose own paycheque took a hit when the production he was directing was shut down. “Performers, filmmakers, artists are the ones getting hit really hard with job loss, lack of purpose.”
He quickly created a portal, telling potential entrants and viewers, “I worry that we are going to lose a piece of our humanity in the crossfire.”
Categories include original monologue, quarantined short film, original song and stand-up comedy routine. Prizes were still TBD when we spoke; the entries will be screened April 18 and 19.
“It just felt like a lot of despair there, and I felt really motivated to do something.”
The appetite to participate in these mushrooming ventures appears to be immense. When the Playwrights Guild of Canada announced an online play-reading festival for World Theatre Day on March 27, the 28 spots filled up within minutes.
“We’ve been getting so many e-mails about our members’ plays being cancelled. I quickly decided that we can’t just sit on our hands, we needed to do something,” says PGC executive director Robin Sokoloski, in Toronto.
Participants – each of whom receives $100 – include Anna Chatterton, who has had two premieres of her plays – Cowgirl Up at Alberta Theatre Projects and Switched at Hamilton’s Theatre Aquarius – and an in-house reading of a play in development at the Tarragon Theatre in Toronto cancelled.
Not all of the art rising from this imposed isolation is ephemeral. Down the road, after the dust settles, it’s not hard to imagine a flood of books, films, TV and other artworks documenting and contemplating this unprecedented time. Many artists have already started. In Kingston, Ont., Diane Schoemperlen, a Governor General’s Award-winning author, has been making collages for some time, and is now creating COVID-19 editions. “Create More” and “Flatten the Curve” they say. “Made with very clean hands but may contain cat hair!” she wrote on Facebook.
In Vancouver, Mark Haney’s Little Chamber Music series has launched the Isolation Commissions, where, for $200, a patron chooses an artist who will film a four-minute (approximately) video of themselves performing something that reflects the impact this situation is having on their artistic practice – it could be a favourite piece, a work in progress, a work that brings comfort, an improvisation.
He launched it on a Monday. That first week, he had more than a dozen commissions. “Another just came in from a complete stranger,” he wrote to me last Friday, “who had no artist, instrument or genre in mind, just wants me to surprise her because it's for her grandmother who is very isolated and will be for quite a while.”
Haney’s organization is absorbing the cost of the project, so all of the money goes to the musician.
“Maybe in the end it will be a little document of what this time was like through the lens of these musicians.”
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