On Dec. 27, Mirvish Productions announced that its production of Come From Away had closed permanently at the Royal Alexandra Theatre in Toronto. The production had only recently reopened on Dec. 15 to rapturous applause after a 21-month hiatus due to COVID. Since then, COVID-19 cases broke out backstage and four performances had to be cancelled. To close the production even for a short time while still retaining the cast and crew would be financially prohibitive, so David Mirvish made the difficult decision to close the production permanently.
This news is devastating to the arts in Canada’s largest city and the country as a whole.
In a statement, Mirvish criticized the lack of government financial support. “In other parts of the world, the government has stepped up to support the commercial theatre sector by offering a financial safety net for the sector to reopen and play during the pandemic, thus protecting the tens of thousands of good jobs the sector creates. That is the case in the U.S., the U.K. and Australia – where productions of Come From Away continue to play.”
He added: “Without such a safety net it is impossible for the production to take yet another extended hiatus. The costs of reopening a second time are prohibitively high and risky.”
Come From Away, with book, music and lyrics by Irene Sankoff and David Hein, tells the story of how 38 planes bound for the United States were diverted to Gander, Nfld., after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, and how the local people cared for, fed, housed and gave emotional support to 7,000 passengers over five days. It’s a musical that shows the best of humanity during a dark time, and how that generosity of spirit was carried forward. If ever there was a show that was needed during this pandemic, Come From Away is it. The show has been championed, celebrated and embraced because of its message about kindness and respect to others wherever it has played.
The cancellation raises many questions, most importantly: What does this mean for theatre in this country? If Mirvish can’t even put on a production in Toronto of a successful musical such as Come From Away, should other companies just give up?
As the late Stephen Sondheim wrote: “Art isn’t easy.” It takes guts and heart to create theatre and this country is loaded with creators who have done just that. Theatre is too important in expressing who we are as humans and as a society to quit. Statistics are clear in showing how important theatre is to the economy when millions of dollars flow into creating jobs, sustaining restaurants and hotels, supporting small businesses and more.
Theatre has been an economic saviour in hard economic times. Look no further than Stratford, Ont. In the early 1950s the town was struggling financially when it lost the railway. Tom Patterson, a leading citizen, thought that establishing a summer festival devoted to Shakespeare would be the solution. It seems to have worked. The Stratford Festival will celebrate its 70th season in 2022.
Gil Garratt, the artistic director of the Blyth Festival in Blyth, Ont., was faced with having to cancel his indoor season this past summer because of COVID-19. What did he do? He built an outdoor theatre in a deserted soccer field and put on a shorter season. People flocked.
In 2011, Michael Rubenfeld, then the artistic director of the SummerWorks theatre festival in Toronto, was informed that 20 per cent of the funding was being pulled because the Harper government didn’t like the subject matter of one of the plays (about a terrorist group in Toronto). Rubenfeld rallied his supporters and raised funds to cover the lost money. He also organized a protest that saw various arts and theatre groups across the country express outrage at this government interference. The next year the funding was reinstated.
Ultimately it’s the pandemic that is wreaking havoc with how and when to attend theatre. What will help? Money. Financial support from all levels of government can offer relief to companies that produce theatre by ensuring there is a cushion when they have to cancel performances. This is vital. How can it be obtained? We must galvanize.
There is power in numbers and in making noise. Every citizen who believes theatre is important to their lives should write their city councillor, member of Parliament, premier and the Prime Minister requesting – no, demanding – the financial support that Mirvish says is lacking, and explain why theatre is worth the effort.
Every artistic director of every theatre, big and small, in Canada should unite to do the same thing, including numbers for attendance, income and jobs to prove the point.
Likewise every single board of directors.
Lamenting this terrible situation is not helpful. Uniting is. There is power in numbers and making noise. Supporting the theatre is vital.
Sign up for The Globe’s arts and lifestyle newsletters for more news, columns and advice in your inbox.