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Anika Riopel of Zuppa Theatre tries out the Vista20 app, a walkabout featuring interviews with Halifax health care workers.

Alex McLean/Handout

When COVID-19 closed down the arts scene, Halifax’s Zuppa Theatre happened to be working on a walkabout smartphone app featuring a dialogue on public health. A timely topic with remote delivery experienced outdoors: sounds like a pandemic-ready project. In truth, it took rapid adjustments to keep Zuppa in the game.

The Vista20 app began life in 2019 in the English seaside town of Torquay, which holds an annual festival devoted to its most famous daughter, Agatha Christie. The multidisciplinary event likes to explore lesser-known aspects of the mystery writer’s life and interests, which included public health. Zuppa, an experimental troupe also located in a seaside town, was asked to examine the uneven distribution of wealth in Torquay, sometimes known as England’s Riviera, and the implications for residents’ health. The result was an app with dialogue written by Canadian Kate Cayley in which two fictional characters, one terminally ill, discuss the divided city as they walk downhill to its shore.

In 2020, the same idea was to be transposed to Halifax for the annual Mayworks festival launched on May 1, but by then neither the format nor the content seemed right.

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“We realized it would be irresponsible to send people to special spots. We didn’t want gatherings,” said Zuppa co-artistic director Alex McLean. “It felt like the [fictional] project didn’t fit this COVID moment.”

Zuppa dropped the scripted dialogue and quickly set out to ask real Haligonians about public health and the pandemic, recording their stories by dropping off professional microphones at subjects’ houses and setting up calls. The app is now a documentary podcast made up of interviews with several medical professionals, a worker from a hard-hit long-term care home, a city councillor and the administrator of a Boys and Girls Club. A hospital orderly describes preparing for an operation on a man whose family seems certain he will die; a doctor talks about packing up and sending her nine-year-old and the girl’s belongings to live with a relative; the administrator describes healthy meal programs hungry kids are no longer getting.

Meanwhile, the geographic locations were scrapped in favour of an unspecified route: You can listen as you walk around your neighbourhood or your apartment. The app was ready in time for a digital version of Mayworks and was also featured as virtual content at Toronto’s Luminato festival in June. So far 1,000 users have tried it out.

“It felt very current [in April],” McLean said. “Even now it feels almost archival, reflecting on something we have lived through.”

The Globe has five brand-new arts and lifestyle newsletters: Health & Wellness, Parenting & Relationships, Sightseer, Nestruck on Theatre and What to Watch. Sign up today.

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