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There is still reticence, especially in certain demographics, to go to live in-person indoor events.Dahlia Katz/Supplied

Over the weekend, I published a fall theatre preview in the paper highlighting some of the most exciting shows that are hitting Canadian stages over the next few months, as the country’s urban theatre companies attempt to present their first full seasons since 2018-19.

While preparing that piece, I had the opportunity to reach out to a cross-section of artistic or executive directors to ask them about what challenges the performing arts are facing at this point in the COVID-19 pandemic.

The main challenge I heard about was getting old audiences to return and attracting new audiences. Theatre habits have been broken and years of introductions to the performing arts have been lost – and there is still reticence, especially in certain demographics, to go to live in-person indoor events.

This is all reflected in season subscription sales being, unsurprisingly, down at most theatre companies.

Canadian Stage, one of the biggest not-for-profit theatres in Toronto, was the only company of those I contacted that said it was already on track to return to prepandemic subscription levels. Executive director Monica Esteves attributed this to having made “strategic choices and new financial investments to shore up marketing and staffing.”

Le Théâtre du Nouveau Monde, meanwhile, one of the bigger not-for-profit theatres in Montreal, said it was about to hit 85 per cent of prepandemic subscription levels – a result that Frédérique Brault, director of communications, said surpassed its expectations for the season.

Other companies, on the other hand, seemed to be having a harder time getting subscribers back. Leaders at the Neptune Theatre in Halifax and Prairie Theatre Exchange in Winnipeg, for instance, both told me the numbers were only at about a third of what was normal prepandemic.

The picture provided by the Arts Club, the largest theatre company in Western Canada, was interesting: Its mainstage subscription series at the Stanley Industrial Alliance Stage is only about 20 per cent behind prepandemic levels, but its two smaller-stage subscriptions are still 40 to 45 per cent behind, according to artistic director Ashlie Corcoran.

Part of the decline in subscription numbers is connected to a reluctance to buy tickets for shows in advance after years of sudden shutdowns. “We are noticing more patrons are buying last minute than prepandemic which puts the theatre at risk when consumer confidence wanes or public-health concerns spike,” Edmonton’s Citadel Theatre leaders Daryl Cloran and Sarah Pocklington wrote jointly in an e-mail.

“With the exception of our holiday musical, on average, patrons are purchasing tickets less than two weeks in before their performance date,” e-mailed Lisa Bugden, general manager at Neptune, who noted that her theatre company has opened and then shut again four times over the past 18 months.

(The cash-flow issues these buying patterns create are compounded at certain theatres because of some patrons having kept prepaid tickets on account for cancelled shows that date back to spring of 2020.)

A more surprising (to me, anyway) problem that Canadian theatre companies seem to be facing en masse is the reluctant return of another group: theatre makers. Every company I heard from said staffing was or had been a major issue.

“A lot of technical people left the industry and with fewer people there is more demand for their time,” e-mailed Ravi Jain, co-artistic director of Why Not Theatre, which is taking its production of Prince Hamlet on the road this fall.

An artistic exodus from cities may be compounding the problem. “It’s not only because people have left the world of theatre, but people have left Vancouver,” Corcoran of the Arts Club wrote. “Rising costs of housing and inflation are also contributing to making it very hard to fill some roles, a challenge not unique to the arts sector right now.”

Buried in an interesting Los Angeles Times column about the impending change of leadership at the Geffen Playhouse last week was news that Soulpepper artistic director Weyni Mengesha’s production of a new play called Power of Sail there in February brought in “record-breaking ticket sales.”

That mostly had to do with Tony-winning actor and Breaking Bad star Bryan Cranston being in the lead role. But, still, another feather in Mengesha’s cap.

Toronto theatregoers can only hope that the deep-pocketed Geffen – or LA’s Center Theatre Group, which is also looking for a new AD – aren’t going to try to lure the acclaimed director away and back to California. (Her fine Soulpepper production of the new play Queen Goneril continues to Oct. 1.)

What’s opening (and then touring or livestreaming) across the country this week

Victoria: Intimate Apparel, the much-produced 2003 Lynn Nottage play about a young African-American seamstress working in New York in 1905, is getting a run at the Belfry Theatre from Sept. 20 to Oct. 16 under the direction of Nigel Shawn Williams. There will be a livestream from Oct. 4 to 9 accessible from anywhere in the country.

Vancouver: Animal, a new farm-themed show by Quebec’s Cirque Alfonse, is being presented by The Cultch at the Vancouver Playhouse from Sept. 20 to 24. It continues to tour across B.C., then to Ontario and Quebec through the fall before heading off to France.

Edmonton: Barvinok, a Liana Makuch play (formerly titled Blood of our Soil) inspired by personal accounts from war-torn Ukraine in 1944 and the country’s current conflict, kicks off an Alberta tour at the Westbury Theatre from Sept. 21 to 25.

What’s The Globe is reviewing this week

Toronto stages are getting busy now that the city’s film festival is over. I’ll be at three shows I mentioned in my fall preview: Bad Parent at Soulpepper on Tuesday; Cockroach at Tarragon Theatre on Thursday; and Public Enemy at Canadian Stage on Friday. Look for reviews later this week and early next week.

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