Skip to main content
opinion

The National Arts Centre and Facebook Canada ended its #CanadaPerforms emergency relief program on May 31 – but the hashtag will live on well into the future.

#CanadaPerforms, which gave out $1,000 grants for live-streamed events as varied as concerts, theatrical performances and book launches, has now been re-envisaged as a two-year partnership between the Ottawa-based arts centre with a national mandate and the social media giant “that will explore the future of digital engagement and live-streaming in the performing arts.”

What exactly does that mean? The way Heather Gibson, lead programmer for #CanadaPerforms, explains it, the NAC now has a “fifth stage” that exists online – one to which Facebook Canada has already committed another $500,000.

If #CanadaPerforms is to become a regular NAC program, it’s worth assessing how well it succeeded to date in the twin goals it launched with in March: “to help ease the financial strain for Canadian artists impacted by the closure of performance venues across Canada related to COVID-19, and to lift the spirits of Canadians during the crisis.”

In terms of its monetary relief, it deserves a round of applause: $1,000 was distributed to 696 live-streamed art events from an original $700,000 contributed by Facebook Canada ($200,000), Slaight Music ($100,000), the RBC Foundation ($200,000) and SiriusXM Canada ($200,000).

But what about the spirits of Canadians? Were they lifted?

The NAC is still crunching numbers, but it has some preliminary data to share. In total, there were 4.75 million views for #CanadaPerforms, a figure that combines live views and “replays.” An exact geographical breakdown is not yet available, but 78 per cent came from outside of the National Capital Region.

The big takeaway: It may have taken a pandemic to do it, but the National Arts Centre has finally become truly national.

Francophone musical artists drew some of the largest individual audiences: Electro-pop duo Alfa Rococo’s acoustic set from a balcony in Montreal was viewed 310,000 times, while the Acadian “trash folk” singer-songwriter Lisa LeBlanc pulled in 234,000 viewers. Blues artist Steve Hill and Newfoundland trio The Once had the largest audiences of anglophone artists with 81,000 and 80,000 views, respectively. (All numbers are approximate.)

Overall, the average viewership for each #CanadaPerforms performance was 8,000 – a more than respectable virtual attendance for artists who might play venues with 100 capacity.

The real question, however, that arises when considering online viewership figures is what exactly a “view” is. The NAC says it doesn’t have the data on the average length of a #CanadaPerforms view – and we know that, from the Facebook algorithm’s point of view, tuning in for just three seconds can constitute one.

In the final week of the original #CanadaPerforms period, I watched a number of less high-profile live streams – and found viewership in-the-moment not as impressive as the NAC figures.

When you take in a live stream on Facebook, a number in the corner tells you how many other people are watching with you.

I observed it fluctuate between nine and 13 for a family play, hover around 24 for a country musician’s set, and reach a height of 27 for a spoken-word artist delivering a mock-serious rendition of the lyrics to Jingle Bells in French. (Queen Ka has a new fan in me.)

When I checked out the archived live streams a week later, however, I saw total viewership for them now listed as 1,200, 2,000 and 43,000, respectively.

The disparity could mean that each live stream had many more viewers in replay than it did live – or that a lot of people were tuning in for short periods and churning over constantly.

The significance of the length of view varies between art forms, too. Tuning in to a band for a couple of songs can be said to be a valuable view, but many theatre artists would be offended by someone walking out of an hour-long play after six minutes.

Ultimately, this illustrates a larger issue in what you might call genre parity regarding #CanadaPerforms.

Popular forms of music worked quite well on the NAC’s new virtual stage and the hashtag was a great tool for Canadians to discover new artists; it’s not surprising the immediate next step for #CanadaPerforms is to support a number of music festivals in live-streaming even higher-quality performances as part of what’s being called #RoadToCanadaDay.

Theatre, by contrast, or the live streams tagged as “theatre” on #CanadaPerforms, could be a bit of a slog to stick with. With some exceptions where stage artists were experimenting for a new medium, they tended to feel like homages to a missing art form.

And #CanadaPerforms was not as meaningful in providing financial relief to theatre artists, either, compared to musical ones, performing solo or as duos. One night, I watched a live stream of Troilus and Cressida, one of Shakespeare’s lesser produced plays, acted by eight performers, all female-identifying, from an Edmonton troupe called Tiger’s Hearts Collective.

Danielle LaRose, the director, told me afterward she gave each actor $100 – and paid herself $200 for long hours of work, which included paring Shakespeare’s three-hour play down to an hour. The performances, nevertheless, had some depth to them, having already been honed during a two-week prepandemic workshop financed by an Edmonton Arts Council grant of $15,000. (That’s the amount of money you really need to invest in theatre, virtual or otherwise.)

But LaRose, like other theatre live streamers I spoke with, told me that she appreciated the money she did receive – and that #CanadaPerforms was useful in others terms, from visibility for her company to the mental heath of her artists.

Like other pandemic programs launched in March, #CanadaPerforms was created to respond quickly, rather than perfectly. Now’s the time to experiment more with how this one-size-fits-all idea might fit other performing artists as well it does musicians – and lift the spirits of their audiences, too.

Keep up to date with the weekly Nestruck on Theatre newsletter. Sign up today.