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With the rollout of COVID-19 vaccinations under way, the end of the long intermission for Canada’s performing arts industry is now in sight – within the next year.

Mirvish Productions, Canada’s largest commercial theatre producer, has set its eyes on fall to relaunch its subscription season, based on the advice of the TELUS Medical Advisory Council.

Meanwhile, the Stratford Festival, the country’s biggest not-for-profit theatre company, is planning a reduced season beginning in June – tentatively, six productions with separate casts presented in two open-sided tents to audiences of 100 at first.

Other major not-for-profits are aiming to kick off live, in-person and indoors even earlier – with the Shaw Festival in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont., optimistically selling shows to 30 per cent capacity starting in May, and the Théâtre du Nouveau Monde in Montreal hoping to see Quebec’s salles de spectacle among the first gathering places to reopen safely in the spring.

Whatever the projected timelines, the urgent question now shifts to what the country’s ailing performing arts companies need in government support, financial or otherwise, to prepare to reopen – or, for some, simply to survive long enough to try.

To kick off this new uncertain but hopeful year, I contacted leaders of more than a dozen theatre companies across the country to ask about their hopes for 2021.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, responses varied significantly from the destination repertory festivals to major regional theatres to smaller urban companies.

Indeed, the financial hit of the pandemic has been cruelly uneven – depending on how much of an annual budget comes from grants versus box office, or how much of last season had to be cancelled (and how much money had been invested into it before it was).

That COVID-19 hit Stratford particularly hard in 2020, coming after months of design and rehearsal but before opening night, was clear early on.

But I had not previously realized how difficult the pandemic has been on some fall-to-spring companies such as Halifax’s Neptune Theatre – which saw its season-ending musical (the source of 30 per cent of annual ticket revenue) and its biggest fundraiser of the year cancelled because of the timing of the coronavirus’s arrival in North America.

In other words, the key message is that governments shouldn’t design “one size fits all” relief programs for the not-for-profit performing arts scene.

Stratford artistic director Antoni Cimolino suggested a look at the recently passed Save Our Stages Act in the United States – which, as part of a larger relief bill, designates about $15-billion in grants for operators and promoters of live performance venues, including theatres and music halls, plus cinemas and museums.

An equivalent package in Canada would be about $1.7-billion – but Cimolino stressed that Save Our Stages also “recognizes revenue issues” and “asks theatres to apply and explain their specific situation.” As he puts it: “Program design matters as much as dollars.”

Actions taken by the federal government early on during the pandemic were often described as quick, rather than ideal, responses. For instance, when the Canada Council for the Arts dispersed $55-million from a COVID-19 Emergency Support Fund in May and June, it did so in a manner that seemed fair: All distressed performing arts organizations received an immediate boost of 25 per cent (or so) in what they recently received in funding from the arms-length council.

But while this was praised by Emma Stenning, executive director of Toronto’s Soulpepper Theatre Company, as “one of the most successful support programs” in Canada so far, Cimolino at Stratford noted it wasn’t nearly enough for his company to begin addressing their problems. Stratford earns about half of its approximately $65-million in yearly revenue from the box office – and only 5 per cent from public funding.

A Quebec support program, launched in the fall after a second shutdown of theatres there, which partially compensates companies for unsold tickets to shows not taking place because of pandemic restrictions, is a model for relief that other provinces might consider for companies in Stratford’s boat. It has been crucial in allowing Théâtre du Nouveau Monde – a company that normally gets 75 per cent of its revenue at the box office – to continue its artistic mission, artistic director Lorraine Pintal says.

Edmonton’s Citadel Theatre executive director Chantell Ghosh suggests another potential way to help theatre companies dependent on ticket sales reopen this year is a government-backed pandemic insurance program that would compensate for losses if there are any setbacks related to guidelines around gathering restrictions. “We need to raise attendance limits safely while de-risking startup activities for theatres with financial/insurance supports,” she says.

When the time comes to ease attendance limits again, many theatre companies also hope that public-health officials will abandon 2020′s non-targeted policies.

Hard caps on attendance set in most provinces in the fall and summer of 2020 treated every performance venue as if it were the same size – leading to, for example, Toronto’s Princess of Wales Theatre (2,000 seats) and Tarragon Theatre (205 seats) both theoretically being allowed just 50 audience members each.

Most absurd were restrictions allowing restaurants to seat more people than theatres – leading to a dinner theatre in Edmonton and a food-serving comedy club in Toronto to be permitted the largest live audiences in those cities for a spell.

Nearly all industry leaders also stress the need to receive information about any impending government actions as early as possible.

Seasons can be planned a year or more in advance – so even theatres looking to restart in the fall are already well behind schedule in their preparation.

The federal fall economic update included $181.5-million for the Department of Canadian Heritage and Canada Council to support planning and presentation of COVID-safe events – but there have been no clues yet as to how that money might be broken down or distributed.

Even a now-established program such as the Canadian Emergency Wage Subsidy (CEWS) needs more clarity – while it has been extended until June, theatres are waiting to hear full details so they can properly plan. “We hope that the government will keep it at 75 per cent for the hardest-hit sectors, including arts and culture,” says Ashlie Corcoran, artistic director of Vancouver’s Arts Club, the largest theatre company in Western Canada.

“We need certainty regarding the continuance of CEWS,” agrees Neptune Theatre general manager Lisa Bugden, who hopes the program might continue in some cases into 2022.

Indeed, all theatre companies want policymakers and private donors to understand the performing arts sector is on a long path to recovery – and that support won’t be needed just until audiences are allowed to return, but until they choose to come back in full force.

“We see a chasm ahead where CEWS and other supports diminish and we are expected to be back to a high level of production and activity, but there continues to be audience restrictions or general hesitancy about attending events,” says Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre executive director Camilla Holland. “This potentially could result in greater financial hardships than we have experienced so far.”

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