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Arts Club Theatre Company’s Andrew McNee, in the Arts Club Theatre Company's Buffoon.


Theatre companies in British Columbia, forced to shut down under new public-health orders, are appealing to the province to reconsider. Companies that have had to shut down as of Friday say they feel singled out and are shocked, disheartened and confused by the decision. The new rules announced late Thursday prohibit performances with live audiences – but still allow movie theatres to operate, as well as businesses in the hospitality sector.

“If restaurants and pubs and cinemas are all open, then why are small arts groups that are performing for 20 people in socially distanced seats with masks on – why are we all of a sudden cancelled?” said Aaron Craven, artistic director with Vancouver’s Mitch and Murray Productions.

While theatre artists and administrators stress their top concern is safety, many are asking similar questions in light of the new order.

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“Why is live theatre performance, that employs local artists, being targeted,” said Peter Cathie White, executive director with the Arts Club Theatre Company, which has cancelled more than 40 performances between Friday and Dec. 7, laid off staff such as ushers and was busy contacting patrons on Friday to let them know. “We didn’t expect the order to single out live theatre; it’s really the only new additional business that has to close. They actually even allowed more gyms to open than the last order but closed us. It just doesn’t make any sense.”

Late Thursday, B.C.’s Provincial Health Officer Bonnie Henry announced new provincewide orders that, among other things, prohibit social gatherings and events through Dec. 7. Musical and theatre performances are included in that category (along with galas, silent auctions and seasonal activities).

“We’re not single events; we’re long-term business endeavours. We invest into the community, and we’re local. So we actually are a job stimulator, and we also make people feel better,” said Donna Spencer, artistic producer at the Firehall Arts Centre, which has cancelled the remaining shows of its current production, The Amaryllis. “There’s a total lack of understanding as to what we do.”

The few theatre companies that have been bringing in live audiences have been made to follow strict safety protocols, including physical distancing, mandatory mask requirements and contact tracing.

The Arts Club has mounted more than 150 performances since September – one-person, one-act plays – with no safety breaches. Artistic director Ashlie Corcoran worries the shutdown also sends an implicit message to patrons and potential customers about the safety of attending a show. “It gives this air of ‘it’s not safe to come to the theatre.’”

On Thursday night, the final performances of Vancouver-based writer Anosh Irani’s play Buffoon were staged; the show was scheduled to close on Sunday. The company’s next scheduled show, The Twelve Dates of Christmas, was supposed to begin previews this week. The run has been pushed back to Dec. 8, for now.

Buffoon, written by Anosh Irani, was scheduled to run through Sunday.

Mark Halliday/Handout

“The enormous cost of cancelling two productions is a massive blow to our financial sustainability and to the employment of local artists that we have been committed to providing. We do not understand it,” wrote Mr. Cathie White in an e-mail to Health Minister Adrian Dix on Thursday evening, imploring the province to move live theatre into the same category as cinemas to allow them to continue to operate. “The not-for-profit arts industry has been dealt a particularly cruel blow by this pandemic, and today’s order is not conducive with our innovation in this time of crisis and our proven ability to safely operate our business.”

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Mr. Cathie White has also sent e-mails to Premier John Horgan, Dr. Henry and several MLAs. As of midday Friday, he had not received a response.

“I guess the thing that is most disheartening is we’re not looked at as if we’re businesses and yet the movie theatres are staying open, and they’re certainly not presenting us with unique Canadian experiences,” said Ms. Spencer, who also points out that people can still go to pubs and have a drink and meal and socialize without a mask. “And yet people coming into our theatres are considered to be dangerous when they’re sitting six feet apart with masks on looking straight towards where the actors are who are at least 12 feet away from them.”

The Chutzpah! Festival, which begins this weekend, announced it was moving planned live performances online. But Mitch and Murray, whose current show Lungs is scheduled to close on Sunday, was reluctant early Friday afternoon to even cancel that evening’s performance, saying the company would wait until 5 p.m. to do so, hoping for the order to be revised.

“I wasn’t willing to make that statement without a bit of a fight; it just seems crazy to me. We’re not asking for special treatment. If we need to lock down and that’s the provincial order, that’s fine. It’s just that there’s such disparity. Why are places where you can take your mask off indoors open?” Mr. Craven said. “It seems like an oversight or clumsiness.”

A question to the Health Ministry about why live theatre was being treated differently from film screenings did not receive a response by early Friday afternoon.

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