More and more major theatre companies across the country are returning to live, in-person performances this week.
Notably, Canadian Stage in Toronto is launching its Dance in High Park festival in its outdoor amphitheatre, the Arts Club Theatre Company in Vancouver is opening the solo show No Child on the Newmont Stage at the BMO Theatre Centre, and the Centaur Theatre is kicking off a series of shows called the Portico Project staged in the spacious entryway of its beautiful building in Old Montreal.
These quickly improvised pandemic performances are very heartening to see for lovers of theatre and dance, and I’m personally most delighted that the show is going on again in some form at the Centaur, where I purchased my first theatre subscription back in high school.
But it shouldn’t be forgotten that these performing arts activities are all taking place in front of smaller, safely distanced audiences and with fewer artists involved than normal – and that each and every in-person programming pivot is a tenuous one, subject to changes in COVID-19 case counts. Just today, Toronto’s Soulpepper cancelled a John Steinbeck-inspired cabaret in a park due to Ontario’s new limits on public gatherings and “an abundance of caution for the performers and patrons."
Two hashtag campaigns taking place this week aim to remind Canadians that the pandemic plight of the live arts and events industry remains extremely serious and that there is not yet a return to normal (or a new normal) in sight.
Today’s attempt to get #LightUpLive trending is part of what’s being billed “the day of visibility for the live event community." Empty theatres and venues will be illuminated in red an hour after sundown across Canada to raise awareness of, as the campaign puts it, “an industry that is still dark.”
According to the #LightUpLive campaign’s organizers, the arts, entertainment and recreation sector "lost 152,000 of 486,100 jobs” between June of last year and June of this year – and those still employed in that sector have seen a 45-per-cent reduction in hours worked.
In a similar vein, the Toronto Alliance for the Performing Arts, a theatre, dance and opera advocacy group, kicked off a weeklong #IMissLiveTheatreTO campaign yesterday to call attention to the specific situation in Canada’s largest city by having artists and audience members share memories of some of their favourite theatrical experiences on social media.
According to TAPA, 25,000 public performances have been cancelled or postponed to date due to the pandemic, representing $500-million lost in ticket sales and 20 million bums that never landed in seats.
Despite that bleak reality, there’s been a flurry of alternative seasons announcements in the last week in Toronto.
Theatre Passe Muraille has revealed its very first programming under new artistic director Marjorie Chan. While the autumn will see the venerable alternative Queen Street West company give over its space to artists to develop new work, productions aimed at audiences will return in the new year.
Scheduled world premieres include 11:11 by Samson Bonkeabantu Brown, a play about a “young, Black transman struggling to understand the ancestral messages saturating his dreams,” and Speculation by Leslie Ting, in which the optometrist turned professional violinist examines her mother’s loss of vision and performs music by Beethoven and John Cage.
Will these shows be in-person or online, or both? Chan, who hired the designer Louis Duarte to give her theatre a much-needed visual makeover, says the company is remaining adaptive, flexible and responsive – which is to say, we’ll find out later on.
Perhaps the most intriguing thing about Chan’s leadership at this point is the new pricing for all performances at TPM. Tickets will be $5, $25 or $50 for the season productions, and it will be up to individual audience members to decide what to pay (a box-office strategy pioneered in Toronto by Why Not Theatre).
Factory Theatre, which also announced a fully digital season last week, is going even further in making its theatre accessible, however; all shows will be free in 2020-21.
There’s a little more information about what form artistic director Nina Lee Aquino’s upcoming programming will take. The world premiere of an act of faith by David Yee (whose award-winning, shape-shifting drama carried away on the crest of a wave is next up in Tarragon Theatre’s Acoustic Season) will be a live digital performance, while ahdri zhina mandiela’s new production of Through the Eyes, Don Druick’s classic solo show set during the reign of the Sun King, will be physically performed in Factory’s Studio theatre and live-streamed online. Both “shows” will have a run of six performances.
Other Toronto companies to announce seasons recently: The Theatre Centre, which is ramping up its development to what it calls an “unprecedented” level, and Outside the March, a theatre company that regularly performs works in unusual and immersive ways and once again has lots of new tricks up its sleeve.
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