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Canadian Stage is announcing plans to share its 1,000-seat open-air amphitheatre in High Park with a wide variety of local arts groups from the end of June into September.

Dahlia Katz/Handout

William Shakespeare is making space for the much-anticipated return of live, in-person theatre, dance and music to Toronto this summer.

Canadian Stage is announcing cheering plans today to put aside its usual outdoor productions of the Bard – and instead share its 1,000-seat open-air amphitheatre in High Park with a wide variety of local arts groups from the end of June into September.

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Eighteen different afternoon and evening events and shows are currently on the schedule for what’s being called Dream in High Park 2021.

Most exciting for the theatre-starved will be full productions of a new Canadian musical; a new work by two-time Governor General’s Literary Award winner Jordan Tannahill; and a special performance that will go beyond the amphitheatre to use the entirety of High Park as its stage.

All will be presented to physically distanced, mask-wearing audiences of up to 100 – with strict COVID-19 protocols in place on stage and off and running times kept to around 90 minutes.

“The High Park amphitheatre is such an incredible asset in this city, [where] there are very few functional outdoor amphitheatres,” says Brendan Healy, artistic director of Canadian Stage, Toronto’s biggest not-for-profit interdisciplinary arts company. “We wanted to make good use of it and also open it up to as many community partners as possible.”

Blackout, a new musical by Anton Lipovetsky and Steven Gallagher, and produced by Musical Stage Company, is set to anchor the three-month season, with performances running from July 23 to Aug. 15.

Originally planned as part of the current cancelled Canadian Stage season, the show tells a triptych of stories set in a park during the blackout of 2003 – and so was a natural candidate for an outdoor production, Healy says.

Is My Microphone On?, Tannahill’s new show, to be directed by his collaborator on the hit Concord Floral, Erin Brubacher, also has a strong connection to the natural world. Set to run Sept. 2 to 19, it’s an environmentalist “protest song” that features a large cast of actors 17 years of age and younger, showcasing the voices of a generation that will be most affected by climate change.

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Nowhen, produced in collaboration with the SummerWorks Festival and the theatre department at York University, is a promenade performance designed for its outdoor setting by director Alison Wong. Originally slated to direct one of Canadian Stage’s Shakespeare productions this summer, Wong pivoted to create this multistoryline theatrical event that will lead audiences on a journey through the park to the amphitheatre. It will run from Aug. 5 to 15 – in the daytime, of course.

Monica Esteves, Canadian Stage’s executive director, and Brendan Healy, artistic director.

Handout

Canadian Stage hopes to kick off its Dream in High Park 2021 programming on June 28 with Lulaworld in the Park – a three-day festival of Latinx, Brazilian, Caribbean and Indigenous music produced with Lula Music. Other planned musical events involve Tapestry Opera, the baroque group Tafelmusik and the Polaris Prize-winning performer Jeremy Dutcher.

Normally a home to drama, the High Park site that has been used by Canadian Stage (or its predecessor, Toronto Free Theatre) since 1983 is being outfitted to better handle live music. “We’ve been able to use this as an opportunity to upgrade the sound,” says Monica Esteves, Canadian Stage’s executive director.

In the brief period where outdoor performances to 100 were allowed in Toronto last year, Canadian Stage piloted alternative park programming and pandemic protocols with a mini-festival called Dance in High Park.

There will again be choreography-centred work at Dream in High Park 2021, produced in collaboration with Native Earth Performing Arts, Dance Immersion and the Dance: Made in Canada Festival.

Comedy, storytelling, films and theatre for young audiences are also planned with partners – including a 30-minute interactive presentation with the High Park Nature Centre called Bat Night.

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This whole enterprise, of course, is contingent on case counts going down to a point where outdoor performances are allowed in Toronto – and tickets will not be put on sale until they are officially permitted. The schedule will be reshuffled if need be.

But, elsewhere in Ontario, the Stratford Festival and the Shaw Festival have already announced plans for performance under canopies this summer – and the Thousand Islands Playhouse is even planning a season indoors to 50-person audiences starting in July.

Canadian Stage is in a good financial position to lead reopening in Toronto. The company was running what Esteves calls a “significant surplus” in the first part of its 2019-20 season – and so it was able to make it to the end of that fiscal year without a deficit, despite cancelling five productions.

The performing arts organization is again on track to finish the year in the black. It has not locked in anything indoors for the fall or winter yet – and is juggling different programming possibilities as it monitors public health conditions.

But with the announcement of Dream in High Park 2021 today, it has delivered hope to one of the hardest-hit hot spots in the country that a return of the performing arts is no dream.

See the full Dream in High Park 2021 line-up.

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