Shutting down theatres because of the COVID-19 pandemic was hard, but starting them up again in Canada is going to be harder.
There are two things that are needed now – right now – that will make it easier for not-for-profit performing arts companies to get back to the business of making live, in-person art as soon as it is safe, rather than three months after the fact.
The first is clearly articulated reopening road maps from each provincial government.
The second is an infusion of money to be able to take the risk that things might not go according to that plan.
The Saskatoon theatre scene has both. That’s why its outlook is sunnier and more confident than almost any other place in the country (outside of Quebec, which has a provincial box-office insurance scheme that has allowed theatres to reopen already).
Let’s compare and contrast.
Shakespeare on the Saskatchewan is poised to mount a production of Macbeth to reduced but in-person audiences this summer – and to finally properly open its new permanent amphitheatre, which saw construction completed last fall.
The Saskatoon Fringe Festival, produced by the 25th Street Theatre, is planning a 10-day event spread out between two indoor venues and one outdoor stage, plus digital offerings and home delivery of plays, from July 29 to Aug. 7.
Meanwhile, the Toronto Fringe Festival will be digital-only from July 21 to 31.
Persephone Theatre, Saskatchewan’s largest regional theatre company, has mapped out a 2021-22 season of four mainstage productions that would begin inside its theatre in October to reduced capacity of 100 audience members, masked and distanced.
Meanwhile, in much of the country, producers at similarly sized not-for-profits are privately saying they are too nervous to play indoors shows until 2022.
There’s no flicking a switch to reopen any business – but theatre companies have to plan particularly far in advance. They need time to assemble creative teams, audition actors, contract everybody and then rehearse. Costs are frontloaded, with box office revenue coming later.
This is why so many are being extra cautious in Canada, even as British theatres are preparing to reopen this month and Broadway has announced a reopening at full capacity for the fall. It’s too much risk to not only have to predict what the virus will do next – but also predict what the country’s provincial governments will do in response.
Saskatchewan is the only province so far to have released a clear plan for reopening that assumes vaccination will do what it is intended to do: Return life to some semblance of normality.
The Re-opening Roadmap says, for instance, that three weeks after 70 per cent of residents 40 or older have received a first dose, the limit for public indoor gatherings becomes 30 and for public outdoor gatherings it becomes 150. Roughly three weeks after 70 per cent of residents 30 or older are vaccinated, meanwhile, theatre capacity will rise to 150.
There are critics of the Saskatchewan roadmap who worry it relies too much on vaccination rates and too little on case counts – indeed, that’s the general feeling among theatre companies. It’s not enough on its own to plan around.
But its shortcomings shouldn’t stop other provinces from announcing their own, better road maps. And, at the very least, it has given a repeatedly shuttered, battered industry hope.
“I was actually in the drive-through line having just received my vaccination as they were announcing the reopen Saskatchewan plan,” says Anita Smith, artistic and executive director of the 25th Street Theatre. “It was a huge endorsement of the steps we were taking to move the Fringe festival forward.”
Which brings us to the second reason, and in many ways the more important reason, the theatre scene in Saskatoon is revving up faster than others: major financial gifts from the estate of Bob Steane, who died in 2019.
Steane, a former vice-president and chief operating officer at Cameco and a prominent patron of the arts, left at least $4-million to the Saskatoon Community Foundation, with a portion of that earmarked for the arts.
Around $1.5-million was paid out last summer and fall, right in the middle of the pandemic.
Shakespeare on the Saskatchewan got $300,000, Persephone received $300,000 and the 25th Street Theatre landed $200,000 cash – in addition to sizable donations to their endowment funds. (Other local arts organizations that received smaller but significant gifts include the Gordon Tootoosis Nikaniwin Theatre and SUM Theatre.)
Alan Long, director of marketing and development at Shakespeare on the Saskatchewan, is blunt about the effect of this unexpected money: Without it, the theatre company would not have taken the risk on Macbeth this summer. “That gift from Bob Steane is helping a lot of us to roll the dice,” he says.
The Steane estate money stabilized the financial situation at Persephone, which had been going through a tumultuous time and is currently searching for new artistic leadership. And it has not only allowed the Fringe to go ahead, but may help the 25th Street Theatre return to producing at other periods of the year for the first time since 1999.
“I’m a parent of two children and I remember the day that they were born – and I remember the day I found out about the Bob Steane gift,” Smith says.
“I was on the verge of telling the board to lay me off.”
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