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The Grand Theatre in London, Ont.

The Canadian Press

Just a few weeks ago, theatre companies planning summer seasons across Canada were playing a high-stakes guessing game: What will provincial restrictions allow in terms of live performance – and when?

Now, however, with clear reopening plans rapidly unfolding coast-to-coast alongside rising vaccination rates, theatre companies are grappling with a more complex question: What do audiences want – and when?

Just because theatres are permitted to open to 50 per cent capacity indoors (as has been the case in British Columbia since July 1) or to seat parties with one seat between them (as has been the case in Quebec since Monday), should they, right now?

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Take the Stratford Festival – which tonight (weather permitting) officially marks the opening of its new season (its first since 2019) with a performance of the musical-theatre cabaret Why We Tell The Story: A Celebration of Black Musical Theatre under a canopy outside the Festival Theatre.

The Ontario theatre company has long been planning to present shows outside to 100-person audiences in 400-person tents this summer – and, since June 30, they have been allowed to do that, according to Step 2 of the province’s reopening plan.

As of this Friday, however, the Festival will legally be allowed (along with every other theatre company in the province) to perform to 75 per cent capacity outdoors and 50 per cent capacity indoors when Ontario enters Step 3 early.

That’s a huge leap. Stratford currently can’t have any audiences indoors at its theatres but, theoretically, could host 900 people in its 1800-seat Festival Theatre in three days’ time.

In reality, however, Stratford can now move at its own chosen pace – and will take its time to ramp up. There are seating charts to work out and volunteers and ushers to train, to name just two issues. “For the month of July, we’re going to maintain our plan as it is,” says Anita Gaffney, Stratford Festival’s executive director.

Stratford will likely go up to 75 per cent capacity with its canopied shows from August onwards, but will first be reaching out to those who have already bought tickets for plays or cabarets in that time frame expecting a small audience. “We feel a duty to go back to those individuals to say the rules have changed,” Gaffney says.

As for the season’s one full indoor production – Edward Albee’s Three Tall Women, starring Martha Henry – Stratford will eventually raise capacity on that sold-out show that runs August to October and put more tickets on sale. But will it be all the way to 50 per cent of the 260-seat Studio Theatre? “We’re trying to get a sense of how patrons are feeling – and also what we can turn around as well,” Gaffney says.

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In the meantime, all of Stratford’s currently sold-out shows now have waiting lists for tickets. I’d get on one sooner rather than later if you want a chance at seeing any of them.

The Shaw Festival in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont., is now up and running with the plays Charley’s Aunt, Flush and The Devil’s Disciple all in previews this week, playing on outdoor stages under canopies.

Unlike Stratford, the Shaw Festival already had a plan to move some of its outdoor shows inside as the season progressed – and Ontario’s move to Step 3 may accelerate that in the case of Flush, which is artistic director Tim Carroll’s adaptation of Virginia Woolf’s “biography” of a cocker spaniel.

But the Shaw Festival will also take ramping-up slowly both indoors and outdoors rather than immediately jumping to 75 per cent capacity and 50 per cent capacity on Friday.We’re going to use Step 3 to phase in and see how things go,” says executive director Tim Jennings (who, in an act of faith that is finally paying off, put tickets on sale last November for the 2021 season).

A ride to look forward to in Victoria: Blue Bridge Rep is currently in the middle of a run of Salt-Water Moon, David French’s great Newfoundland-set romantic two-hander, to both in-person and online audiences.

But the theatre company, run by artistic director Brian Richmond, has also just announced a full 2021-2022 season that starts with Suzan-Lori Parks’ Pulitzer Prize-winning play Topdog/Underdog in October and is capped off in August, 2022, with the triumphant homecoming of Jacob Richmond and Brooke Maxwell’s musical Ride the Cyclone. The latter should have an even bigger fan base than ever thanks to the release of a great recording of its songs in May.

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