The Highland Arts Theatre in Sydney, N.S., became one of the first indoor theatre companies in Canada to resume live shows on Monday night.
Daniel MacIvor, the Siminovitch Prize-winning playwright and one of the many prides of Cape Breton, was the first up onstage in front of an audience, performing a newly revised, pandemic-updated version of his 1991 solo show, House. He’ll be performing the play for the rest of the month in repertory with the off-Broadway musical John & Jen, a two-hander starring local “rising stars” Emily O’Leary and Kevin Munroe.
This is not a return to business as usual for the six-year-old company also known as the HAT, however – and not just because, following Nova Scotia health guidelines, the audience is being limited to about 50 people a night, or 12.5 per cent of the 400-seat venue’s usual capacity.
The more surprising and exciting change is that tickets have not gone up in price, but are also now being offered free as part of what the HAT artistic and executive director Wesley J. Colford is calling an experiment in “radical access” and a new ambition to become “the first professional, community-funded theatre in Canada.”
A few months into the pandemic, with no operating grants to keep the HAT going, Colford hatched a plan to save the theatre company they returned home from Toronto to help establish just six years ago. (Colford uses they/them pronouns.)
The goal: Find 2,000 people in the community willing to sign up for monthly donations of $25 (or more) to fund the operations of the theatre with the promise that ticket prices would be eliminated for all.
After just six weeks of fundraising, Colford has already reached 83 per cent of that fundraising goal – which, if successful, will cover $600,000 of the $1.2-million annual budget of the semi-professional company, which produces 12 shows a year.
It’s not surprising that the most devoted HAT-goers have been open to a monthly, Netflix-style charge on their credit card bill in the range of $25. Tickets for shows at the HAT typically range from $25 to $45 plus tax, so, when production gets back to its usual schedule, a monthly tax-deductible donation of that size will actually end up being a cost savings for many of them.
But the HAT’s new model is really more similar to that of podcasts where a small percentage of listeners support the creators through a recurring fee to a site such as Patreon, but the content is made available free for anyone.
Everyone in the arts is talking right now about the importance of not returning to normal after the pandemic, but to return to something better.
Could the HAT’s gambit work in other markets and at not-for-profit theatres that pay full Equity rates and have unionized stagehands? Colford believes that if Cape Breton, with a population of slightly more than 90,000, can replace $600,000 in ticket revenue this way, a similar model could work in other places, too. “My hope is we’re the guinea pigs,” Colford says.
In other Daniel MacIvor news, the Canadian Opera Company will be hosting a watch party for its recording of Hadrian, MacIvor’s opera with the composer (and popular singer/songwriter) Rufus Wainwright on Monday, Aug. 10. To gain access, all you have to do is register online in advance.
The Globe and Mail had plenty of coverage of Hadrian when it had its world premiere at the COC in 2018. Jenna Simeonov interviewed Wainwright – and later reviewed the opera. And Brad Wheeler spoke with the lyre specialist Michael Levy, whose Hymn to Zeus is melodically incorporated into Hadrian.
I mentioned that the HAT was “one of the first” indoor companies to reopen in Canada. That’s because I’m not sure which was officially the first.
In Ottawa, the Gladstone Theatre is presenting Midsummer (A Play With Songs), a 2008 romantic play by David Greig and Gordon McIntyre that’s been done around the world, on its brand-new patio to audiences of 20. If it rains, the show moves indoors with physical-distancing measures in place – but refunds are offered to anyone uncomfortable with going inside.
The pandemic twist in this production of Midsummer is that the singing by performers Vivian Burns and David Whiteley has been prerecorded to reduce the risk of spreading COVID-19.
Another theatre company starting to let human beings back into its space is the Arts Club in Vancouver. Dialled Up, the company’s new festival running from Aug. 8 to 14, is a “primarily digital” affair, but will culminate in a reading of a hotly anticipated new play by Amy Lee Lavoie and Omari Newton called Redbone Coonhound on Aug. 14. The seven actors involved will gather on the Newmont Stage at the BMO Theatre Centre to read the play – though audiences will have to watch online from home.
Vancouverites will have to wait until Aug. 22 and 23 to enter the BMO Theatre Centre themselves. As part of an event called Spaced Out!, Michele Riml’s popular comedy Sexy Laundry will be performed in a reading format to a limited audience of 50. In-person tickets are $150, but you can also watch a livestream from home for $20, the proceeds from which go to new play development.
Finally, last but not least, the acclaimed actors Alon Nashman and Kaleb Alexander will be touring the Wajdi Mouawad play Alphonse to parks in Toronto from Aug. 20 to 30. The theatre companies Theaturtle and Shakespeare in Action are partnering to tour this Canadian classic outdoors. I look forward to checking it out in person when I get back from holiday.
See you in three weeks.
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