Skip to main content
opinion

Come From Away is now closed for business at the Royal Alexandra Theatre, while Hamilton has come to a halt at the Ed Mirvish Theatre.

Amid growing outrage that it was not heeding the province’s advice on mass gatherings, Mirvish Productions, Toronto’s biggest commercial theatre company, made the decision on Saturday morning to close the doors to its four venues – which range in capacity from 700 to 2200 seats.

Opinion: As the coronavirus isolates us, we look forward to bonding together over culture again

Coronavirus-related cancellations sweep across Canadian cultural scene

“For the first time in my family’s history in theatre, I have had to make the difficult decision to close our theatres,” producer David Mirvish said in a statement.

“Out of an abundance of caution, and in an effort to help limit the spread of the COVID-19 virus, all Mirvish theatres will suspend performances, effective from the matinee today through Sunday, April 12.”

Two other touring shows will shutter as a result: Summer: The Donna Summer Musical at the Princess of Wales, and Us/Them at the CAA Theatre.

Mirvish Productions’ relative delay in closing down due to COVID-19 has made the theatre company the target of much shock and anger expressed online over the past day.

The New York productions of Come From Away and Hamilton, for example, shut down on Thursday, along with the entirely of the Broadway commercial theatre district.

Here in Ontario on Thursday, David Williams, the Chief Medical Officer of Health, advised: “If you have gatherings of over 1,000, I would prefer that you did not hold those events, that you would postpone or delay those.” On Friday morning, Williams went further and recommended that gatherings of over 250 be suspended.

But even as large performing arts companies such as the National Ballet and the Stratford Festival were announcing closures or season delays due to COVID-19 yesterday, Mirvish was still saying that his shows would go on – offering refunds to any ticket holders that requested them, but leaving it up to individuals to decide whether to attend or not.

Many spectators were choosing to go – especially in the case of the long-anticipated touring production of Hamilton, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Tony-winning hip-hop musical; returned tickets were snapped up by others when they went back on sale.

“What we’re finding is we still have full houses for Hamilton and good houses for Come From Away,” Mirvish told The Globe and Mail yesterday, just a few hours before the curtains would rise on those musicals that were playing in his 2200- and 1244-seat theatres, respectively, for what would turn out to be their final performances until (at least) April.

The producer’s position then was that the provincial message on mass gatherings was a recommendation, not an order – and that the risk of contagion was still low as there had not been community spread. “If we were being directed and not cautioned, that would be a totally different situation,” Mirvish said. “We’ll [close] at the point where we believe it’s unsafe and we’ve been told it’s unsafe by the government… I’m not going to put people at risk.”

There has been speculation that Mirvish was waiting for a forced closure in order to trigger cancellation insurance or for other contractual reasons; the producer did not directly answer the question when I put it to him yesterday.

It’s worth noting that some producers in New York were even offering discounts to Broadway shows to try to keep audiences coming until the state governor ordered the district shut down earlier this week. According to a report in the New York Times, the Broadway industry wanted either the governor or the mayor of New York to order a closure, “because of a widespread understanding that the shows’ insurance policies would provide coverage only if a closing were government-mandated.”

Has Mirvish hurt his reputation with the public by the delaying until this morning? I think Torontonians should cut him some slack; it takes time to consult with all involved in four different productions from three different countries and the decision, especially, to close the record-breaking Canadian production of Come From Away and put its Canadian actors out of work must have been extraordinarily difficult.

And while news is moving very quickly during the COVID-19 crisis, in truth, Mirvish is not actually acting any slower than the City of Toronto itself.

TO Live, the city agency that runs three sizable venues, only announced after 5pm yesterday that it would be suspending performances from 12:01am until April 5. A concert by the Christian pop duo For King & Country went ahead as scheduled at the 3,191-seat Meridan Hall (the former Sony Centre) on Friday night.

If the city itself wasn’t cancelling booking in its venues yesterday, you can hardly blame Mirvish for not doing so either. That’s certainly a mixed message on the imminent danger of mass gatherings.

David Mirvish has done the right thing now – so we should focus our energy not on anger at him, but on how to support the entire performing arts industry across the country during this unprecedented shutdown that is wreaking havoc on the lives of artists and artisans from coast to coast.

Keep up to date with the weekly Nestruck on Theatre newsletter. Sign up today.