The curtain is up on a new year, and for the Canadian performing arts, the end of 2022 and the beginning of 2023 mark incredibly heartening news.
The sector has made it through the recent holiday season without closures, newly imposed restrictions or a significant spate of cancellations for the first time since COVID-19 initially reared its ugly head in 2020.
The end of the calendar year has, traditionally, been one of the most important periods for the theatre industry in terms of box office revenues and bringing in new audiences. So the late-2021 Omicron wave was devastating.
Checking back in this week with four companies whose suffering 12 months ago The Globe and Mail reported on, however, I found only optimism and celebration.
The Arts Club: In December, 2021, this Vancouver theatre company had to close its run of Dolly Parton’s Smoky Mountain Christmas Carol early owing to COVID-19 cases in the cast and orchestra – leading to $300,000 worth of tickets being refunded for 13 cancelled performances.
The picture at the end of 2022 was much different. The Arts Club gambled on three holiday shows: The Sound of Music (which ran Nov. 10 to Dec. 24); Mom’s The Word: Talkin’ Turkey (Oct. 27 to Jan. 1); and Me Love BINGO!: Best in Snow (Dec. 1 to Jan. 1).
Artistic director Ashlie Corcoran reports only six performances had to be cancelled – and all were due to the big winter storm on Dec. 20 that happened to hit on two-performance days for all three of the shows.
COVID-19, on the other hand?: “We did not have to cancel any performances because of illness, but that was because of the various understudy plans we had in place,” Corcoran wrote in an e-mail.
“Overall we are feeling quite optimistic, and I have so much gratitude for our community,” she added of her feeling at the start of a new year.
The Shaw Festival: Just over a year ago, this destination theatre in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont., had to contend with new government capacity restrictions, followed quickly by the early closure of its holiday musical and annual production of A Christmas Carol after company members tested positive for COVID-19.
This past December, however, the Shaw Festival doubled up on understudies and pulled off full runs of both White Christmas and A Christmas Carol – with only one performance of the latter cancelled after three cast members became sick at once, according to executive director Tim Jennings.
There were some other close calls with A Christmas Carol. A couple of performances had someone on stage “working from book” (that is, script in hand) and, at one point, artistic director Tim Carroll went on as an emergency puppeteer in his own adaptation of the Charles Dickens story. (This was his onstage debut with the Shaw Festival, though he was not visible to the audience.)
Jennings reports that audiences were very good: “normative-ish to our 2019 numbers (which were great),” he said in an e-mail. Nothing else this past season had come as close to pre-pandemic numbers.
“It was a really enormous upswing from summer, so fingers crossed it was the beginning of a trend for the coming year.”
Mirvish Productions: In December, 2021, just days after reopening its Toronto sit-down production of Come From Away, Canada’s largest commercial theatre company was faced with suddenly reimposed capacity restrictions by the Ontario government. A little over a week later, Mirvish had to permanently close the Canadian musical owing to COVID-19 cases and an imminent complete shuttering of the province’s stages. It also had to cancel its planned North American premiere of Tom Stoppard’s Leopoldstadt and scrambled to reschedule other shows.
By contrast, Mirvish has not lost a single show in 2022 since October, when an intruder broke into the CAA Theatre and a performance of the play, Indecent, was called off.
John Karastamatis, director of sales and marketing at Mirvish, says all three of the company’s shows on stage over the holidays did well. Indeed, he wrote by e-mail that Harry Potter and the Cursed Child broke a Canadian box office record for the week of Dec. 26-31, 2022, playing to 100 per cent capacity and pulling in $1,984,046 in sales – a result he says is the highest weekly gross for a non-musical play in Canadian theatre history.
Twelve months later, however, A Christmas Carol (in a one-man version starring Rhys Bevan) got through its run to Dec. 30 without a hitch, while Elf: The Musical (a bigger holiday show) had extended its run twice, once because of demand and once as what Neptune artistic director Jeremy Webb calls “an insurance policy.” (It now closes Jan. 15.)
“We predicted we’d be hit more than we have been so far and so until last week held most of the seats for that final week of performance, in case we needed to offer our patrons an alternative date,” Webb wrote by e-mail. Only two performances have been lost to illness to date – and both of them were not COVID-related, according to Webb.
As for sales, both Elf and A Christmas Carol exceeded the company’s internal targets.
“We were tasked with handling full houses for the first time since February, 2020. It was a wonderful challenge to have. And it’s the first step in rebuilding after the pandemic.”
What’s opening and closing this week
Canadian theatre companies that don’t still have holiday shows on the boards are gearing back up slowly in part owing to the way the New Year’s holiday fell.
If it feels eerily quiet for openings in Toronto right now, that’s because the long-running Next Stage Theatre Festival, an offshoot of the Fringe that usually got the new year off with a bang, recently decided to move to the fall and across town to a new venue.
A new event has taken its place in the calendar at Tarragon Theatre under the artistic leadership of Mike Payette. The Greenhouse Festival (Jan. 6 to 14) is described as “a process-led residency program, focused on growing vibrant, theatrical ideas and facilitating exchange between artists and audience.” If work-in-progress interests you, you can buy a pass for $35 and sample all that’s on offer.
As Greenhouse is not for review, perhaps I’ll use the free time this week to make my way to the east end storefront, Red Sandcastle, which has a pantomime called The Little PINKO Hen on until Jan. 7.
Which reminds me, too: If you want to boo Toronto panto king Ross Petty one last time, this is the final week of his final production, Peter’s Last Flight, at the Elgin Theatre (closing Jan. 7).