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Drew Facey, the now former multi-award-winning set designer, prepares the leave for his new home in Mexico at his empty condo in Vancouver, on Aug. 7, 2020.

Rafal Gerszak/The Globe and Mail

Vancouver set and costume designer Drew Facey is a fixture of the local theatre community, designing shows here and beyond for theatre and opera productions, winning 18 Jessie Richardson Theatre Awards along the way. Now Facey is leaving Vancouver – and theatre. COVID-19 has claimed another professional casualty.

“In one week in March I lost 14 months’ worth of contracts,” Facey says in his nearly empty East Vancouver condominium, the one he and his partner decided to sell after the pandemic hit (his partner works in hospitality, which has also been hard hit).

“I obviously went through a difficult, dark time emotionally,” Facey continues. “I focused singularly for the last 15 years on building this design practice, and it was wiped out in a week. And there was really no kind of sense that companies were going to be supporting artists and that we would be able to survive this.”

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Seeing the writing on the wall, Facey, 39, spent the past few months retraining in 3-D visualization, while collecting the Canada Emergency Response Benefit. He spent hours each day teaching himself the sometimes frustrating technology. On Thursday, Facey takes off for Merida, Mexico, where he and his partner will open an interior design business in the Yucatan state capital using the complicated digital technology.

Facey has spent the last few months retraining as an interior designer and in 3D visualization after the COVID-19 lockdown eliminated all work in the theatre industry.

Rafal Gerszak/The Globe and Mail

His departure is a huge loss for the theatre scene, and a scary sign of what may be to come.

Because of COVID-19, performing arts companies have cancelled their upcoming seasons – and the contracts that came with them. There is no indication of when it will be safe – or legal – to gather in theatres again.

“The theatre industry is so fragile and freelance theatre artists are so vulnerable,” says Facey, who is beloved as much for his positive energy as his creativity. “I worry constantly for my colleagues in such uncertain times and I feel that the conversation hasn’t really begun around what’s next for all of us.”

Facey was born and raised in Kelowna, B.C., where he obtained a subscription to Architectural Digest when he was 10. He studied at Concordia University in Montreal and in Vancouver, at Emily Carr University of Art and Design and Langara College’s Studio 58 theatre school. He has worked for a long list of companies, designing nearly 170 professional productions, ranging from The Sound of Music to Shakespearean tragedies to an opera based on Shane Koyczan’s novel-in-verse Stickboy.

When the nominations were released for the 2014 Jessie Awards, for instance, Facey had a jaw-dropping seven of them, and walked away with the award for Significant Artistic Achievement for his body of work, among others. Most recently, he won the Jessie in June for outstanding set design (large theatre) for Cost of Living at The Arts Club Theatre Company.

“He is a great positive spirit, a mass of talent and he’s got a marvellous optimistic encouraging way about him,” says Christopher Gaze, the long-time artistic director at Vancouver’s Bard on the Beach. “So when you talk to him, you just feel that almost anything is possible and won’t it be fun to do it.”

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Facey has worked for a long list of companies, designing nearly 170 professional productions.

Rafal Gerszak/The Globe and Mail

It’s a lot to walk away from, but Facey is not feeling much optimism about theatre’s immediate future.

COVID-19 further highlighted the issues that were already making him uncomfortable about how the industry operates. He felt his life wasn’t sustainable – working on overlapping shows, travelling several months of the year, all to support life in an expensive city like Vancouver.

He made a decision to stop working in what he calls dysfunctional situations, or for companies where he has witnessed bullying and racism – he declines to give details – and then felt more centred; he could sleep again. Then the pandemic hit.

“A lot of theatre companies are keeping vague promises of work on the horizon and I think that it is giving artists false hope that their jobs are going to return soon,” Facey notes. “But when I talk with [artistic directors] about what the future holds, any that I have spoken with are very worried about how limited programming and opportunities are going to be when and if theatres reopen.”

He is also frustrated with the pandemic divide between freelance artists like himself, and some people employed in senior positions by theatre companies. “They’re working, they’re collecting their salaries, they’re going to work every day. And then on the other side of it, you have the actors and choreographers and directors and designers and everybody else, and we’re all out of work,” says Facey. “That is frustrating. And knowing that that doesn’t seem like it’s going to change any time soon is difficult.”

We were speaking a few days before his departure, and Facey pulled out his laptop to demonstrate his new line of work. He scrolled through a series of photos of a derelict property in Merida; then new photos, re-imagining digitally what the home could look like. This kind of 3-D visualization can help a real estate agent sell a property; then maybe Facey will get an interior design gig from whoever buys the place.

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Facey, the now former multi-award-winning set designer, shows his new 3D interior design work in Vancouver, on Aug. 7, 2020.

Rafal Gerszak/The Globe and Mail

“I feel like I grieved this career that I spent 15 years building and sort of went through this quite dark process and then made a decision that I had to just be strong and build out. I built a design business once; I can do it again,” he says.

He is clearly excited about the work. But his departure leaves a chasm – that likely won’t be unique.

“It’s a sad testament of this pandemic that people will be changing gears; they’ll be finding other ways to earn livings. And maybe they won’t come back to the theatre,” says Gaze, who worries about losing all that experience and depth. “It’s dangerous. And there could be many losses over the next while.”

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