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Kristi Frank, Alexis Gordon, É​lodie Gillet and Olivia Sinclair-Brisbane in rehearsal for the Shaw Festival's 2020 outdoor concert series.

Courtesy of family

Don’t get around much any more? The Shaw Festival is hoping to change that with an outdoor fall concert series built around the music of Duke Ellington, Dorothy Fields and Cole Porter. It’s designed to lure visitors back to the pandemic-emptied tourist town of Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont.

On Wednesday, the destination theatre company announced that it has eight actors rehearsed and ready to perform in three revues based on classic songs by these early 20th-century American composers and/or lyricists for live, in-person audiences between now and early November.

About 40 performances of the shows are planned so far – all to take place outside, physically distanced and following provincial safety guidelines, of course, with precise ticketing details to be revealed shortly.

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A mini-company of musical theatre actors – which includes well-known Shaw and sometimes Stratford Festival performers such as Kyle Blair and Alexis Gordon – have already been previewing the revues.

“We’ve been doing them in backyards of some local folks and donors, doing them at wineries, doing them at our spaces outside in the gardens,” says Shaw Festival executive director Tim Jennings, who notes attendance can range from 25 to 100 depending on the setting.

The Shaw Festival, which has cancelled all of its original, indoor 2020 season save A Christmas Carol at this point, swiftly put together this alternative, smaller but safe programming with the help of $400,000 in funding from the Federal Economic Development Agency for Southern Ontario (FedDev Ontario) that was announced by Minister of Economic Development Mélanie Joly in late August.

Andrew Broderick rehearses for the Shaw Festival's outdoor concert series.

Courtesy of family

That money was made available to the theatre company specifically in order to entice visitors back to Niagara-on-the-Lake, which has been hit hard economically by COVID-19. Twenty per cent of the town’s work force is employed in tourism and another 16 per cent in arts and culture, according to Jennings. He says that the local chamber of commerce was, at one point this summer, reporting economic activity at 10 per cent of its usual level.

“This is not an arts grant,” says Jennings, who successfully argued to the federal government that Shaw Festival performances could be the catalyst for people to come back, linger and spend at area hotels, wineries and shops. “This is really about economic development.”

But the FedDev-backed revues are also just the latest outside-the-box solution that the Shaw Festival has found to keep operating in one form or another since the pandemic began.

While many performing arts organizations made major layoffs in the spring, the repertory theatre, which normally produces work by and in the spirit of Irish playwright Bernard Shaw, kept a full complement of 500 staff and artists employed until the end of August thanks to a little bit of foresight and a lot of hard work by Jennings and his team.

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Three and a half years ago, the Shaw Festival’s executive director took out an expanded insurance policy that included protection against the interruption of planned performances by communicable disease. The insurer paid out this spring when the pandemic hit – and that money gave the theatre company a little breathing room to consider how to pivot its operations.

Back in May, Jennings figured out the key: If the Shaw Festival’s artists, who normally are employed as independent contractors, were employees, then part of their salaries could be paid by the Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy (CEWS). So, he went ahead and hired 88 artists as education and community outreach specialists and put them to work. (The Arts Club in Vancouver and Second City in Toronto are the only other performing arts organizations I know of that riddled out a way to pay artists through CEWS.)

In late August, qualifications and rules for CEWS changed, which made reducing staff necessary again – but then the FedDev money arrived, and the theatre company continues to employ about 250 as it heads into the fall season.

Associate artistic director Kimberley Rampersad is front and centre in the new programming – directing and choreographing the Duke Ellington Revue and the Dorothy Fields Revue, and choreographing the Cole Porter Revue (which is directed by artistic director Tim Carroll). Paul Sportelli is music director on all three.

Along with Blair and Gordon, company members Andrew Broderick, James Daly, Kristi Frank, Élodie Gillett, Olivia Sinclair-Brisbane and Jonathan Tan will all be singing and dancing in the shows, accompanied on piano and, where physically possible, percussion and bass.

It’s been a challenging summer, says Rampersad, who got her start at the Shaw Festival performing in the Cy Coleman/Dorothy Fields musical Sweet Charity in 2015. In June, the on-the-rise artist who began her career as dancer even found herself so down that she didn’t want to dance for the first time in her life.

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Rehearsing the new revues, however, has her back – to borrow from one of Fields’s most best-known songs – On the Sunny Side of the Street. “Being able to work on this project with these artists has made me hopeful again – and that’s very liberating,” she says.

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