It’s like Groundhog Day instead of Christmas this week for Canadian performing arts companies, which are shutting down or scrambling to comply with new gathering restrictions in the face of provincial orders enacted in response to the exponential rise of the Omicron variant of COVID-19.
These government measures, necessary though they may be, could not be hitting at a worse time for an industry that had just started to show signs of life again for the first time in 21 months.
Theatres and dance companies currently open are in the middle of lucrative runs of holiday shows such as A Christmas Carol and The Nutcracker – and are now once again having to refund tickets for productions that incur most of their costs before audiences arrive.
Meanwhile, many other performing arts organizations are either in rehearsals for major indoor productions or about to begin them for the first time in 21 months. The cruel irony is that a number of these are remounts of shows cancelled at the very start of the pandemic in March of 2020.
On Monday afternoon, Quebec Health Minister Christian Dubé announced that all theatres and other entertainment venues in that province would have to close as of 5 p.m.
Quebec Drama Federation director of operations Rahul Gandhi said the closures came as a “bit of a blindside” to the artistic community, which was adjusting to an edict issued only on Friday requiring them to go to 50-per-cent capacity. “There is no anticipated reopening date,” Gandhi said. “I’m sure as soon as we can open back up, we will.”
Meanwhile, in provinces from Prince Edward Island to Ontario to British Columbia, new gathering restrictions went into effect over the weekend or on Monday – and without the financial cushion of the box-office subsidy that Quebec has been offering to theatres and venues affected by reduced capacities.
Fifty-per-cent capacity is too few seats to be profitable for some commercial theatre companies, which began cancelling or postponing shows in B.C. and Ontario well into January.
On Sunday, Broadway Across Canada (BAC) postponed a Vancouver stop of a tour of the musical Anastasia set for January; the theatrical presenter had already announced it was moving an Ottawa stop of the blockbuster Hamilton from January to July because of capacity restrictions. (With no new restrictions announced in Alberta, BAC tweeted it was still planning to present Anastasia in Calgary and Edmonton in January “at this time.”)
Toronto’s Mirvish Productions also announced on Sunday that its presentation of the West End production of Leopoldstadt, Tom Stoppard’s latest play, would no longer begin performances on Jan. 22.
It was not just capacity restrictions, but also the non-essential travel advisory issued by the federal government and expected border closings and quarantine requirements that made it no longer feasible for Mirvish to consider bringing in a British cast of more than 30 people. Costly preparations were well underway – with rehearsals already begun overseas and, on Monday morning, the play’s set and props sitting on a ship nearing Montreal.
At some not-for-profit theatre companies presenting local artists, gathering restrictions coupled with plummeting audience confidence has had the effect of essentially shutting down theatres.
Neptune Theatre in Halifax cancelled the remainder of its holiday productions of A Christmas Carol and Alice in Pantoland over the weekend. The two shows were playing to just 23-per-cent capacity owing to reimposed physical-distancing requirements in Nova Scotia, but after the province’s medical officer made a plea to reduce contacts as much as possible on Friday, audiences stopped showing up even at that level. “The 100 people we had in [450-seat] Fountain Hall quickly evaporated to 60 people,” said Lisa Bugden, Neptune’s general manager.
A similar situation played out on a larger scale at Jesus Christ Superstar in Toronto’s 2,000-seat Princess of Wales. As of Saturday, Mirvish Productions was allowed to only have 50-per-cent capacity at each performance – and box-office staff had been contacting audiences of the overbooked show to offer them refunds or gift certificates. It was not difficult to find takers and, in the end, the touring production played to fewer than 1,000 at its weekend performances.
Shows choosing to remain open in Canada – as well as around the world – are staying on high alert to avoid cancellations related to COVID-19.
The Delta variant appeared to be controllable both behind the scenes and in audiences, with vaccine mandates and other testing and masking protocols in place this fall. But in a matter of weeks, everything has become harder to contain again because of the Omicron variant.
Broadway and the West End, the commercial theatre districts in New York and London – which at the moment remain fully operational – have cancelled dozens of performances every night for the past week because of COVID cases or attempts to prevent them spreading among casts and crews.
In Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont., the Shaw Festival’s production of Holiday Inn closed on Saturday for the remainder of a run that was nearing its end after a cast member tested positive COVID-19, and others involved in the show went into isolation.
The company is still going ahead with its presentation of A Christmas Carol – but some of the cast are now performing masked, and all are now undergoing daily rapid tests as well as twice-weekly PCR tests.
How rapidly circumstances have changed is evident in the fact that the hit Canadian musical Come From Away reopened in Toronto to a sold-out crowd of over 1,200 on Wednesday last week after a 21-month hiatus – it only lasted three performances at that capacity and, since Saturday, has been limited to 625 spectators a night.
John Karastamatis, director of sales and marketing at Mirvish Productions, said it doesn’t necessarily make financial sense to continue to produce Come From Away at 50-per-cent capacity at the Royal Alexandra Theatre, and that Jesus Christ Superstar is “bleeding money” at 1,000 seats instead of 2,000.
But Karastamatis estimates the two shows are responsible for the employment of more than 600 people behind the scenes and on stage.
“These days, it’s not a matter of making money,” he says. “We’ll do our best to keep everything running as long as we possibly can so we can protect these jobs.”
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