The battered theatre sector in Ontario is heading into the long weekend in a state of confusion and demoralization.
Ironically, this is owing to the province’s announcement on Thursday of a three-step reopening plan – a moment that should have brought great rejoicing in the sector.
But “reopening” in the roadmap set out by the Ford government seems to mean further lockdown for performing arts companies – at least initially.
In step one, theatre companies appear to be subject to the same harsh restrictions they were under during the strictest lockdowns of the pandemic – not just forbidden to welcome audiences, but prohibited from rehearsing, recording or broadcasting.
The province’s film and television industry, meanwhile, will continue to be allowed to rehearse, record and broadcast – even from inside theatres – as it was under the strictest lockdowns.
“It’s completely perplexing,” says Jacoba Knaapen, executive director of the Toronto Alliance for the Performing Arts. “There is a growing level of frustration and anger within the TAPA membership.”
It’s not primarily Toronto theatres that are reeling right now, however.
Ontario’s three-step plan for reopening has sent, in particular, those companies that operate in the summertime in smaller towns and rural areas scrambling to figure out how to rework reopening plans for July and August – and if they in fact even need to do so.
The Stratford Festival, the Shaw Festival, the Blyth Festival in Huron County and Festival Players of Prince Edward County are among the companies who have built, or are in the process of building, outdoor or canopied stages with distanced seating so as not to lose a second season in a row.
The Thousand Islands Playhouse in Gananoque, meanwhile, has been planning a summer season for audiences of 50 people (masked and distanced) indoors.
These companies assumed, quite conservatively (indeed, most are situated in ridings held by Progressive Conservative MPPs), that the one-dose summer would not involve tougher restrictions than last year’s no-dose summer.
The province’s old colour-coded system was region-based and permitted performances to 100 spectators outdoors, and, indeed, 50 indoors with physical distancing (once case counts fell below a certain threshold).
The new Ontario reopening plan, however, seems to be one-size-fits-all for the whole province. Its three steps are based on overall vaccination levels as well as other unclear benchmarks regarding “key health indicators.” There’s a minimum of three weeks between steps.
Outdoor performances can resume “with capacity and other restrictions” in step two and indoor performances “with capacity and other restrictions” in step three.
With the government suggesting step one would likely only begin on June 14, that means the earliest outdoor theatres could begin performances would be July 5, and July 26 the earliest indoor theatres could start.
That’s a more slow and cautious approach than some provinces – certainly than in Quebec, where indoor theatre has taken place with distancing and masks since the end of March to no reported outbreaks.
But the problem is not the speed, but the lack of detail in the plan regarding performing-arts organizations, which need to plan further in advance than most businesses and have been on their own during the pandemic in the absence of government guidance.
The most glaring gap in the plan as written is that it says theatre companies may open outdoors in step two – but, maddeningly, also suggests rehearsals are banned until step two.
Stratford’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, for example, will require three weeks of in-person rehearsals. Executive director Anita Gaffney, like her counterparts at most other theatre companies I contacted, says she’s seeking “clarity” from the office of Lisa MacLeod, Minister of Heritage, Sport, Tourism and Culture Industries.
Monica Esteves, executive director of Canadian Stage, which has planned an outdoor season in Toronto’s High Park, explains it succinctly: “Sports are able to practise in step one, and it is critical that live performance organizations are similarly able to ‘practise’ through safely controlled rehearsals as we prepare for reopening.”
The other big gap in the province’s plan is exact guidance on what “capacity and other restrictions” will be in steps two and three. Will it be a hard cap on numbers again, or (more sensibly) based on how many people can safely distance in any given venue?
This isn’t something that can be decided at the last minute: The number of tickets that can be sold will dictate the size of shows – and whether they can afford to go ahead at all.
For some reason, it’s easier to plan ahead for a funeral right now than it is to plan for a play. (In step two, funerals will be permitted indoors at 15 per cent capacity; outdoors “with capacity limited to permit physical distancing of two metres” – see how easy it is to be specific?)
Time is running out for some theatres to decide whether to go ahead this summer at all. “The pressure on rural companies like Blyth Festival is especially acute; our artists don’t live in our town,” says artistic director Gil Garrett. “It’s unclear from the announcement what live theatre can really look like in 2021.”
Dakota Brasier, senior communications adviser in Minister MacLeod’s office, says, “Additional details will be provided as they become available.”
Here’s hoping those details are that rehearsals will be allowed in step one and that capacity will be at least 100 outdoors and 50 indoors for steps two and three so that theatres have more clarity on how to plan for the summer season.
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