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Stratford Police sit outside the Stratford Festival's Festival Theatre in Stratford, Ont., on May 28, 2018. COVID-19 safety concerns are closing the curtain on hotly-touted theatre shows planned by the Stratford Festival and Mirvish Productions.Geoff Robins/The Canadian Press

Is 2020 cancelled for Canadian theatre?

It certainly felt like it on Monday as the country’s theatregoers and stage artists were hit by a one-two punch.

The Stratford Festival announced it was putting its entire 2020 season on hold – just an hour and a half after Toronto’s Mirvish Productions revealed it was pushing back the start of its subscription season until January.

That’s the largest not-for-profit theatre company and the biggest commercial theatre company in Canada, both essentially shut down until the new year.

Some provincial premiers may have started to publicly discuss plans to lessen restrictions on its frustrated populations in the past week – but the theatre industry’s great intermission seems to have only just begun.

While Stratford did offer a flicker of hope that special fall or holiday programming might take place if circumstances shift, and producer David Mirvish did say his ready-to-go Canadian production of Come From Away could reopen in the fall, it’s clear that large theatres are looking at next year as the more plausible return for mass gatherings.

That all shape and size of summer theatre is not going to happen is no surprise: Shakespeare-oriented companies from Bard on the Beach in Vancouver to Canadian Stage’s Shakespeare in High Park in Toronto announced season cancellations weeks ago, while fringe festivals across the country – including the two major ones in Edmonton and Winnipeg – have already cancelled.

The Charlottetown Festival, an important part of Canada’s musical theatre scene, announced on Friday its 2020 season was cancelled – and that, for the first time since 1965, its flagship production of Anne of Green Gables: The Musical will not be staged.

But the question of whether city theatres, which normally operate September to April, will be able to open again on schedule in the fall has been more unclear – and remains so.

Stratford and Mirvish are representative of a particular segment of the industry. They operate out of big venues with more than 1,000 seats – and even when restrictions are lifted on mass gatherings, it’s likely they will be lifted gradually. A 50-seat theatre might be able to reopen before a 250-seat theatre is, and so on – with the larger companies opening last.

Stratford is also an outlier in having a large tourist audience (25 per cent of their ticket buyers are from the United States), while Mirvish brings in most of their shows from the United States or Britain.

Theatre is mostly a local art form in Canada, created by local artists for audiences that live relatively nearby.

These locally oriented theatre companies are still weighing their options and monitoring public health. One artistic director I spoke to this week said his theatre had nine different contingency plans in play. (Stages may be shuttered, but those who run them are working overtime right now.)

Most city theatres that haven’t already announced 2020-2021 seasons are definitely holding off. Toronto’s Tarragon Theatre, for instance, had a release ready to go at the end of February, then put it on pause.

But some have gone ahead. Less than two weeks ago, Prairie Theatre Exchange – a crucial home for new Canadian plays that operates out of a 323-seat theatre in Winnipeg’s Portage Place mall – announced a 2020-21 season set to start in October. “We have a little more flexibility than arts organizations that welcome much larger audiences, and at this time we believe it’s still responsible for us to commit to the season we’ve planned,” artistic director Thomas Morgan Jones said in an e-mail on Monday.

In Halifax, Christian Barry of 2b theatre, a creation theatre company without a set season and therefore more flexibility, is imagining a gradual return to operations – perhaps workshop presentations or shows presented to smaller, separated audiences in the fall and then a return to the stage of its hit touring musical Old Stock: A Refugee Love Story in 2021.

Reopening theatres will certainly vary from province to province, and probably even city to city.

But when theatres will be permitted by authorities to reopen is really only one part of the question. Theatres may be able to reopen sooner than expected – but still take years to return to normal operations depending on what financial shape companies are in and how long it takes for audiences to return after this unplanned intermission is over.

Stratford’s 2020 season – planned as a celebratory, 15-show season that would see the opening a brand-new theatre – was budgeted at $76-million. Ticket and other earned revenue was expected to cover up to 65 per cent of that cost.

The Stratford Festival is one of the first Canadian companies to put a price tag on what the pandemic will cost them: $40-million. Executive director Anita Gaffney estimates the theatre company will need to raise that – about half from government and another half from its donors – to plug the hole in its finances.

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