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There are grumblings out there in some corners of the cultural world that the current Ontario government doesn’t care about the performing arts, but I’m really not sure what that is based on.
In fact, there is abundant evidence that Premier Doug Ford and those advising him on public health love drama – and particularly keeping people who earn their livings in live theatre and music in suspense.
On Monday, the Ontario government announced that the province would be moving into the first step of its Roadmap to Reopen on June 11, a few days ahead of schedule – and, in a surprise act-end reveal, that theatres, concert venues and cinemas will indeed be allowed to rehearse, broadcast and record outdoors with up to 10 performers during that step.
This was a welcome clarification for the various theatre companies that have been preparing for outdoor performances later this summer assuming they’d be allowed to perform to modest, distanced audiences like last year – but who were left with a cliffhanger regarding rehearsals when the roadmap was first announced on May 20.
There were not originally any explicit allowances for performing arts organizations to pursue any activity, indoors or outdoors, in the first step – leaving the sector seemingly under a stay-at-home order until Step 2, at which point outdoor performances, improvised one supposes, would be allowed.
Stratford Festival executive director Anita Gaffney said she was “buoyed” by Monday’s announcement – which will allow what, under normal circumstances, is North America’s largest not-for-profit theatre company to move to in-person rehearsals for the various small-cast shows it plans to present outdoors in Step 2.
The company is now busy erecting “rehearsal canopies” to provide actors with some protection from the elements as they work on small-cast versions of plays like A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Romeo and Juliet.
Likewise, Canadian Stage’s executive director Monica Esteves called the allowance of outdoor rehearsals and digital recordings in Step 1 “a great relief.” The Toronto-based performing arts company has been planning a whole series of events, concerts and shows called Dream in High Park at its outdoor amphitheatre – originally set to begin on June 28
Lulaworld in the Park, a two-day music festival that was supposed to kick things off there, will not be able to have a small in-person audience, even with Step 1 moved up – but it will now be recorded on those dates instead. “This will help mitigate losses and provides the type of digital content that has been crucial for much of the last year,” Esteves said.
And yet, Ontario’s clarification of Step 1 rules for the performing arts on Monday is not really a victory in any substantial way for the Campaign for Fairness for Ontario Arts, which a hundred performing arts companies and music venues launched a week ago seeking clarity on reopening for their long-suffering industries and asking to be treated on par with film and television in terms of livestreaming.
Erin Benjamin, CEO of the Canadian Live Music Association, said the continued prohibition on indoor live streaming with no audience and safety protocols in place is “a mystery” to concert venues and musicians. “It’s extremely unfortunate that the government has not been able to work with us to allow live streaming, at the very least, in Step 1,” she said.
Another major issue that may have repercussions on reopening well into the fall is that the government has not yet outlined what the capacity restrictions will be for outdoor performances in Step 2, or indoor performances in Step 3.
When will theatres learn how many tickets they can put on sale? It’s another cliffhanger.
While Ontario performing arts companies that have already invested in live performances for this summer, such as the Stratford Festival and Canadian Stage, have no choice but to keep on waiting for clarity, others that were waiting for a government plan to, well, plan, cast and rehearse shows won’t jump in now without first knowing what kind of audiences they might be allowed – and therefore what kind of productions they can afford to mount.
It’s not this type of guessing game for live producers in other provinces. In Quebec, you can have an audience of up to 250 indoors with physical distancing. If you want to mount a show outdoors in British Columbia right now, you know you can sell at least 50 tickets.
A couple of fiery exchanges between Culture Industries Minister Lisa MacLeod and opposition MPPs last week in Queen’s Park on the subject of the performing arts will be the only livestreamed indoor drama Ontarians can expect to see until at least July.
In a statement e-mailed to The Globe and Mail on Monday, MacLeod said: “We were happy to work with our counterparts in public health to support a change that allows theatres to operate outdoors. We look forward to continuing to work together as we develop a broader return, once it’s safe to do so.”
Why it came to a point where rehearsal schedules for Shakespeare were being debated in the Ontario legislature, however, as Benjamin said (and Geoffrey Rush’s character says in Shakespeare in Love, too), “It’s a mystery!”