Things are starting to feel precarious again in most of the Canadian theatre industry, with the Delta variant driving a fourth wave and the closing of the window for outdoor performances on the horizon.
Even with most provinces currently allowing indoor venues to be filled at half capacity, most theatre companies have been, not without reason, hesitating to program shows, especially bigger ones, for the fall and winter amid the uncertainty regarding vaccine passports and worries about future lockdowns.
The exception, however, is Quebec – where there was a flurry of season announcements last week, particularly from Montreal theatre companies.
Théâtre du Nouveau Monde revealed an exciting 70th anniversary season that begins in September with a new Michel Marc Bouchard play (Embrasse, which will tour in French, then be produced with some changes in cast in English translation at Centaur Theatre as Kisses Deep in January) and ends in May with a new Michel Tremblay play (Cher Tchekov).
Duceppe, another large French-language Montreal theatre company, also announced a full 2021/2022 season that includes a new work by François Archambault, a new documentary play about autism from Porte Parole and Katori Hall’s The Mountaintop in translation.
Smaller Montreal companies operating in smaller spaces have been announcing, too, with varying levels of caution: Théâtre La Licorne has put subscriptions on sale for a season that extends all the way to next spring, for instance, while Théâtre d’Aujourd’hui has put a couple of shows on sale for this fall and only outlined the rest of a season, with dates to be announced “au fur et à mesure.”
Why is it so different in Montreal compared to, say, Toronto where theatres the size of La Licorne have announced nothing live and in-person indoors this fall?
Well, part of it has to do with Quebec being the first province in the country to announce an imminent vaccine passport that, among other things, will allow access to theatre performances – a measure that would certainly make me feel more comfortable about going to see shows this fall.
But mostly it’s due to a provincial program that subsidizes the box office of performing arts companies, which has allowed theatres to take risks since it was first introduced last year.
Essentially, the program guarantees up to 75 per cent of expected box-office revenue if shows have to be cancelled because of the pandemic (a rare occurrence since Quebec theatres started reopening in earnest indoors in March) – and it also tops up box-office revenue of shows playing to reduced audience capacity because of government restrictions.
TNM’s artistic director Lorraine Pintal told me last week that this “precious” program is expected to continue to December at least – and has allowed her to plan big shows and keep ticket prices at their regular level, even though she expects she will only be able to welcome a maximum of 500 spectators a show to her 850-seat theatre in the near future.
Pintal’s production of Lysis, for instance, a new adaptation of Lysistrata by Fanny Britt and Alexia Burger, is set to feature three musicians and 14 actors on stage. “If the [provincial] minster of culture had not put this special pandemic program into place, I’m not sure we’d be doing the shows we are,” she told me.
Like others theatre leaders in Quebec, Pintal wonders why other parts of the country haven’t followed this Quebec model since it has been so successful.
Well, just a couple of days after we spoke, the idea of box-office subsidies looked to finally become the subject of national discussion when the federal election was called.
As part of its platform, the Liberal Party of Canada has announced an Arts and Culture Recovery Program that includes a pledge to “match ticket sales for performing arts, live theatres, and other cultural venues to compensate for reduced capacity” that seems inspired by the Quebec plan. Let the debate begin.
One other thing I wanted to note about the TNM: Quebec’s box-office subsidy hasn’t just helped it serve Montreal audiences during the pandemic, but francophone (and francophile) communities from coast to coast. Pintal says she was surprised and pleased to find Canadians from Vancouver to Newfoundland tuning into streams and livestreams of their productions last season. (She’s not revealing which of the 70th anniversary season’s shows will stream online quite yet – though says some will, and a couple have had their broadcast rights purchased by other parties).
Staying in Montreal for one more moment, the Centaur Theatre is getting ready to announce its own 2021/2022 season next week, and the theatre company run by Eda Holmes let me have a sneak peek of what’s to come.
I won’t spoil it all, but mainstage productions include a holiday show scripted, not improvised, by Rebecca Northan called All I Want for Christmas and, as mentioned, the English-language premiere of Michel Marc Bouchard’s latest in January.
Holmes has gone straight from directing (an excellent production of) The Devil’s Disciple at the Shaw Festival to rehearsals of Embrasse at TNM; it’s a real sign that things have changed in Montreal since my youth that a Centaur artistic director is directing a major premiere at the French-language TNM downtown – and then taking that production and some of its actors to her English-language audiences in Old Montreal.
If there were two of me, I’d be in Alberta catching the end of the Edmonton Fringe Festival this week (it wraps up on Aug. 22) or in Toronto checking out shows at the SummerWorks Festival (which continues to Aug. 31).
Where I will actually be this week, however, is first near Barrie, Ont., to see a concert production of Sondheim’s Into the Woods staged in the woods of Springwater Provincial Park, courtesy of Talk is Free Theatre; then at the Stratford Festival for the opening of Edward Albee’s Three Tall Women; then in Niagara-on-the-Lake for the Shaw Festival’s production of Trouble in Mind.
Look for my reviews of those shows this week and next.