Mitchell Cushman, artistic director of the endlessly inventive Outside the March theatre company, initially assumed that the summer of 2021 was going to be one plentiful with outdoor public performances.
Everyone knows that it’s safer to be outside than inside right now – and creators of immersive or site-specific “theatrical experiences” like Cushman and his collaborators, have a long history – even prepandemic – of carefully shepherding small audiences (or even one audience member at a time!) to and through productions staged in unconventional spaces.
Last year, for instance, Outside the March came up with a wonderful outdoor performance called Something Bubbled, Something Blue that involved two brides getting married from inside of giant plastic bubbles that was staged in front of a live audience in Barrie, Ont., and filmed for the National Arts Centre.
I, myself, had imagined more work like that was coming down the pipeline – you know, Hamlet in hazmat suits, or whatnot. But since then, Cushman says, “a lot of creativity got cut off at the knees in terms of what outdoor performances could look like.”
Provincial governments and public-health authorities have, understandably, been focused on science getting us out of this – but, less understandably, they’ve neglected allowing (never mind encouraging) artists to explore the possibilities of how outside-the-box creativity could make this pandemic (or future ones) less isolating and more livable.
In Ontario, live-entertainment restrictions have been framed in terms of “performing arts venues” – as if shows can’t be staged in a forest, on a boat floating in a lake, or under a highway. In Toronto, where Outside the March is based, the city cancelled all outdoor special-event permits through to Sept. 6 back in May.
The strange effect of this is that live creativity, in many cases, has moved from public spaces to private places this summer.
On Tuesday, for instance, Outside the March announced a new summer production of Stupidhead!, Katherine Cullen and Britta Johnson’s musical comedy about friendship and dyslexia.
It will be performed in two ways – as a widely accessible live digital radio broadcast (from July 7 to 16; tickets $15), and then as a private performance ordered to a deck, porch or other private outdoor space in the Greater Toronto Area (from July 20 to Aug. 1; $400 a pop).
In August, there will also be a run in backyards around Barrie, Ont., courtesy of Talk is Free Theatre.
The original hope for Stupidhead! – which will be directed by Aaron Willis and designed by Anahita Dehbonehie – was that it would be staged in public parks this summer on jungle-gym sets.
But Ontario’s precise restrictions regarding audiences for outdoor theatre are still TBA, whereas they are crystal-clear about how many people are allowed in backyards in each of the province’s reopening steps.
Theatrical performances that take place on private property because they aren’t permitted in public venues is something I usually associate with authoritarian countries. The Belarus Free theatre, for instance, often performs in communal courtyards between apartment buildings – with a van ready to help the actor flee should the police arrive.
Of course, no escape vehicles are necessary in Ontario – and I realize we don’t live in an authoritarian society. I only wish our leaders had turned to artists to help us feel our freedoms a bit more during this challenging time.
With British Columbia having announced a clear reopening plan, the Arts Club will now reopen its venues to live theatrical productions this summer in July.
On Tuesday, artistic director Ashlie Corcoran announced two upcoming solo shows: I, Claudia, Kristen Thomson’s preteen comedy classic, from July 22 to Aug. 15 on the Newmont Stage at the BMO Theatre Centre; and Beau Dixon’s solo musical Beneath Springhill: The Maurice Ruddick Story from Aug. 5 to 29 at the Granville Island Stage.
“We will begin with a seating capacity of 50 patrons per venue and have the flexibility to increase that figure based on the latest guidance from the Ministry of Health,” Corcoran says in a press release.
Meanwhile, in Quebec, where theatres have been open since the end of March, it feels like a real re-opening this week as Robert Lepage makes his long-awaited return to a stage in front of live audiences.
887, perhaps Lepage’s greatest solo show steeped in his own autobiography, will run from June 12 to 20 at the Théâtre du Nouveau Monde in Montreal.
Tickets were snatched up quickly for the run – and Lepage decided that there will be no livestream or recorded option. The internationally acclaimed director is committed to the revival of live and in-person theatre.
However, if you want a taste of his work on the internet this week, you can always tune in to the Metropolitan Opera online – where it is (unofficially) Canadian director week with Des McAnuff’s production of Gounod’s Faust streaming Tuesday night, followed by Lepage’s production of Thomas Adès’s The Tempest on Friday and Robert Carsen’s production of Verdi’s Falstaff on Saturday.
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