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Pedestrians walk by the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre in Winnipeg's Exchange District on March 12, 2020.

Shannon VanRaes/The Globe and Mail

The Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre and the Tarragon Theatre are the first and second major fall-to-spring Canadian theatre companies to announce plans to produce a 2021-2022 season to in-person, indoor audiences – offering the clearest sign to date that an end to the long intermission caused by the COVID-19 pandemic may truly be within sight.

The Winnipeg and Toronto theatres are taking different approaches to reopening, however.

Coming on the heels of one another, the tale of these two seasons – one the delayed first of a new artistic director; the other the last of a long-time artistic director – has brought into the open the tough question being asked behind the scenes across the country as experts try to weigh vaccines against variants. Should not-for-profit theatre companies try to open to smaller audiences this fall, or wait to return to – one hopes – full houses in 2022?

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On Friday, MTC led the way for the big regional theatres in the country by announcing the cheering news that it plans to reopen its mainstage to audiences in November with Sarah Ruhl’s Orlando, a play based on Virginia Woolf’s novel of the same name that artistic director Kelly Thornton says is full of stage “magic.”

“I really wanted the first show out of the gates to be something you can’t get on the couch sitting watching Netflix, to remind people of the power of theatre,” says Thornton, who had what was supposed to be her first season at MTC cancelled because of the pandemic.

Three other shows will then follow on the MTC mainstage in 2022: The Lifespan of a Fact (a recent Broadway hit), Calpurnia (a satirical sideways look at To Kill a Mockingbird by Audrey Dwyer) and a revival of Tomson Highway’s The Rez Sisters (marking the long overdue mainstage premiere of Manitoba’s greatest playwright on its biggest stage).

The MTC’s second, smaller stage known as the Warehouse will reopen to audiences in March 2022 with two touring shows that have great track records: Alana Mitchell’s climate-change play Sea Sick and Christopher Morris’s solo thriller The Runner.

Thornton has budgeted the season assuming that social distancing will be in place in the theatres the whole time, and that the company will only be able to sell 180 seats in its 785-seat mainstage theatre and 60 in its 286-seat second space.

Renewing subscribers have the opportunity to get their hands on those limited seats now; new subscriptions will be available as of June 14.

Meanwhile, in Toronto, on Tuesday the Tarragon Theatre is announcing the final season programmed by its outgoing artistic director Richard Rose – a copy of which was shared with The Globe and Mail in advance.

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Tarragon’s 2021-2022 season, in contrast to MTC’s, will be entirely online in the fall – a reprise of some of the audio productions of past hits it commissioned last season in the place of onstage shows.

In-person performances will only begin in January of 2022. The Runner will reopen the main space, while Chloé Hung’s Three Women of Swatow will reanimate the extra space. (These two shows have had their sets sitting, like ghosts, in those theatres for the past year, Rose notes. )

The rest of the Tarragon season is then set to continue in roughly the same way things did before the pandemic. There are to be three more shows in the main space (Rosa Labordé's Light; Sean Dixon’s Orphan Song; and Kenneth T Williams’s The Herd); and one more (Makambe K. Simamba’s Our Fathers, Sons, Lovers and Little Brothers) in the extra space.

The two companies share a show in The Runner, but the Tarragon is much smaller than MTC: Its main space only seats 205, its second space a maximum of 108.

Rose does not believe it is financially sensible for the theatre to reopen with social distancing of two metres in the audience. “Our hope is that vaccine rates will expand public health guidelines on attendance numbers and that we’ll have the option to open with at least 50-per-cent capacity,” he says.

Patrons can sign up for a pay-what-you-can subscription now, but Tarragon won’t be taking anyone’s money until September. “We’re only asking for half a payment [then] and then half payment in January should we go forward,” Rose says.

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To some people, the Manitoba Theatre Centre’s plan will seem the riskier one.

But it has been put together in consultation with an epidemiologist (who is also advising the Winnipeg Jets) and it is conservative compared with, say, Broadway’s plan to open to full capacity in New York in September. The theatre intends to run a deficit – though it will get smaller if more audience members are permitted as the season goes on.

The Tarragon Theatre season, on the other hand, has potentially set itself up to be an all-or-nothing proposition. The caution tape all over it makes it feel tentative rather than hopeful.

At MTC, the phones have been ringing, Thornton says. “The response has been unanimously positive that we are being positive.”

And if things don’t work out? “I’m the queen of non-attachment,” she says. “I’ve ben practising non-attachment since March of 2020. … We all know how to pivot if we have to modify.”

Editor’s note: This article has been updated to clarify information on Tarragon subscriptions.

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