It’s not every day an actor comes off stage from a successful dress rehearsal to find a letter of termination in their dressing room. I’ve heard of Broadway flops closing immediately after their opening night – but at least they had an opening.
Earlier this month, at Edmonton’s Citadel Theatre, senior management gathered the nine actors and the creative team of The Garneau Block to inform us that Belinda Cornish’s stage adaptation of Todd Babiak’s beloved novel would be cancelled until further notice. After multiple years of development, the piece got one last run-through for archival purposes, and then out-of-town actors, including me, were flown home before the COVID-19 pandemic presented new restrictions. It was a sensible decision, done in sync with every other theatre company in the country.
At that point, the Alberta government had limited public gatherings to 250 people or to 50 people or fewer if a senior citizen was present. This news was a piercing signal for any performer who looks out at all those beautiful blue hairs eight shows a week. Many theatres are sustained by mature theatregoers, and their health and wellness should dictate the pandemic-fighting measures taken by our sector.
With that, an unprecedented number of artists have now learned what the force majeure part of their contract means. The Canadian Actors’ Equity Association is working with theatre companies to find a path through the tumult. The vast majority of theatre artists in this country work contract to contract; employment insurance is so far not built into our form of self-employment. The Actors’ Fund of Canada, which helps entertainment professionals with emergency financial aid, will doubtless be receiving more applications than ever before. Simon Brault, chief executive officer of the Canada Council for the Arts, has advised all artist contractors to document their financial losses; this data could help inform policy around income replacement.
For writers like Belinda Cornish, who make up the lion’s share of their playwright fees from box-office royalties, this is a brutal blow to the bank account. These royalties make up for years of underpaid labour on a script. We can hope that productions like Leah-Simone Bowen’s Scott Joplin’s Treemonisha, for example, will be revisited once the smoke clears – though bringing a piece back together (its collaborators, its venue, its audience) is much more challenging than delaying the release of a film.
Artists are not only having to navigate the financial ramifications of cancellations, but the psychological ones as well. Theatre folk without a public are an ungrounded set. Theatre has always been a form of learning in communion with others – a space wherein we, with conscience and imagination, engage with our democracy. If the sites of that work are shuttered, that energy needs to go somewhere. Theatre folks aren’t quitters; they’re shifters. Take heed of John Steinbeck’s assessment: “The theatre is the only institution in the world which has been dying for 4,000 years and has never succumbed. It requires tough and devoted people to keep it alive.”
Playwright Nick Green has launched a website cheekily called socialdistancingfestival.com. The site aims to celebrate “artists and the work that has been cancelled/delayed/disrupted” – a digital stage on which rehearsal clips, recorded scenes or scenic design drawings can reach the public during our current period of social isolation. Nick says he has received over 100 submissions that he’ll start posting this week, alongside links to live-streamed cultural offerings from around the world. In the four days since he launched his site, he has had 234,000 unique viewers and counting.
Michael Healey, one of our country’s most brilliant dramatists, has invited people to send him their plays or works-in-progress; he plans to read them and offer notes over the next three weeks. Critics Carly Maga and The Globe’s Kelly Nestruck will read the scripts of thwarted premieres and offer some form of coverage. Multiple companies across the country are working out the details of live-streaming performances, which could buoy artists and patrons alike until we can get back to the real thing.
American playwright Sarah Ruhl recently wrote in The New York Times about how Shakespeare turned to poetry during the bubonic plague years of the late-16th and early-17th centuries. More than one colleague has reminded me that he penned his masterwork, King Lear, during the latter period of contagion. If that’s too daunting a prospect, there’s always Marjorie Chan’s take. The artistic director of Toronto’s Theatre Passe Muraille tweeted: “Just remember when William Shakespeare was quarantined bc of the plague, he finally made banana bread from all the bananas in his freezer.” Our current period of social dislocation is breeding satisfying satire, if not the next Hamilton.
Theatre artists are never really interrupted. We are community-inclined and prone to staying in motion. Like water, we’ll work our way through the cracks until we emerge from this very cracked time. With any luck, we’ll be among those facilitating the social and spiritual recovery this historic crisis will require.
Andrew Kushnir is a Toronto-based playwright, director and actor.
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