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The cast of Charley's Aunt in a Zoom rehearsal.

Shaw Festival

At the Shaw Festival, the shows are not going on, of course. It was no surprise when the well-regarded Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont., repertory theatre company announced last week that it would be cancelling all public events and performances through May 25.

But here’s what was unexpected about Friday’s news: It didn’t also mention layoffs or terminated contracts.

Indeed, against all odds, the theatre company is quietly continuing on with rehearsals and has not put any staff on furlough for now.

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Artistic director Tim Carroll has been conducting run-throughs of the farce Charley’s Aunt with the help of the video-conferencing platform Zoom, while the theatre company’s newly appointed associate artistic director Kimberley Rampersad has been using the same technology to run thrice-weekly ballet classes for the ensemble of the musical Gypsy.

Both those shows were on the verge of moving from rehearsal hall to the stage when public-health prohibitions on mass gatherings sent everyone home on March 16 – but even productions that hadn’t started rehearsing at all at that point are still gearing up.

On Monday, the actress Marla McLean was putting aside Charley’s Aunt for the day to video in to the first table read of Sherlock Holmes and The Raven’s Curse – in which she plays Sherlock’s Scottish cousin, Beatrice.

“There are moments where I’m working on my Scottish accent where I think: I don’t know if I’ll ever be using this,” McLean admitted, from the house she shares with her husband, fellow company member Graeme Somerville, and 4½-year-old son, Griffin.

“But having an opportunity to continue with the artistic side of things, to be able to step away from the news, it’s a real blessing.”

The Shaw Festival is named after Bernard Shaw, an Irish playwright known for his contrarian views, but is this taking his inspiration too far? Across North America, other major theatres that similarly operate from spring to fall have been terminating artist contracts and laying off staff.

In the past two weeks, the Stratford Festival let 495 staff, season workers and artists go, at least temporarily, while the Oregon Shakespeare Festival cancelled all performances until September – and California Shakespeare Theater cancelled its entire season.

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Meanwhile, there are 400 people currently on the payroll at the Shaw Festival – and the repertory theatre company intends to keep them on until at least April 13.

“We’re stretching all our resources to keep everyone employed,” executive director Tim Jennings said, over the phone from his second-floor home office, while his wife, a cutter-draper at the festival, worked away on costumes in the basement.

“There is a big difference between commercial industry and the charitable theatre industry – and a big part of what we’re here to do is support the art and support the artists. … We happen to be in a position to support them a little longer.”

The Shaw Festival is, in fact, coming off a 2019 season that not only had a couple of critical hits, but also did very well at the box office. It ended with record gross operating revenues of $34.15-million and a $519,000 surplus.

But the theatre company – the second-largest not-for-profit one in Ontario after the Stratford Festival – is not unaware that it may soon have to cancel 2020 performances well beyond May 25 and that the current rehearsals could be for shows that never make it to the stage.

Jennings, who is monitoring public-health and government announcements each day, describes the current situation as “juggling hand grenades,” while Carroll turns to one of the great comic characters of the 20th century art to draw his comparison.

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“We’re a bit like Wile E. Coyote who runs off the cliff and stands in mid-air,” he says. “We’re still in mid-air –and hoping we can get to the other side.”

But if it never really worked out for that cartoon coyote, there may be more than a little method to the Shaw Festival’s seeming madness, to quote a playwright who Bernard Shaw didn’t like very much.

A wait-and-see approach means that Jennings and Carroll are making their decisions based on the latest information – and the information from public-health officials and government does keep changing radically day to day. On Monday, for instance, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau made clear that the federal government’s recently announced 75-per-cent wage subsidy would be available to charities and non-profit organizations, not just businesses – and that it will be backdated to March 15.

Jennings said he was “very excited” about this emergency wage subsidy – and is looking into whether the Shaw Festival will be able to access it.

Meanwhile, Gypsy’s actors continue trumpet, ukulele and tap lessons through FaceTime or WhatsApp – and, in the Charley’s Aunt virtual rehearsal room, the actors have begun to create a whole version of the production that may end up being recorded for donors and members. They perform their asides directly to the camera now, wear make-shift costumes improvised at home and have even found ways to “pass” props to one another through the screen – though flowers, for instance, may change colour and kind in the process.

And the actors who are doing this work have a little extra financial breathing room as government programs for the self-employed get finalized. “Practically speaking, to still be on salary while we are wrapping our heads around what the next weeks, months, year looks like is a blessing,” says McLean.

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“I have very dear friends across the country who, within days, lost their entire season of work, without any moment of respite, so, I am, quite frankly, and I don’t say this lightly, eternally grateful to this management team.”

Find out what’s new on Canadian stages from Globe theatre critic J. Kelly Nestruck in the weekly Nestruck on Theatre newsletter. Sign up today.

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