The word of the year for performing arts companies and artists was “pivot” – and many came up with creative ways to make live, in-person art in safe new ways or move work online and lift spirits, not just in this country but around the world. Here are 10 theatrical things I’ll remember from this annus horribilis.
1. Angels’ Atlas, National Ballet of Canada
The second-to-last performance I saw in person before the pandemic hit Toronto was this breathtaking piece of mass movement choreographed by Crystal Pite under a smoky cosmos of sculpted light designed by Jay Gower Taylor. An exploration of the beauty and vulnerability of human beings in groups, the necessary danger of touching one another, it now feels like a premonitory dream.
2. Hamilton, Ed Mirvish Theatre; streaming on Disney+
It tells you something about the year that I nearly forgot that the biggest musical of the millennium played its first Canadian performances in February. The touring engagement in Toronto was an exciting event despite a less-than-ideal venue – and the original idealized production of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s hip-hop history play was soon enough available to all on Disney+ in filmed form. A heated debate about America’s origins took a little shine off the show, but also made it more meaningful.
3. This is How We Got Here, Native Earth Performing Arts in Toronto
Playwright Keith Barker directed a beautifully acted production of his own understated humanistic play about surviving the suicide of a loved one. A deserved winner of a Dora Mavor Moore Award – and the Carol Bolt Award, too.
4. Journal de confinement, Théâtre national de la Colline; Days of Confinement, Stratfest@Home
Wajdi Mouawad truly got me through that cruellest month of April with his audio journal, first available through the French national theatre where he is artistic director. I listened to the great Lebanon-born, Quebec-raised, Paris-based playwright’s perceptive and poetic meditations on life and art under lockdown each morning – and he made me cry, think and hope as I made my coffee and fed the baby. The Stratford Festival later hired Linda Gaboriau to translate entries and had company actor Antoine Yared record them for the Stratfest@Home streaming service. I listened again; these writings will be a lasting document of the times.
5. Pathetic Fallacy, The Chop; livestreamed from Rumble Theatre in Vancouver
A green screen, a new actor every night improvising along to instructions, and an idiosyncratic but insightful documentary about weather and art – and whether to create art in this changing climate. Creator Anita Rochon didn’t have to pivot; she just had to shift her show slightly to make it into a highly original livestream.
6. Something Bubbled, Something Blue, Talk is Free Theatre with Outside the March
Staged outdoors in Barrie, Ont., captured in a short video, this National Arts Centre-funded “Grand Act of Theatre” went viral: 1.2 million Facebook views and counting. Created by director Mitchell Cushman, designer Anahita Dehbonehie and choreographer Cameron Carver, its conceit is simple: a wedding where all involved are inside literal bubbles. A violinist playing in one plastic bubble; a flower girl spreading petals in another; the brides writing “I do” in condensation left by their breath on their respective bubbles. A neat-o nugget of uplift.
7. Ghost Quartet, recorded at Crow’s Theatre
Director Marie Farsi won a couple of awards for her work on the strange, spooky song cycle Ghost Quartet last season in Toronto. This year, she reunited the cast – and found a very theatrical way of capturing the phantasm of performance on camera. Hailey Gillis and Kira Guloien, in particular, were terror-ific as sister-mother-daughter frenemies.
8. Zebrina/Under the Lintel, Théâtre du Nouveau Monde and Segal Centre in Montreal
I saw a lot of performances livestreamed from theatres this year – and a lot made me miss being there in person. That wasn’t the case with this Glen Berger play about one librarian’s search for the Wandering Jew as staged and livestreamed by director François Girard (The Red Violin) at the TNM. One compelling shot of one compelling performance by Emmanuel Schwartz – a bilingual actor will do it all again in English from the Segal Centre on Dec. 12 and 13.
9. Infinitely Yours, livestreamed for FOLDA in Kingston
The Festival of Live Digital Art focused on artists exploring the intersection of online and on stage before it became au courant. This year, Miwa Matreyek – a designer, director and performer from Los Angeles – presented three livestreamed works where her silhouette interacts with animations. Infinitely Yours was astonishing, a hallucinatory journey by a shadowy shift-shifting creator/destroyer through the Anthropocene.
10. Empty stages, everywhere
I’m leaving this spot blank for all those performances that didn’t take place in 2020, that were shut down mid-run, that were cancelled after years of development and dreaming. I’m leaving it blank for all the last hoorahs that older actors will now not get, the dance careers that were already short and now will be shorter, the lifetimes of work we won’t see from the countless budding stage artists who didn’t have the luxury to pivot and had to change plans permanently. I’m leaving it blank for the brilliant stage creators who have been lost to COVID-19 itself, and lost to despair that’s hard to separate from the current state of the world.
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