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The Stratford Festival has increased capacity for performances at outdoor canopies and indoors.Chris Young/The Canadian Press

I’m a theatre critic, not a public health inspector, so I’m trying to avoid writing too much about evolving pandemic protocols in my reviews.

But I did want to reiterate, as more indoor theatre opens up here in Ontario and outdoor capacities increase, that my recommendations and remarks are limited to the artistic and entertainment value of the shows I’m seeing. It’s up to individual theatregoers to look into what COVID-19 protocols each theatre company has in place, and then decide what they feel safe and comfortable with.

That distinction between safety and comfort is one a friend introduced me to recently – and I find it quite useful.

I personally feel both safe and comfortable watching theatre outdoors at the moment. At the performance of Blackout I saw last week at High Park in Toronto, the capacity crowd numbered 250 – and, while that was one of the biggest groups of humans I’ve been in for ages, I felt very relaxed being in the open air, masked and fully vaccinated.

Additionally, Canadian Stage, which runs the operations there, had its front-of-house staff gently enforcing the mask requirements. One man in his sixties was wearing his around his neck – and an usher politely asked him to pull it up; the patron in question was an overgrown child about this, and unleashed a full-body eyeroll in response, but did ultimately comply.

In contrast, while I’ve personally felt safe at the indoor theatre I’ve started to see, I haven’t necessarily always felt comfortable.

At the production of Sherlock Holmes and the Raven’s Curse I saw at the Shaw Festival on the weekend, I didn’t mind being with about 332 other people in a well-ventilated Festival Theatre that normally seats 856.

But a couple patrons not complying with the rules made me feel less than fully relaxed: An older man with his nose sticking out and an elderly man who was, inexplicably, completely nude in the face. Then, there was the middle-aged couple who were drinking wine in front of me – and who were indeed permitted to pull their masks down while sipping, but, in practice, kept them down for most of the first act.

At intermission, I moved to the back of the auditorium where I felt both safe and comfortable. I would suggest to the Shaw Festival – and all other theatre companies – that they add a pre-show announcement that goes over mask rules clearly so everyone can be on the same page. After all, masking at the theatre is still a new habit – and, even after decades of cellphones, people still need a reminder to turn theirs off.

Ultimately, however, ushers and front-of-house staff can only do so much in terms of keeping audiences compliant. We, theatregoers, have to commit to making one another feel comfortable by following every theatre’s house rules whether we personally believe they are making us safer or not.

Over the weekend, the Stratford Festival increased capacity. So, if you tried to get tickets earlier this summer and found The Rez Sisters sold-out, for instance, it’s worth giving the box office a try again.

Stratford is now playing to audiences of 195 and 227 at the canopies outside of the Festival Theatre and Tom Patterson Theatre, respectively. Indoors at the Studio Theatre – where Edward Albee’s Three Tall Women is set to open in two parts next week – capacity has risen from 25 to 130. The Lazaradis Hall, a space inside the Tom Patterson where many Forum events like readings and talks are taking place, has increased its capacity from 25 to 125.

I’ll be at the openings of two new Stratford Festival productions this weekend: R + J (yes, a version of Romeo and Juliet) and I Am William. Look for my reviews of those early next week.

But first, on Thursday, I am taking a drive to nearby Blyth, Ont., to check out the Blyth Festival’s new wrap-around open-air theatre called the Harvest Stage, which is set to be a permanent addition to the rural theatre company’s seasons moving forward.

It’s opening with a Sheryl Scott play called The Downs that’s been a hit for Blyth in the past, but which I have never seen. I should have a review up online by the weekend.

Elsewhere this week: The Charlottetown Festival is opening a great little gem of musical called Old Stock: A Refugee Love Story that comes from Nova Scotia’s 2b theatre company. Martin Morrow made it a critic’s pick in The Globe and Mail back in 2019 – and this critic would have picked it as well. Its international touring was interrupted by the pandemic – and you Islanders are lucky to have it up and running in PEI.

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