Vancouver’s Arts Club Theatre Company is planning to mount three one-person, one-act plays this fall. It has worked out a system and put measures in place meant to ensure safety for artists and audiences. The micro-season, as the company is calling it, announced on Monday, will bring live productions – even if on a small scale – back to the theatre, and provide work to more than 30 freelance artists.
“People are thirsty for a communal experience,” says Arts Club artistic director Ashlie Corcoran, emphasizing that safety is the company’s top priority.
“We feel excited that we’re taking this step forward and know that in this pandemic things will continue to change and we’ll adapt.”
Still, even as the company reveals the good news about offering live theatre again, it says it will have no choice but to issue layoffs, with the planned end to the Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy this fall. The payroll of 70 people will be “drastically reduced” when CEWS comes to an end, Corcoran says.
The three-play season is to open in September with the multiaward-winning No Child ... by Nilaja Sun, followed by the Dora Award-winning Buffoon by North Vancouver-based playwright Anosh Irani, opening in late October, and then Ginna Hoben’s The Twelve Dates of Christmas, beginning in November.
Each show will employ two separate creative teams – including the actor and stage management team – each keeping to their own bubble. The director, however, will work with both, going back and forth – at a safe distance. They will rehearse in separate halls and then rotate performances.
This way, if, at some point, someone in one of the teams comes down with any COVID-19 symptoms, the other team can step in to perform while the others self-isolate.
Audiences will be capped at 50 people, they will have to wear masks (unless they can’t, medically) and the performer will have to be a minimum of three metres from the audience.
Admission will be staggered, like boarding an airplane, with entry times specified ahead of time. There will be no milling about in the lobby.
For anyone who doesn’t want to attend in person, the performances will be livestreamed opening night and then a recording of the show will be available to rent for a limited time.
Corcoran is honest about box office projections; she doesn’t know how sales will go.
“That’s the big unknown. We don’t know what the mood of an audience is going to be [this] week when we go on sale and also in a month,” says Corcoran. “And that’s a risk that we, along with our board of directors – our board is really supportive of this – have decided that we want to take because we do want to engage with our audience; we think that it’s really important.”
No Child... sees the actor take on 16 roles, including the idealistic teaching artist based on the playwright herself. Ms. Sun works with underprivileged students in New York to mount a play – teaching them about more than theatre. Other roles include students, the principal and the school’s elderly caretaker, who acts as narrator.
“This is such a challenge, but I’m super excited for this challenge. As a Black woman you don’t get to play these roles,” says Celia Aloma, one of the actors playing the part. “All these characters are so interesting in their own way and have so much to offer to the story. They all complete the story, so I’m really excited to play this wide range of Black and Hispanic characters. And do them without stereotypes.”
The play launches the Arts Club’s lineup in the midst of a continuing discussion about race and equity in the theatre community – and the arts more broadly. The issue gained new traction – and attention – following the killing of George Floyd in the U.S. and the response of the Black Lives Matter movement.
“This show is such a great choice right now, because I think it’s just what we need. We need to be seeing a lot more work by Black artists and performed by Black artists,” says Ali Watson, the other actor playing the role, in a separate conversation. “Also it’s very, very exciting to be working on a show that’s written by a woman of colour.”
Aloma had been scheduled to appear in the Arts Club’s production of Da Kink in My Hair this spring. Watson was to appear in Kinky Boots. The shows, like everything else after mid-March, were cancelled due to COVID-19.
“I just really hope that people will come and see [No Child], even if it’s a show that will make them uncomfortable, then that’s all the more reason to see it,” says Watson.
The company does not anticipate these shows, with their small audiences, being big money-makers. The hope is for a cost-neutral outcome. “It’s important that these shows don’t add to the deficit,” says Corcoran. “That said, we don’t know how an audience is going to respond. There is definitely some risk involved.”
There is a lot more hand-wringing right now at the Arts Club – and it is not alone in the arts sector – about the end of CEWS. The organization is advocating for the continuation of the program for not-for-profit organizations such as theirs.
“Six months into [the pandemic], the reason that we’ve been able to keep our employees employed is because of the wage subsidy,” says Corcoran. “And without the wage subsidy, we’re going to have to really reduce the amount of people that work at the Arts Club.”
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