When audiences eventually return to regular performances at Winnipeg’s Burton Cummings Theatre, they’ll see that a lot of sprucing up has happened during the pandemic.
The “Burt,” an iconic vaudeville theatre that opened in 1907, is one of many performance spaces across Canada that have been busy with improvements and renovations during the pandemic.
The Winnipeg theatre, renamed in 2002 after the legendary singer and former member of the Guess Who, has undergone a major overhaul since its last full show took place in March 2020, just before the lockdowns began.
“It’s not quite a construction site, but we’ve been refurbishing,” says Kevin Donnelly, senior vice-president for venues and entertainment at True North Sports and Entertainment, owner of the 1,589-seat theatre. “During the pandemic we’ve also done a deep cleaning. Every inch. Top to bottom.”
Changing seats, lights, toilets, drapery and repainting are just a few of the upgrades that have been made.
“[We’ve been] working in the corners you might otherwise gloss over when you’re open every day,” he adds. “It’s looking as good as it has in 100 years.”
It’s not a huge project, but it’s important to use the downtime wisely, Mr. Donnelly adds. The work this year and last has cost True North a good chunk of the $1-million the company has spent on maintenance and upgrades since acquiring the theatre six years ago, he says.
Call it a once-in-a-century chance for Canada’s theatres and auditoriums to make lemonade out of a lemon of a year. Everybody wishes the pandemic would end, but the lockdowns have given the Winnipeg theatre and others the chance to make physical improvements to their buildings and rethink the way their facilities are set up.
Venue operators are using their enforced downtime to scrub, buff and do major reconfigurations. In some cases, the work was commissioned and started before COVID-19. Toronto’s iconic Massey Hall, for example, closed in 2018 for a $135-million renovation that was scheduled to be completed as soon as this year, but now there’s not such a hurry.
In other cases, the changes at Canada’s theatres simply involve making them safe for physically distanced audiences – putting in no-touch door openers and bathroom fixtures, for example. Toronto-based Mirvish Productions announced plans to present Blindness, a sound installation with a narrated voiceover and no actors at the Princess of Wales Theatre later this year. The audience will be seated on the stage, physically distanced either in pairs or in single seats at least two metres apart.
Meanwhile, managers and boards are also thinking about what happens next, after more than a year of people staying away or watching pixelated performances on YouTube or Zoom.
It’s a delicate budgeting balance. Venue operators are weighing up the opportunity to upgrade while the lights are low – in some cases with government COVID-19-relief funds – against the possibility that audience enthusiasm and appetite for live events may have changed.
Organizations have had to be nimble. Ontario’s Stratford Festival was just about to open its impressive Tom Patterson Theatre for last year’s season when the pandemic arrived. For 2021, the festival will put on six plays and five cabarets on outdoor stages with canopies to protect the performers and the audience from bad weather, while keeping everyone physically distant.
It may or may not be enough to lure everyone back. A new study by Nanos Research done for the National Arts Centre found that Canadians are becoming accustomed to watching shows and concerts online, but are cautiously interested in returning to indoor entertainment.
Nanos’s Arts Response Tracking Study, conducted in February, found that only 30 per cent plan on returning immediately to indoor cultural events once businesses are reopened and health guidelines are clearer. Among this group, 44 per cent say they will wait for a vaccine before they feel comfortable showing up, and an additional 30 per cent say they will wait from one to six months before showing up inside.
Theatres are hoping their building cleanups will reassure audiences whose expectations were changing even before the pandemic, says Tim Jennings, executive director of the Shaw Festival in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont.
“This past year has solidified how much people like their entertainment outdoors,” he says. “We were already using the outdoors more before COVID. We put up tents and canopies so people could spend more time and linger on our grounds near our indoor theatres. We’re going to do more of this now. We want to keep finding ways for people to be comfortable.”
The Shaw is still slated to do a thorough renovation of one of its three main venues, the Royal George Theatre, which needs to be shored up and made more accessible to people with disabilities, Mr. Jennings says.
“We completed archeological studies of the site [finding nothing significant] and bought the property behind, a parking lot, which we hope will turn into a walking area with garden paths,” he says.
The theatre was last renovated in 1981 and will eventually be redone, he adds, but the priority right now is to make audiences feel good about coming back to the festival at all, whether inside or outside.
Smaller theatres are also finding innovative ways to adjust during the pandemic, says Chris Abraham, artistic director of Crow’s Theatre, an organization in Toronto’s East End that partners with film distributor Mongrel Media and Gare de L’Est, an adjacent brasserie.
“We took out all the seats in the theatre so we could do streaming performances, which was easy because we’re configured to move our seats whenever we need to,” Mr. Abraham says.
“We also married a three-course meal from the restaurant, which you order and eat at home, with on-screen concerts, and then we partnered with restaurants across the country to produce a version of this for New Year’s Eve – dinner and a show,” he adds.
Like every arts organization, Crow’s Theatre is holding its breath on the spring/fall 2021 arts season. “We’re hoping there will be some kind of phased return,” Mr. Abraham says. “There may be some people who are comfortable coming for a patio meal, but maybe they’ll still prefer to watch our live performance on a screen at home.”