Less than two hours before Monday’s first film screening was scheduled to start, management at the Rio Theatre in Vancouver was scrambling. Late that afternoon, the province announced that movie theatres in British Columbia were in fact part of last week’s order shutting down community gatherings – even though the information had explicitly stated otherwise.
“I wasn’t even expecting any new orders. Then, boom,” Corinne Lea, who operates the independent theatre, told me. She was also asking me questions about the new rules; public-health officials had not been in touch and the provincial government website still said cinemas could remain open.
“I think what really is hard to swallow,” she said, “is it seems the priority is keeping the bars and restaurants open and not the arts organizations. Because how can they say a bar is safer? If safety was our only guideline, then we should still be open.”
Sometimes the show actually cannot go on. As this pandemic has cruelly demonstrated, there are more important musts. We must stay safe. It would be hard to find an arts organization in B.C. that disagrees. But these groups – who do so much, often with very little – deserve better than the disregard with which they have been treated.
Last Thursday, when the B.C. government announced sweeping – and necessary – new measures to curb the spread of COVID-19, the new rules included shutting down live theatre and music performances, which had not been part of the previous order for the Lower Mainland and the Fraser Valley. Cinemas could continue to operate. As could restaurants and bars.
Theatre companies, understandably, were perplexed, and ticked off. The Arts Club Theatre Company, which has presented a mini-season this fall of one-act, one-person plays with physically-distanced seating, fired off a letter to Health Minister Adrian Dix.
“We do not understand the singling out of our industry in this new health order and we ask you to hear our distress at this latest closure,” wrote executive director Peter Cathie White.
Then, on Monday, Mr. Dix and Provincial Health Officer Bonnie Henry clarified that movies were in fact part of the Nov. 19 order. The about face came as Mr. Dix announced a long list of prohibited activities, including “strip dancing,” magic and puppet shows, but also any “art show” and “exhibition, market or fair.”
When I asked if that meant art galleries had to close, Dr. Henry said: “It would be events at galleries; like individual exhibitions that are set as an event.” When I asked her to clarify, she said the order applied to “the opening when they put the paintings up; the opening is an event.”
You could almost hear galleries across the province breathe a sigh of relief: They could stay open.
The scope of this pandemic tragedy is vast and extends far beyond not being able to put on your play or film screening. Arts organization want to do the right thing. But they are looking for clarity, information and some justification. They wonder: if community spread is happening at private gatherings, if there have been alerts about possible exposures at bars and restaurants, why are theatres and cinemas being shut down?
I have come to think of Dr. Henry and Mr. Dix as stand-in parents for B.C.: setting the rules, offering encouragement, and sometimes scolding us. But if the hundreds of parenting books I’ve read have taught me anything, it’s that you must be clear and consistent when it comes to the rules.
I understand that these officials are under immense pressure right now and I appreciate that they are doing their best. But arts organizations – that operate on often shoestring budgets because they believe in what they’re doing and want to make the world a more beautiful and more interesting place – deserve explanations and some understanding from government.
Consider the Vancouver Youth Choir. They’ve been rehearsing in an open-air parkade at UBC, each child masked and standing in a hula hoop fashioned out of irrigation tubing and duct tape, 10 feet apart. Artistic director Carrie Tennant scoured through the websites, sent e-mails, asked around, trying to figure out if the orders applied to choir rehearsals.
“It was very murky,” she said.
She stresses safety is the most important thing and she admires the public-health officials, but wonders why a choir practice would be treated differently from, say, a children’s soccer game.
“Bonnie Henry keeps saying kids need to play sports, they need to be healthy. But that’s not the only thing that keeps our kids healthy,” she said. “The kids are really struggling right now, mental health wise, and we’ve had feedback from parents saying this is what’s keeping my kid anchored to the planet right now.”
On Tuesday, she cancelled rehearsals. This might also mean the end of plans to decorate the parkade and record their Christmas concert.
In Victoria, the Blue Bridge Repertory Theatre had worked for months to make its Roxy Theatre COVID-safe – including purchasing new software to allow for physically-distanced seating – only to have to shut down live performances ahead of its big holiday show, A Christmas Carol.
“We’ll do our best to convince our audiences to enjoy the production as a streamed event, but that will be a difficult sell,” artistic director Brian Richmond told me. Projected losses are more than $20,000 and the company has not been eligible for any government help.
“This order could very well mean the end of our theatre,” he wrote in a letter to the Premier, Mr. Dix and two other ministers, which asked the government to consider “extraordinary financial relief to help ease the tremendous harm these new restrictions will cause” for the arts sector.
I’ve been to two live shows this fall at the Arts Club and felt perfectly safe. Everyone wore masks, there was nobody seated anywhere near me and there was no lobby mingling; the bar was closed. That said, even before the new order came in, I opted to watch this week’s opening of its next production, The Twelve Dates of Christmas, by livestream.
Streamed art can be great art. Last Thursday, a few hours after the new orders came down, I watched Do You Want What I Have Got: A Craigslist Cantata live-streamed from The Cultch – just down the street from where I live, but no longer accessible to me. Director and co-creator Amiel Gladstone joked ahead of the show that the audience could do all the things we can’t normally do in the theatre: open candy, turn on our cellphones, flash photography. The show was note perfect and moved me to tears.
You have to applaud these companies. I just hope they get the support they need in order to make it to the other side – not simply financial support, but clear communication. Because nobody needs this kind of drama.