Arts·Black Light

COVID-19's impact on Canadian theatre: 3 artistic directors weigh in

Their finances have been hit, and so have their personal lives. How will the show go on?

Their finances have been hit, and so have their personal lives. How will the show go on?

Aria Evans performs in Finding Wolastoq Voice. The show appeared at the NAC Indigenous Theatre in September 2019. (Fred Cattroll)

Black Light is a weekly column by Governor General Award-winning writer Amanda Parris that spotlights, champions and challenges art and popular culture that is created by Black people and/or centres Black people.

"To cancel a show goes against every instinct that artists have ingrained in them. That old adage, 'the show must go on,' has been wiped away and it's heartbreaking."

Those are the words of Jeremy Webb, artistic director of Neptune Theatre in Halifax. He is one of numerous leaders across the country who closed their theatre doors and shut down productions as part of the lockdown required to curb the spread of COVID-19. 

The ramifications of this pandemic and the strategies employed to stop its spread will be studied and discussed for years to come, but evidence is already emerging that certain spheres of society have been hit harder than others. 

In the wake of various government relief measures, the Canada Council for the Arts created a survey to measure the impact and effectiveness of these packages on the arts community. Following the survey's release, Simon Brault, director and chief executive officer of the Canada Council, told the Globe and Mail that if additional, tailored measures are not taken for the performing arts industry in particular, "we will lose a part of the sector."

It is in this unprecedented moment that artistic directors across the country have had to make impossible decisions. They've attempted to readjust expectations, priorities and plans in order for their theatres to survive in this new reality. 

Over the past week I spoke with three artistic directors: Webb in Halifax, Weyni Mengesha at Soulpepper Theatre in Toronto and Kevin Loring of Vancouver's Savage Society and the Indigenous Theatre at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa. Over email, I asked them about their immediate plans, the economic impact their companies are facing and how they are personally coping with this new reality.

Kevin Loring, the artistic director for the Indigenous Theatre. (Jean Delisle/CBC)

What impact has the lockdown had on the creative plans you made for this season?

Kevin Loring: Just before the shutdown hit, we were about to bring Inner Elder into the building — this beautiful gem of a solo show from Calgary by Michelle Thrush. And we lost our international presentation, Hot Brown Honey, which was going to be our season closer from Australia in May. 

It also directly impacted the season launch for '20-'21 for all of the departments here at the NAC, which was scheduled to roll out at this time, too. 

This setback has the whole building having to scramble to readjust and strategize new plans and measures to keep us moving forward as much as possible. 

I'm really worried about our upcoming season, if we'll be able to open the building in time to welcome folx back in — or even if people will want to. 

It certainly cut our inaugural season short, which really sucks and is difficult. But of course, [it was] for the greater good — a necessary disappointment to ensure that everyone is safe in these troubling and unprecedented times. 

Jeremy Webb: Our new season starts in the summer of 2020 and we were three shows away from the end of our 2019-20 season, including our season-closing musical Billy Elliot. As of March 13 we cancelled shows and postponed Billy Elliot

It's devastating, really. Aside from the bigger financial impact, it breaks my heart that so many of our artists, on and off stage, are now without work. 

This week was the opening week for Billy. We shut down just days before rehearsals were scheduled to start. The sets were built; the costumes were being created.

What has been the hardest decision you've had to make during this time as the artistic director?

Weyni Mengesha: I suppose it was making the call on cancelling the very first show over a month ago. There was no question it was the right thing to do, but it was hard nonetheless. I think that's because it was still early days and none of the theatres were closed yet, so it was hard to grasp the magnitude of the moment we were in.

The actors had been working so hard for a month on The Seagull. We were a day away from transferring it to the theatre where the set and costumes were ready. I saw the first run of the show, and it was beautiful. I then had to follow that with an announcement to them that we were going to hold on any further work. Two days later, it was clear that we were going to have to close our doors and suspend the show.

JW: The hardest decision I have had to act upon (the closure decision was quite correctly made for us all, for safety, by the government) was meeting with some of our Billy Elliot kids and sitting them down and telling them of the postponement. I thought I could handle most things up until then. 

Every day in this job is about putting out fires. But that afternoon, Friday, March 13, when one performer suddenly realized just what I was telling them, his face broke down. That was my hardest hour in this job. But it was also very moving to see them all connect and take this tough news.

How have the priorities of your theatre company shifted during this time?

KL: We generally plan two and three years out when it comes to programming, and so with some of the discussion around the length these lockdown measures might take, it really is having a huge impact on how we imagine our future. So for the time being we're doing our best to keep connected as a team and to try to plan for our return to the building. 

We certainly have our upcoming season on our minds, and all those artists that we've worked so hard to bring here. But more importantly, we're all worried about the world around us and when we can all get back to it, and our own health and safety and that of our friends and families. Our priorities are, on so many levels, about getting through this and staying as safe and supported as possible. 

WM: We spend a lot of time thinking about how we can play a transformational role in our city as an organization. How we can connect communities through story and other forms of artistic engagement? 

The past few weeks, our focus has been people: searching for the best ways to support all the artists that lost shows in the season, our staff, communicating with our patrons, talking to arts organizations to try to find a way through this together.

Director Weyni Mengesha is pictured at Soulpepper in Toronto during the rehearsal of the show Rose. (Turgut Yeter/CBC)

What role do you see your theatre company playing during this lockdown?

WM: We are just starting to turn our focus toward asking how we can be of service to our wider community. We are looking into partnerships with community-service organizations, hospitals, and some smaller community groups in our surrounding area. We are also thinking about commissions and digital work that we can make to continue to connect artists and audiences. 

We have a weekly [online] event, Fridays at 4pm, called Fresh Ink. It features three playwrights from across the country (and internationally). We are working on some other things that we will share in weeks to come.

KL: We've been very active with the #CanadaPerforms platform created by the NAC and Facebook Live with the generous support of RBC, Slaight Music and Sirius XM. Hands up to my colleague Heather Gibson for championing this initiative that has been adopted by several other countries now to help get money to artists who've lost their income in the gig economy. 

It's so important for us to get some much-needed investment back to the performing artists who've lost their gigs due to the pandemic. The program has received literally thousands of submissions and we can only give space for hundreds. So we've been doing our part to curate the applications that come into the program. 

This initiative has been such a great lifeline to the community, not just for the artists but for those who are stuck at home and looking for some hope and inspiration. It's also been a great way to be introduced to artists out there who maybe we've never met before. It's actually such an amazingly intimate experience to see all these great artists performing live in their own homes. 

We are also working with the NAC education department on some initiatives to provide content that we can share on our digital platforms. We have a number of local initiatives that we were engaged with before the lockdown that we are now looking to move online, and we're looking to broaden that list to include more livestream theatre-based content. 

Scene from Unikkaaqtuat, presented by NAC Indigenous Theatre in Ottawa. (Sébastien Lozé)

How have you as an individual been coping with the weight of leadership during this time?

JW: Your question has a BIG assumption! Not sure anyone is fully coping! 

Yet, I am incredibly fortunate. I am home with my family and actually seeing them more than ever before. So I count my blessings and see the silver lining in this terrible situation. 

You know, I mentioned to someone yesterday, who asked if I was doing OK, that doing the nightly livestream broadcast show Off The Leash — a talk show format with me interviewing guest artists — was keeping me sane. It's a project with daily schedules, goals and tangible results — something to focus on and achieve each day. Other than the survival of Neptune Theatre, I am most concerned about the artists on and off stage and our support staff who are now out of work. 

WM: I don't think I have gotten to the point where I can take stock of that yet. It is all moving so quickly and things are changing every day. I am motivated to try and solve whatever problems I can, and connect with other artistic leaders through this time. It is inspiring to feel us band together as a theatre community. The part that is tough is trying to balance that with being a mom to my two little guys. I can feel that they are trying to make sense of this crazy moment and I keep wishing there were more hours in a day.

KL: Not gonna lie, it's been challenging. I am also the artistic director of Savage Society, the company I founded in British Columbia, and we've also had to pull or postpone three of our shows due to the pandemic. One was a show I wrote and was going to direct that I have been working on for over 20 years, if you can believe that! 

We also do a community project every summer in my hometown with an ensemble of 40 community members that we have to cancel. My wife Jody had her show cancelled this summer, which she co-wrote and co-starred in, so it's had a deep personal impact on the both of us, even outside of my work at the NAC. 

But I work with really great people on our team and across the NAC. My partner at Savage Society, Chelsea McPeake-Carlson, is so amazing as well. So even though it's been difficult, the folx that I work with are so outstanding and we share the burden, so that helps. 

I just try to be thankful and grateful and hopeful that when this is all over people will still find it important to come back into the community, to come back to the theatre and to not be afraid to breathe together in the same space. It's amazing how we've all taken that for granted. That something so simple and yet so vital to us as human beings could be so threatened is startling. But I am focused on my family and getting us through these strange days. We have the privilege of having a home to shelter in during this time and that can't be said of everyone, so we are mindful of that.

Neptune Theatre artistic director Jeremy Webb. (CBC)

What economic impact has the lockdown had on your company?

JW: The impact is huge. Last year during this time period, we were selling tickets to our season-closing musical and subscriptions for next season. This year, on March 13, those sales stalled immediately — almost overnight. It is traditionally these sales that propel us forward through the summer and into the next season. Subscribers and patrons have been very supportive; most have opted to hold their tickets for Billy Elliot or to convert the value into donations or gift certificates. However, there is no escaping the fact that, like most of our sister organizations, this temporary closure has devastated our business.

KL: Before the lockdown we were ahead of all our targets for the season. We were doing very well. Obviously cancelling these two shows has had a negative impact on that. But it's hard to talk about the financial impact of Indigenous Theatre without the greater context of the NAC as a whole. 

The NAC is a very busy place, with productions, shows and events every day of every week. Gatherings are the lifeblood of a place like the NAC. It affects all departments across the board, and the institution has to go into survival mode. 

A variety of federal aid packages have been offered for individuals and organizations including the Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy and the Canada Emergency Business Account. Are any of these new packages offering potential economic relief for your theatre company? 

WM: Yes, we are grateful for the Emergency Wage Subsidy. One of the things that kept us up at night was how to support all of our staff. This program is helping us do that.

JW: It appears that Neptune is eligible for the federal government's 75 per cent wage subsidy, which will essentially keep us operational. Neptune will take advantage of the federal government's $40,000 Canada Emergency Business Account. I think it's fair to say that we are watching out for every single relief package out there. Our provincial partners and the Canada Council have been incredibly supportive and understanding. It's been encouraging to see how they have rallied.

How do you think this lockdown will impact the future of your theatre company?

JW: That's the big question right now that every theatre is wrestling with. The interruption to our cash-flow and creative process is devastating. It will take years to return to normal, if indeed it ever does! It won't change the philosophy and mandate of the company — the heart of it all, if you will. But the truth is that we can only exist for our audience if our audience wants us to be there with us. We are holding our breath right now. Our audience is loyal and will return. The task ahead is to hang on in there, to be there when they are ready to experience live theatre again.

KL: Well, for starters, I think that we will all have to really look to a new set of health protocols when it comes to gathering in large groups again. Indigenous Theatre doesn't exist in a vacuum and so the future of our department is tied to the future of the NAC. We are a permanent department here, so as long as the building exists, so will this department. I don't know if this is spilling the beans at this point but our theme for the upcoming season is "Breathing our Stories into Being." Our brochure was already printed and ready to go before we were in a pandemic and the lockdown hit. All of the copy about our theme is about how essential the act of breathing our stories into being is to survival. Now more than ever, that couldn't be more true. 

WM: I think we will emerge stronger from it. I think the artistic communities of our city and country will connect through this, which will seed exciting creative partnerships for the future. I think the value of gathering people together to share an experience will be palpable. I think artists will have ideas and projects they have been brewing for months. This may not happen quickly, but step by step, maybe in small groups at first, we will gather again and it will feel incredibly special.

The cast of Peter Pan perform at the Neptune Theatre in Halifax. (Stoo Metz)

These interviews have been edited and condensed.

CBC Arts understands that this is an incredibly difficult time for artists and arts organizations across this country. We will do our best to provide valuable information, share inspiring stories of communities rising up and make us all feel as (virtually) connected as possible as we get through this together. If there's something you think we should be talking about, let us know by emailing us at cbcarts@cbc.ca. See more of our COVID-related coverage here.

About the Author

Amanda Parris writes a weekly column for CBC Arts and is the host of Exhibitionists on CBC Television and Marvin's Room on CBC Radio. In her spare time, she writes plays and watches too many movies. In her past lives she wrote arts based curriculum, attended numerous acting auditions, and dreamed of being interviewed by Oprah.

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