Restarting Calgary's performing arts scene a careful balancing act

As the province continues its recovery after more than a year of shut downs and restrictions, one sector that’s taking it slow is the performing arts.

'We are still not sure what this next season will bring,' says head of Theatre Calgary

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Arts Commons is home base to many of Calgary's performing arts groups, including the CPO and Theatre Calgary. (Richard White)

As the province continues its recovery after more than a year of shut downs and restrictions, one sector that's taking it slow is the performing arts.

When cases of COVID-19 began to rise and public health measures were put in place, some of the first to shut their doors in Calgary were the performing arts venues. Concerts, plays and festivals were cancelled abruptly.

Now that most restrictions have been lifted, leaders of Calgary's arts groups say that navigating the return to in-person performances will have to be done carefully.

"I think there's cautious optimism, which is a slightly different feeling than relief, because we are still not sure what this next season will bring," said Maya Choldin, executive director of Theatre Calgary.

Measured approach to reopening 

Throughout the last year and half, Theatre Calgary did a number of smaller productions including virtual performances and is preparing to welcome patrons back to in-person performances this fall.

"There were a lot of cuts organizationally in order to eke by the last season and the season before. At this point, that's why we are taking the slow reopen approach in order to not put ourselves in a position where we've put the cart before the horse and are taking on too large of a risk," said Choldin. 

"We're hoping that the risk that we are taking is just the right amount of risk and we won't know that until we start selling tickets and are successfully putting a show back on."

Alex Sarian, president and CEO at Arts Commons, says there's a strong appetite for a return to in-person performing arts in Calgary. (Courtesy Arts Commons)

The Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra (CPO) is also set to welcome back patrons this fall. 

Space will be limited to one third capacity at first, with a physically distanced seating map that allows for groups no larger than four. Physical tickets will be replaced with digital ones.

"Health and safety remain our top priority, so we are taking extra precautions, like physical distancing and masking, as we transition back to live performances," said Paul Dornian, the orchestra's president and CEO. 

"But we are optimistic that as vaccination rates rise we will be able to welcome more people to join us in the concert hall," said Dornian.

The head of Arts Commons — the multi-venue arts centre where the CPO and Theatre Calgary are based — says they worked hard at using digital technology and other innovative ways to deliver the arts to consumers and help keep local artists working during the pandemic.

"The artist community has been hit very hard. You know, working in the gig economy is hard under the best of circumstances. If you were a musician or an artist in Calgary or anywhere in the world, it's been a really difficult year," said Alex Sarian, president and CEO of Arts Commons.

"And so part of our responsibility over the past 17 months has been to try to nourish and maintain the artist community in Calgary because one of the worst things that could have happened is, you know, we all reopen at some point and all the artists are gone." 

Strong arts community 

Sarian says artists have been grateful for the opportunities to perform virtually, and Arts Commons will continue to offer digital performances. 

But he says there is also an appetite to make and consume the arts socially once again. 

"COVID was fascinating for a variety of reasons. One of them is it reaffirmed just how much we need the arts just to remind ourselves of our shared humanity. I was consuming Netflix and TV and music at home like I've never done before, and I think that's true for most people," Sarian said.

"So we've found that we lean into the arts as a way of trying to make sense of the world."