Calgary's performing arts organizations determined to hit the stage again

Theatre stages and concert halls have been shuttered for more than two months now, and with no end date in sight, many of Calgary’s performing arts organizations are facing some serious questions.

'We're watching our cash, our expenses, and seeking the support of our donors and patrons to help us through'

The Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra had to cancel its planned performances of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban on opening night. (Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra)

Performers were excitedly preparing for the opening night of the Harry Potter show with the Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra on March 12, with 6,000 tickets sold for the three-night performance at the Jubilee Auditorium, when they got the word — the show was off.

"It was quite a shock for us," said Paul Dornian, the president and CEO of the Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra. "Everything shut down, and it's been pretty quiet since then."

The same day, Theatre Calgary was preparing to stage a production called Admissions.

"We were actually going to open that evening, and we were forced to close," said Jim Reader, interim executive director at Theater Calgary. "We just, we took the hard choice and closed our doors, and we've been managing ever since and looking to reopen."

For both organizations, the economic damage is daunting.

"The impact to our people and the many local artists, writers, well they look to the stage for work, and so the impact is huge," Reader said. "Annually … at 70 per cent of our income, it's over $7 million on an annual basis. And we have still much of the expenses for the shows that we were planning."

Paul Dornian, the president and CEO of the Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra. (Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra)

As Reader and Dornian both explained during a frank discussion on the Calgary Eyeopener arts panel, many of Calgary's performing arts organizations are facing some serious questions.

"These shows are arranged two to three years in advance, in many cases," Reader said. "Actors, producers, directors, they're all set up way in advance. Those are contractual committed obligations."

Already operating on tight budgets, some local arts organizations are now facing even tougher times. Having said that, both agree there has been overwhelming and heartwarming support from patrons.

"We were very pleased with the outcome," said Dornian. "I would say the majority of people did support the organization and donated their ticket revenues. Another portion exchanged for tickets whenever we can come back. And, of course, you know, some people were hit very hard economically by this … but we were genuinely pleased."

From left: Jake Bunyan, Rachel Jones and Curt McKinstry in Admissions, Theatre Calgary's cancelled production. (Trudie Lee)

In the meantime, it's fair to say the organizations, from the Alberta Ballet to the Calgary Opera, the CPO and all the small theatre companies, are regrouping.

"Just like everybody else, we're shut down," said Dornian of the CPO.

"We have everybody on reduced salaries, musicians and staff, trying to work on whatever projects we can get going. And we're doing a lot of things online. We did a terrific show yesterday with Tom Jackson online, but it's not what it should be, and it's not what we'd like it to be. We like to be out there sharing things with the public, and that's not happening."

Dornian and Reader said both organizations are struggling with uncertainty.

"We're assuming this could be deeper and longer than most people think…. We're watching over our people, making sure they're safe, and using every program that we can to care for them and make sure they're looked after," Reader said.

"And we're watching our cash, our expenses, and seeking the support of our donors and patrons to help us through, and they are. It's been remarkable, the support."

No one knows how long this will go on, or can go on.

"We're looking at scenarios where we're starting in September and offering a season that we have online. We're looking at scenarios where we could start some point in the fall or start in January — and we really don't know," Dornian said.

"We're looking at, how big an audience you can get, how much time it takes to get in and out of this theatre. How you handle things if you're trying to maintain social distancing in the theatre," he said. 

"We don't know exactly what the future brings but we're going to be ready to go, whenever. And if it takes a longer period of time, we'll find a way to try and keep everybody in play, and to hang on for that period so we're here when the community is ready for us again."

Jim Reader, interim executive director of Theatre Calgary. (Theatre Calgary)

Reader is confident that after this period of social isolation, people will be ready to experience a live performance again.

"We offer a social setting," Reader said. "The theatre is quintessentially a community experience, and it's going to be there when people emerge. Social interaction isn't just a nice to have, it's a necessity, we all feel it."

The CPO laid off all staff and rehired them back the next day at reduced wages.

Theatre Calgary has introduced a new platform called TC Takeout, delivering live theatre — online — to people at home.

Reading thinks innovations will come from a new coalition of performing arts groups working together.

"These are all the groups coming together on a weekly basis to talk that over, what are we doing, how we are managing, what we will do that's safe, and how will we re-emerge," he said.

"I think the idea sharing, the community support that we have with each other, is something that Calgary should be proud of. Because it's going to see art, whether it's the ballet, the philharmonic, the opera, and our theatre, and the many other theatres that are in the Alberta area — that's going to see us through."

With files from the Calgary Eyeopener.


Pamela Fieber

Former CBC digital journalist

Pamela Fieber worked for CBC Calgary's digital team from 2019 to 2021. She also worked for more the 10 years at the Calgary Herald. She also served as managing editor of WestJet Magazine before joining CBC Calgary in 2019.