New Brunswick

Saint John's Imperial Theatre tests the waters with 1st live performance since lockdown

After six months without a live performance, the Imperial Theatre returns with its first live show since the COVID-19 lockdown in March.

Singer-songwriter Rose Cousins will take the stage Sept. 11

Rose Cousins's album release tour was cut off in mid-March by the pandemic lockdown. She returns to live performance Friday as the first show at Saint John's Imperial Theatre post-pandemic. (Eldie Photography)

When the lockdown came in March, Rose Cousins was in the midst of a whirlwind of activity.

The Juno Award-winning singer-songwriter had just completed the first two shows of her album release tour, the first at the 1,145-seat Danforth Music Hall in Toronto, and the second at Ottawa's National Arts Centre.  They were two of the biggest shows of her career

"I was so deep in the details of my release shows, I wasn't super-plugged-in to what was happening in the news," Cousins admits now.

"I figured I'd just barrel through March and get my release shows done."

But that March 6 show in Ottawa was the last time she would perform in front of a live audience.

The Maritime leg of the tour, scheduled to happen later that month, was postponed when the lockdown hit Canada in mid-March.

That meant she had to cancel flights for the band she had put together for the shows, cancel hotel bookings and arrange new dates for the shows, which were pushed ahead to fall.

Angela Campbell says the Imperial Theatre is limiting bookings this fall to acts who reside inside the Atlantic Bubble. (Scott Munn/submitted by Imperial Theatre)

Then, like most people, her life slowed down dramatically.

Angela Campbell had the opposite experience. The executive director of the Imperial Theatre was on a beach in the Caribbean in mid-March, taking a well-deserved week off after putting the final touches on the Saint John venue's 2020-2021 season.

That's when it began to become clear Canada was on the verge of a shutdown. She found herself communicating with staff by phone and email to make plans in case shows had to be cancelled or postponed.

She got back to Toronto's Pearson Airport "just as the door to the country shut," Campbell said.

She said it was eerie waiting for her flight to Saint John in a completely empty wing of the airport.

Financial hit

Campbell said the last quarter of the theatre season is often the busiest, with local events like graduation ceremonies, spring dance recitals, and sports awards nights added to an already full agenda.

She and her staff set about moving or cancelling 58 shows.

The financial costs of the shutdown were dramatic. The theatre lost about $250,000 in revenue and was forced to lay off 25 casual staff.  

Campbell said it was able to retain 15 full-time employees thanks to the federal wage subsidy.

"The wage subsidy was a saving grace," Campbell said.

Without it, she said, the Imperial might have been shutting its doors for good.

In the end, the fiscal year ended with a deficit of just $11,000.

But that wage subsidy will only last until December, so the theatre needs to get back to hosting performances.

Live but separate

As restrictions loosened in New Brunswick over the summer, the Imperial tried out a few retro movie nights to test the waters in the post-COVID world.

Friday's performance by Cousins will be the first attempt at a live performance in front of a live audience.

But it will be a different experience. 

The 850-seat venue will be limited to about 250 audience members to maintain two-metre physical distancing.

Face masks are required in the building, unless you are seated.

Washrooms will have reduced capacity, and washroom attendants will be on hand to ensure the limits are respected.

Other than a few retro movie screenings this summer, the Imperial Theatre has not hosted a performance for an audience since the pandemic lockdown in March. (Province of New Brunswick)

The theatre will be cleaned thoroughly after every show, including using a medical grade fogger to ensure seats are sanitary.

Campbell said this show is an opportunity to "test the appetite" for live performance.

It's an interesting test for Rose Cousins to get back in front of an audience, too.

"I don't really know, I haven't played a show in six months, so we'll probably try to get a sense of it together," Cousins said.

"I think it will be interesting for everybody. I mean a theatre with only a couple of hundred people in it, I'm curious to know how it will feel, both to be performing and to be in a space that has this weird adjustment that I'm not really used to." 

The Benefits of Being Alone

"But I think the communion of performing music in a room with actual people will be welcome on both sides."

Despite the cancellation of most of her album release tour, Cousins's latest album, called Bravado, has been well-received, partly because of the lead single, The Benefits of Being Alone.

"I just happened to write a pandemic theme song about isolation," she said with a laugh.

Cousins said there are lessons to be found in the enforced isolation of the pandemic.

"It's a taking stock of my relationship with my work, and now that I don't have it, what's my relationship with myself.

"And most likely mining for whatever my next section of writing will be. I can't imagine this time does not put a spotlight on the relationships we do and don't have." 

The time has also allowed her to do something she has always dreamed about: getting a dog.

Cousins said the 15-week-old miniature schnauzer/poodle cross named Harrington has added some complexity to her touring life but brought out her tender side, too.

And it's not likely touring life will return to normal anytime soon. 

Imperial Theatre executive director Angela Campbell says it's unlikely the theatre could host large Broadway touring companies or big musical acts under pandemic restrictions, because the smaller audiences would make it impossible to make the economics work. (Submitted by Heather Morton Stephen)

Angela Campbell said that right now, the Imperial Theatre is only booking acts who reside in the Atlantic bubble, and only those willing to play to smaller audiences for smaller fees.

And while she is having conversations with other Canadian performers, she expects international borders will be closed for a long time.

"What if this lasts 24 months?," Campbell said, "We're foolish to think a miracle vaccine is going to change things overnight."

And, however long it lasts, it likely won't be financially possible to book big acts.

"Look at a big Broadway musical tour, it's $65,000 US for two nights. We're not going to be able to do that."

The Imperial Theatre returns to live performance on Sept. 11 with Rose Cousins. She plays the Capitol Theatre in Moncton on Sept. 10 and the Fredericton Playhouse on Sept. 12.

About the Author

Steven Webb

Producer

Steven Webb is a producer for CBC based in Saint John

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