Nfld. & Labrador·Our New Normal

How LSPU Hall is rethinking the ways it delivers theatre

A whole season of theatre was lost to the pandemic. Now the people behind the plays are reimagining how to bring art and audiences back to the hall.

A whole season of theatre was lost. Now the LSPU Hall is raising the curtain on what comes next

The LSPU Hall is a historic theatre in downtown St. John's. Though ravaged by fire and rebuilt several times, parts of the structure have stood since the late 18th century. (Zach Goudie/CBC)

There have been big changes in our little corners of the world, due to COVID-19 and related restrictions. CBC Newfoundland and Labrador is exploring those changes in a series called Our New Normal.

Before the pandemic hit, the LSPU Hall was booked solid. For about 300 nights a year, the hall was home to plays, concerts, recording sessions and awards shows. Countless works of art were created, rehearsed and performed on a stage that nurtured many of the province's greatest theatrical talents, from Rick Mercer and Mary Walsh to Jillian Keiley and Robert Chafe.

But in the second week of March, the people behind the plays found themselves facing a staggering artistic loss: the cancellation of an entire season.

"The artists that come through here and have shows, they're putting 100 per cent of themselves into mounting that performance," said Suzanne Mullett, general manager of the LSPU Hall, told CBC News in late September. "Some people plan shows for a year, or maybe even two years."

Suzanne Mullett is the general manager of the LSPU Hall. (Zach Goudie/CBC)

For people like Nicole Rousseau, the hall is more just than a place to see a show. 

"I think that this space is essential as a gathering place," Rousseau said. "I've been coming here since I was a teenager, and I'm very passionate about this organization and its place in the artistic community in this province. And I know I'm not alone."

Rousseau leads creative production as the artistic animateur of RCA Theatre, the hall's resident theatre company. She and her team were among the scores of artists who saw their work dashed.

"We had a full season slated," she said. "RCA Theatre company was actually in pre-production for our mainstage production.… [It's] just a really, really exceptional team of artists. I was so excited that we were part of developing and producing this project, and it was going to tour.

"And the heartbreak around telling the team that we would have to press pause — it's like a kind of grief."

Nicole Rousseau is the artistic animateur of RCA Theatre, the resident theatre company at the LSPU Hall. (Zach Goudie/CBC)

Now, people like Rousseau and Mullett are trying to find a way to raise the curtain again, and bring theatre back to the LSPU Hall. But it isn't easy.

"The reopening plan that I'm working on, the things and the questions that I've had to answer, are things I never would have thought I'd have to answer," Mullet said. "It really plays on my mind to make sure that I'm going to be offering people a safe environment to come back to live theatre."

Dropping the curtain

Last winter was an especially busy season at the LSPU Hall. The Snowmageddon blizzard that hit St. John's in January had already forced the rebooking of several events, which had to be squeezed into an already tight calendar.

On March 13, the day before the first case of COVID-19 was detected in Newfoundland and Labrador, the team at the hall were in the middle of preparing for a show that very night. That's when Mullett says she got the call for an emergency board meeting.

"Some people were sort of saying, 'Maybe we just cut capacity for the shows that were coming up in March.' People were throwing out less intense ways to handle what was going on. But it quickly became clear in the board meeting that the majority of board members were like, 'No, we have to close the building because it's our social responsibility to do so.'"

The LSPU Hall had a full season of performances slated with it abruptly shut down in mid-March. (Zach Goudie/CBC)

Mullett soon found herself with a long list of performers to contact, one by one, to deliver the bad news.

"They were heartbreaking conversations," she said. "A lot of what came back was more silence and shock about how far reaching the situation was. That it could touch our small little lives, not only in the island but in the little LSPU Hall."

There was also disbelief on her part that she had to make those calls, she said.

"That's something I never would have imagined in my 10 years here, never would have imagined."

Rousseau says she didn't mourn the loss of just the shows that were being cancelled; she also feared for the loss of all the shows to come.

"It hurt me a lot, and I worried a lot. I worried a lot about how we were going to adapt, and what the future would hold, and when were we going to get back, and how were we going to learn on the other side of the curve how to make the stories again, to make the plays, to create theatre."

This is a scene from Remnants, a play mounted at the LSPU Hall in March 2019. (Zach Goudie/CBC)

The next act

The seats at the LSPU Hall sat empty this summer, during what should have been peak time for the bustling theatre season. But the team at the hall found ways to keep using the space for creative endeavours. Several performers adapted their shows to do digital or streaming versions instead. Small groups of musicians booked the stage and its lively acoustics for recording sessions. 

But the team at the hall believe live performances, with artists and audiences coming together in real time and space, arethe Hall's true purpose. So while Mullett worked on the reopening plan, Rousseau helped launch the hall's first virtual touring show of the pandemic: a theatrical installation called Red Phone, in partnership with Boda Del Lupo, a theatre company in Vancouver, which normally would travel with the installation, but isn't this time.

A theatrical installation outside the LSPU Hall called Red Phone invited audiences to participate in short conversations, written by playwrights and authors from across Canada. (Zach Goudie/CBC)

The show involves two phone booths that were installed outside the hall from Oct. 1-4. Audiences entered the booths, answered the ringing telephone, and participated in a dialogue by reading text on a screen.

"It's a bunch of short, bite-sized, less than 10-minute conversations, written by playwrights and writers from across the country," Rousseau said. "So if we can't sit in these seats, we're going to bring you a live experience outside."

For Rousseau, shows like Red Phone are a way to make a virtue of necessity.

"It's a great way for us to invite our audiences back toward the LSPU Hall. We're another step closer. The next time maybe we can invite you in the porch," she said. "I feel like this is another way that we can be out in front of the new normal, and adapt our practice to suit the times."

As for when the time will come for audiences to step back inside LSPU Hall, Mullett hopes they can soon raise the curtain on a new, scaled-down season.

This is a mural near the LSPU Hall. Audiences have not been inside the theatre since the COVID-19 pandemic began. (Zach Goudie/CBC)

"What we're trying to do in the fall is make sure that we are ready to open to the public in a safe manner," she said. "Our capacity is going to be greatly reduced for performances, but we're hoping that in the very near future we'll be able to open up to some events." 

In its long history, the LSPU Hall has been hit by a lot. It was burned and rebuilt several times in the great fires that ravaged downtown St. John's, but parts of the structure have stood since 1789. Whatever comes next, Mullett said, the hall will continue to stand as a place for Newfoundland and Labrador stories to be told.

"In the end, that's what we do here. It's about live performance," she said. "And we have to be able to live in a world with this virus, or another virus, or whatever comes our way, we're the kind of creative people that can deal with it. So that's what we're going to do."


Our New Normal 

(CBC)

The COVID-19 pandemic has meant great changes in our daily lives. We'll be exploring them in Our New Normal, a series of segments you'll see here, on Here & Now and on our current affairs shows. 

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Zach Goudie is a journalist and video producer with CBC in St. John's.

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