P.E.I. theatres reflect on 'devastating' season due to COVID-19

The P.E.I. theatre community is hurting from a 'devastating' season, and warning that companies simply can't survive if they continue to be limited to one-third of their normal audience capacity.

Some jobs maintained due to small shows and government funding

'We all want to get to where we can do shows,' says the CEO of the Confederation Centre of the Arts, Steve Bellamy. (Shane Ross/CBC)

The P.E.I. theatre community is hurting.

Yet the CEO of the Confederation Centre of the Arts, for one, says he's more interested in getting people back into the theatre rather than lobbying levels of government to continue financial aid programs.
Steve Bellamy says the centre doesn't want to do anything unsafely. He said the centre has its operational plan in place and staff want to work with the government to come up with a plan that will allow the shows to go on during the pandemic.

"We all want to get to where we can do shows. Selling a third of tickets, it's not possible. We'd have to sell tickets for $300 each and you just can't," he said. 

"We're eager to get to where we say, 'Well, look, we have these cautions in place. Let's get people to come back into the theatres safely to watch the shows by following the precautions.'"

This summer's cancellation of the Charlottetown Festival 'in practical terms meant the loss of 175 jobs,' says Steve Bellamy. (Laura Meader/CBC)

The centre was able to put on a few "modest concerts" this summer, but the 1,100-seat main theatre can accommodate only 280 people under its current COVID-19 operational plan. Bellamy said that makes productions unviable.

He described this year as "devastating," as the centre went into crisis mode and shut its doors, leaving the Charlottetown Festival cancelled.

Selling a third of tickets, it's not possible. We'd have to sell tickets for $300 each and you just can't.- Steve Bellamy, Confederation Centre of the Arts

"The loss of the festival, in practical terms, meant the loss of 175 jobs that we would normally be providing in the summer," he said.

Bellamy said if it weren't for continued financial support from sponsors and the government, the centre would have been looking at a deficit of more than $2 million. 

The Confederation Centre is not the only theatre suffering on the Island.

Emily Smith, executive director of the Victoria Playhouse, says she is hoping for more government funding to help Island theatres survive. (Victoria Playhouse/Facebook)

Emily Smith is executive director of Victoria Playhouse. She said the summer was "pretty quiet" after they cancelled the season in early May. 

Smith said the theatre was able to hire some summer staff who got around to things such as maintenance tasks they wouldn't have been able to during a busy season.

"Until the very end of the summer, we had nothing on stage. And then at that point, we had the opportunity to have two performances that we presented."

Without provincial and federal funding programs she said the theatre would be carrying a large deficit into the next season.

"I think arts organizations — particularly performing arts organisations which rely on the assembly of large groups of people — our means are very curtailed because if we are able to open, for us it is with one-third capacity and we simply cannot break even."

Smith said she is hoping additional government funding is available for 2021.

The Harbourfront Theatre in Summerside started shutting down on March 13, says executive director Kieran Keller. (Matt Rainnie/CBC)

The Harbourfront Theatre in Summerside is also facing challenges.

"I think it was Friday the 13th in March when we started shutting things down. And it was dark for quite a while," said Kieran Keller, the executive director of Harbourfront Theatre in Summerside.

Keller said some people were hired back to do things such as maintenance. 

"At first we were down to three and a half people working. We were able to slowly build that up a little bit." he said.

If we are going to have any kind of real programming and any kind of shows that resemble what we did before, there would have to be some sort of a subsidy.- Kieran Keller, Harbourfront Theatre

However, Keller said the theatre was unable to bring back a lot of backstage works and box office staff.

"The needs were not there because we weren't doing shows and we weren't able to," he said. "We are still in the stage now where we are plotting our course for the future."

Keller said one-third of the Harbourfront's theatre funding comes from government.

"As long as that one-third is there, that enables us to keep a core amount of staff working, but certainly not the full complement, nowhere near that," he said. "It allows us to keep the lights on and the building heated."

Keller said he hopes to get more people into the theatre — but safety has to be the primary concern.

"If we are going to work with these restrictions…. our hands are tied to a certain extent," he said. "If we are going to have any kind of real programming and any kind of shows that resemble what we did before, there would have to be some sort of a subsidy in order to sustain that."

More from CBC P.E.I.

With files from Wayne Thibodeau.


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