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How the theatre industry is coping with its 'extended intermission' during COVID-19

COVID-19 has left the theatre industry in a state of uncertainty as theatres remain closed, companies suffer major financial losses and artists are left without work. That has companies worried about paying the bills while acting students wonder if they'll ever find work.

Some theatre school programs suspended until 2021, financial losses mean uncertain future

Michael Wamara, left, and Matt Dejanovic are fourth-year acting students at Ryerson University, about to start their final years in the fall. (Submitted)

COVID-19 has left the theatre industry in a state of uncertainty as theatres remain closed, companies suffer major financial losses, and artists are left without work.

Many in the industry say it's especially difficult for young artists fighting to launch their careers. 

Kat Khan recently graduated from York University's acting program, and says it's been tough having to put her career on hold.

"Quite an emotional experience, I would say, to be in this position," she told CBC Toronto.

"But I understand that safety is safety, and for the greater good of humanity, this is what we need to do."

Kat Khan is a TV, film and theatre actor, who is eager to get back to work. (CBC)

Theatre school programs are also grappling with how to deliver courses for their young artists in the coming school year. 

George Brown College has already decided to postpone its theatre programs for the fall until January, because of the challenges around transforming in-person classes, such as dance or stage combat, into "alternative delivery," the school told CBC News in a statement. 

"Many students have shared that they're pleased with this decision to defer rather than trying to adapt such a rigorous program to an online format," the statement said.

Sheridan College and York University will be delivering their theatre programs remotely for the most part, but Ryerson University says it will provide more information about the upcoming semester online closer to September. 

"It's a state of unease ... not knowing how we're going to move forward, what's going to happen in September," said Michael Wamara, who is about to start his fourth year in Ryerson's acting program.

Wamara explained the school has told him that many courses will be held online, but it's still not clear what the plan is for acting classes that usually require students to be together in a studio. 

"I think it's a really difficult position for them to be in," said theatre producer and entertainment lawyer Derrick Chua, who explained that fourth-year students this year will be missing out on many recruitment opportunities.

"Usually, I see people when they're in school. I go to see at least one or two of their shows while they're at school ... And I don't know if that's going to happen live. And virtual, just, it's not the same," he said.

'Challenging way to begin a career'

"It's a very challenging way to begin a career. And I don't know how you get around it," said John Karastamatis, the director of communications for Mirvish Productions, adding that in the last several months, a lot of people's livelihoods have disappeared.

"There is no income to speak of," he said, even for Mirvish, the largest theatre production company in Canada, which operates six large theatres in Toronto and brings hit shows such as Hamilton and Come from Away to the city.

"In most years, we sell a million tickets. So this year, we only had January, February and half of March. So that is maybe 10 weeks out of 52. So, 80 per cent of the income was lost."

While Stage 3 of Ontario's reopening plan would allow theatrical productions and performances to resume, physical distancing measures and gathering limits are still in effect. For some companies, limited seating just isn't realistic. 

"We need to have at least a 70 per cent paid audience right in the theatre just to pay for the costs," explained Karastamatis. 

"So it just doesn't make financial sense. But ... if the virus in our communities is reduced to hardly having any community spread, there may be a time when the government should look at allowing the theatres to reopen with certain protocols in place."

Anita Gaffney, the executive director for the Stratford Festival, says it's been a difficult time for the company. (CBC)

Anita Gaffney, the executive director of The Stratford Festival, said the pandemic has "totally upended" the industry. 

"The prospect of not being able to gather in a room together is just contradictory to the live performing arts. So it's had a devastating impact on the festival," she said. 

"We're all, I think, feeling a little bit lost in having this pause — this extended intermission."

Time to adapt?

Young actors, like fourth-year Ryerson acting student Matt Dejanovic, wonder what the industry will be like when they're finally able to work. 

"How will theatres bounce back from this? What kind of content will they make?" Dejanovic asked. 

"Do we just lean into film now because we can't have people in our theatres anymore? But at the same time, we don't want to abandon theatre."

He suggested it's time to adapt. 

Theatre Passe Muraille's Indrit Kasapi says this might be a good opportunity for the theatre industry to find ways to reinvent itself. (CBC)

Indrit Kasapi, the associate artistic director at Theatre Passe Muraille, agrees. 

"I think now is the time ... to rethink how can we start making theatre for the digital age. What does that mean? How can we still continue this concept of live performance?" he said. 

"I am excited by the young artists who are graduating, who are the new generation of artists, who can teach the older generation a little bit more about digital work and digital art."

This idea of creating content differently has Wamara and Dejanovic excited about finally being able to get to work once they graduate. They hope that this moment of pause for the field will bring about positive changes.

"This pandemic is still going on, a lot of questions have risen up, a lot of movements have been happening. How are we going to contribute to what is happening in the world?" Wamara said. 

"Especially as a Black actor ...  when I graduate, what work am I going to see when I get out there in the industry?"

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