Canada is slowly reopening, but is live theatre being left behind? 3 insiders weigh in

Provinces are rolling out step-by-step reopening plans. But as COVID-19 lingers, can live theatre in our country make the comeback that performers need and audiences want? Three performing arts insiders share their views.

'What I really feel from a lot of people … is a strong amount of burnout,' says one artistic director

Three insiders share what life in the arts has been like during COVID-19, and what needs to change. From left to right: Mitchell Marcus, artistic director of The Musical Stage Company, Jivesh Parasram, artistic director of Rumble Theatre, and Jewelle Blackman, a performer in the Broadway show Hadestown. (Craig Chivers/CBC News, Graham Isador, submitted by Jewelle Blackman)

The reopening of Broadway is nigh, with a long list of shows — like Hamilton, The Lion King and Wicked and the arts community is already celebrating.

London's West End is also on its way to rebuilding an economy crippled by the pandemic, as U.K. venues welcomed back patrons in May, with safety restrictions in place.

As vaccination rates rise and COVID-19 case counts decline in Canada, the health of the theatre industry is showing signs of recovery. But uncertainty still lingers.

Provinces are rolling out step-by-step reopening plans contingent on upward trends in public health, but can live theatre in our country make the comeback that performers need and audiences want? Three performing arts insiders share their views on whether there is hope and what it will take.

When crisis strikes, 'art is our way out'

Last summer, Toronto's Musical Stage Company piloted a concert series called Porchside Songs — private, intimate performances that took place in backyards and on front porches around the city.

"We had people say it was the best artistic experience they ever had last summer, to come out of loneliness through performance," said artistic and managing director Mitchell Marcus.

The series is back, presenting to groups of 10 people in the fresh air. When tickets went on sale, all 60 concerts were booked within an hour.

"It happens time and again that art is our way out [of crisis]," he said. 

"The quicker we realize that, the quicker we can utilize the incredible skill set of artists before we lose them all, and have them lead the way to bring us back as a society."

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Mitchell Marcus, artistic and managing director at The Musical Stage Company, believes that the arts are more meaningful than just entertainment, and that they can give Canadians a sense of unity and belonging after experiencing isolation during the COVID-19 pandemic.

According to Marcus, Ontario's reopening plan listed only "short-sighted" provisions for the performing arts, including the permission to rehearse, as well as broadcast and record outdoors, with up to just 10 performers at a time.

And so he and his peers formed #FairnessForArtsON, a group of nearly 100 Ontario-based performing arts and live music organizations, to petition the government for accommodations on par with what has been extended to other sectors.

"[Theatre actors] are going to work in a parking lot outdoors in the hot sun, while their equivalent peers in film are working 50 people indoors, while their equivalents in the athletic world are practising for their games indoors," he said.

The Musical Stage is looking to open its new play, Blackout, this summer at an outdoor amphitheatre in Toronto's High Park. But it's become a waiting game.

The reason there are delays and livelihoods are being threatened, he said, is because of a lack of thinking through how theatre could still operate.

"It would be so crushing to find out that this hard-hit industry, these artists who've been out of work, lose the summer simply because people didn't take the time to follow the science and think through how obvious this is as a solution."

Not the same art form we used to know

Artistic director of Vancouver's Rumble Theatre, Jivesh Parasram, said that once the pandemic hit, most of his peers learned video editing, to allow them to start producing virtual shows.

"To have [a show] cancelled or to have to flip to a digital version is quite a lot of work and it can be quite a lot of risk," he said.

"We've been doing this in addition to everything else. So what I really feel from a lot of people … is a strong amount of burnout."

Rumble Theatre happened to be already exploring digital theatre pre-COVID-19. It managed to live stream a show right out of the gate, and continued with its 2019-2020 season online. 

"It is ultimately good because it's forcing more multidisciplinary collaboration. … And the dissemination is so much wider," he said.

Parasram acknowledged that it's quite a departure from how traditional theatre used to look. 

"I don't know that it's the same art form anymore. And that's interesting to me."

B.C. is approaching Stage 2 of its reopening plan as early as June 15, which will allow up to 50 people to gather for indoor events, including live theatre, with safety protocols in place. 

Despite some loosening restrictions, Parasram, who moved to Vancouver from Toronto in 2018, suspects that theatre companies in both provinces will still favour outdoor venues — at least for now.

"Even just being in the same room, there's going to be a whole level of anxiety for some people who are there. And that level of anxiety is going to be hard to engage with the piece and things will be missed," he said. 

But he said that the arts can contribute greatly to "community wellness."

"Relearning what it means to be in a space together, that's a big role that we can play."

Headed back to Broadway

In March 2020, the Tony Award-winning Broadway musical Hadestown played for full houses eight times a week at Broadway's Walter Kerr Theatre, before COVID-19 shut it down.

One of the actors whose life was upended is Jewelle Blackman, who returned to Toronto, moved back in with her parents and turned to writing songs and plays to cope with the "trauma and distraught of theatre being gone."

"I knew that, right now, I couldn't rely on the aspect of me performing to be what carried me through this pandemic," she said. 

She came up with a show called A Crack in the Wall, co-written with Evangelia Kambites, about love, loss and life during the pandemic. The duo will perform it for an audience of 10 people as part of The Musical Stage Company's Porchside Songs series. 

It will be the first time Blackman will have sung live since last March. She said she is frustrated by how slowly theatre is recovering compared to other sectors. 

Recently on a film set in Toronto, Blackman noticed a stark contrast between that environment and the performing arts. 

"Every three days, they do a rapid test and you get your results pretty quickly. Before they yell, 'Shoot!', everybody still has their masks on. Everybody in the room. And then it's only the actors who take their masks off while shooting," she explained.

But now that Broadway is back, Blackman will return to New York at the end of July in preparation for Hadestown's reopening on Sept. 2. She said she is looking forward to her first show.

"I don't know how long we'll all be crying, or yelling, or whatever. It's going to be a moment."


Laura Thompson is a producer for CBC Entertainment News.

With files from Eli Glasner


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