Day 6

Artists say financial support needed to create projects beyond theatres, venues

Mitchell Marcus, CEO of the Toronto-based Musical Stage Company, says that it's time for investments in the arts that would offer artists funding to develop unique ways of engaging Canadians — and create a much-needed sense of togetherness during the pandemic. He says that's an opportunity amidst the sector's challenges.

Canada's arts sector began to recover in the fall, but once again shut down due to Omicron wave

Ali Momen, left, appears alongside the cast of Come From Away. Facing the Omicron variant surge and a lack of financial support, Toronto theatre company Mirvish announced last month the Tony Award-winning show would close permanently. (Cylla von Tiedemann/Mirvish Productions)

For Ali Momen, the two-year Toronto run of the Tony Award-winning musical Come From Away "set a new gold standard for what is possible in the Canadian theatre."

So when it was shut down in the face of the surging Omicron variant, he says it hurt.

"For it to go, it felt like a vacuum sucking so much in one fell swoop," he told Day 6 host Peter Armstrong.

The actor starred in the show since its Toronto premier. It reopened in December after closing in March 2020 at the onset of the pandemic. Mirvish, the company behind the production, announced last month it would close the show permanently.

Founder David Mirvish said in a statement that there was no government "safety net" for the commercial theatre sector, which has lost revenue due to lockdowns and capacity limits. "The costs of reopening [Come From Away] a second time are prohibitively high and risky," he said.

Gathering limits along with the closure of performance venues, theatres and spaces like museums have hit the arts sector hard over the past 22 months.

And while the summer and fall offered a glimmer of some normalcy with audiences returning, the Omicron variant  has once again limited ways for artists to showcase their work.

Momen is a Toronto-based performer and former cast member of the Mirvish production of Come From Away. (CBC)

Mitchell Marcus, CEO of the Toronto-based Musical Stage Company, says that it's time for investments in the arts that would offer artists funding to develop unique ways of engaging Canadians — and create a much-needed sense of togetherness during the pandemic. He says that's one opportunity amidst the sector's many challenges.

"You're dealing with the most creative and imaginative working class in our society. Artists are people who can see possibilities where others cannot," he told Armstrong.

"What opportunities have we lost by not asking artists, 'Hey, everybody needs to be socially distanced and mostly at home, what could you do to bring joy, whether that's online, whether that's through public art projects, whether that's through small outdoor gatherings?'"

Online programming, teaching

Early in the pandemic, government financial support for performing artists was also limited. 

"We are hired as independent contractors, so we do not have that kind of social safety net," said Momen.

WATCH | Ali Momen on the permanent closure of Come From Away: 

Canadian production of 'Come From Away' ends permanently after short return to the stage

1 year ago
Duration 5:07
Canada Tonight guest host Hillary Johnstone speaks to Ali Momen -- cast member of 'Come From Away' about the theatre production's permanent end because of COVID-19, the lack of support from the government and what it meant to be a part of Canada's most successful musical.

The Canada Worker Lockdown Benefit now offers $300 per week to workers, but only during periods where lockdown measures have been implemented in a given region. Momen notes that in a city like Toronto, that benefit doesn't go far enough.

Government wage subsidy programs provided to businesses across Canada were a help to companies who employ staff, but with artists often paid as independent contractors, he said funding did not extend to them.

"You can't claim their fees on the wage subsidy," he said. "You can't find other mechanisms to help support the recovery of the work, and that's where I see a huge problem right now."

Artists have found creative ways to support themselves during the pandemic, hosting virtual concerts or teaching online. 

"I would love to see the government helping to incentivize people to take new creative risks and for everybody in our sector to … continue to find these ways of lighting up our city in the moments that we can," said Marcus.

Chris Gormley, a drummer for the band The Trews, has offered music lessons his entire career. But since the start of the pandemic, it has proven to be a key source of income despite the challenges of teaching an instrument virtually.

"It was tough, but it's now a part of my life," he said. "Even though things kind of just went back to normal a little bit in this past fall... I still had people that I taught online because they enjoyed it."

For the first time in his life, Gormley says he's looking at career opportunities outside of the music industry.

"I'm happy that I had to kind of think differently and kind of adjust my game plans as far as you know, where else can I make money — and possibly maybe segue my musical career into something different," he told Day 6.

"But it's been a long, tough two years. I can't believe I'm saying two years, but we're still here, I still have my house and I still have my kids and I still have my wife."

Members of the band The Trews on the red carpet of the 2019 Juno Awards. Drummer Chris Gormley is pictured right. (Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press)

Fears of losing the social benefits that come from the arts 

Marcus says that without stronger government support for the arts community, producers like Mirvish face a binary choice between opening a show with the risk of closing it temporarily, or closing it altogether.

"By not providing incentives to say, 'Hey, artists have value beyond just the time that theatres are open with lights on, with audiences coming,' we're missing an opportunity," said Marcus.

"I believe there's a middle ground and we just haven't had the imagination to explore it."

Momen argues that aside from the economic benefits of the arts — according to Mirvish, Come From Away had an estimated economic benefit of $920 million for the city of Toronto — there are social benefits that often go ignored because they are hard to quantify.

"One of the things that I think people are going to miss profoundly about the theatre, about galleries, about museums, about cinemas is a shared experience," he said. 

"We are deeply and utterly polarized as a people, as a society, and there's something exquisite about going into a room and sharing a singular event with a multitude of people. 

"And that is going to be something that is lost."

Written by Jason Vermes. Produced by Laurie Allan.


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