Back to live theatre: are you game? That’s the question as E-town theatres make (and re-make) plans for the fall

original plans for Northern Light Theatre’s 45th anniversary season. Photo by Epic Photography

By Liz Nicholls,

Lessons from the pandemic: “Phases” may come (and go). But a great triple-sided mystery remains. You can throw open theatre doors. But will people want to return? Under what conditions? And when?

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The good news is that theatre-goers actually want to be back in the house seats having a live theatre experience — at least according to an informal 127-response audience survey conducted by Heather Inglis, the new artistic producer at Workshop West Playwrights Theatre.

Workshop West found that 66.9 per cent of their respondents are “very likely” to “return to theatre “after a full re-opening of the economy.” To question 2, “how long after the full re-opening of the economy would you wait until attending live theatre?”, 42.5 per cent of Workshop respondents checked “right away if it’s something I want to see,” although nearly 25 per cent said “a few months” and 9.4 per cent said “one year.” 

The vagaries of the phrase “full re-opening of the economy” are, of course, open for interpretation and postponements, as Inglis points out. But, in an industry based on human proximity and therefore devastated by complete shutdown, she’s choosing to be heartened on that count. “People do like theatre and want to go to it…. They want that intimate interaction between actors and audience.”

Phase 2, with its permission for indoor gatherings of 50, socially distanced, is by no means an open invitation for live theatres of any size to get back into action onstage. The country’s largest theatres, including the Citadel, won’t be producing on their mainstages till 2021. As Citadel artistic director Daryl Cloran told 12thnight last week (read the piece HERE), it’s just not workable to rehearse and perform on any artistically or financially viable scale in the company’s two 700-seat houses. “Pretty much everything we do in Phase 3, or beyond,” he said, in announcing a complete transplantation of his mainstage season to 2021-2022. 

An audience of 50 for small theatre companies, with their smaller-scale productions, seems on the surface more do-able. But they rehearse and perform in smaller houses. Inglis has been pondering the perms and combs for Workshop West. “Six feet apart, wearing masks … it’s possible for a reduced audience…. But from our end, what about the cast and the rehearsals? The actors would have to form a ‘cohort family’ that along with their own families would be the only people they’d see for five weeks. “It’s a lot to ask.”

“And if somebody gets a cold and has to be tested, we’re shut down for two weeks…. We stand to lose all that money. And no art has happened.”

Heather Inglis, artistic producer Workshop West Playwrights Theatre. Photo by Ryan Parker

Inglis, who arrived at Workshop West from the indie company Theatre Yes in 2019, isn’t waiting till 2021 till she launches her debut season at Workshop West, however. She’s readjusted her original season, and in October Workshop West will present “an experimental piece under restrictions that are completely COVID-friendly.” The audience, divided into very small groups, follows through a series of socially distanced encounters with actors, one at a time, who have rehearsed in separate rooms. It’s not what she’d planned for Workshop West, she says. “It’s more the kind of thing that Theatre Yes (Slight of Mind, Viscosity, Anxiety) is known for….”

“My priority is having art that can’t be shut down,” Inglis sighs. The Workshop West calendar has projects “with the audience in a more conventional setting” in the wings for March, May, and June.

At Theatre Network, artistic director Bradley Moss hasn’t finalized when the company will return to producing onstage at the 200-seat Roxy. He thinks that “half-houses” are workable for little theatres. But “just because the province says it’s OK” doesn’t mean there will be Equity guidelines in place for rehearsal. 

“I was not thinking before Christmas,” but that’s under reassessment, he says. “If we open before that, it’ll be a Roxy Series (Theatre Network’s alternative series) presentation, not a mainstage show.”     

“Our hope is to do something in the late fall,” says Shadow Theatre artistic director John Hudson. His 2019-2020 Shadow season was truncated when Heisenberg was cancelled after three performances in March and the finale production, Reed McColm’s The Wrong People Have Money, which would have premiered at the end of April, was indefinitely postponed. “We’d really like to get our 2019-2020 subscribers in, and complete their purchase,” he says. “If we could have 50 people in the theatre (the 176-seat Varscona) then we could do that safely in 12 to 14 performances, we think.”

“Then the 2021 season could start as planned in January,” with The Mountaintop, and the premieres of Conni Massing’s Fresh Hell in March and Darrin Hagen’s 10 Funerals at the end of April. “That is what we’re going off of right now,” he says.

Shadow’s Varscona Theatre roommate Teatro La Quindicina, which delivers large casts by small theatre standards, has moved its entire 2020 summer season, which runs May to October, to 2021.

Northern Light Theatre, which performs in the tiny Studio Theatre (in the ATB Financial Arts Barn), has opted “to move forward into the November slot” in its 45th anniversary 2020-2021 season, says artistic director Trevor Schmidt. His NLT shows, which he directs and designs in the adaptable black box theatre, are usually configured for an audience of 50 or 60. 

In the new COVID phase 2 reality, “we’d be performing for 15 people at most,” with social distancing. And that’s workable for Northern Light, he says. “It’s the advantage of the size of the company.” But regretfully “we had to let go our first show” in September, his season’s largest: The Oldest Profession, with its cast of five women over the age of 50.

A five-person cast (six including stage manager) performing for an audience of 15 max? His chief concern, though was that the actors are women of a certain age, “and it would be putting them at risk.”

NLT’s October anniversary gala is cancelled. But the four-show season will proceed as planned with The Ugly Duchess in November and The Look in January, with the Tennessee Williams two-hander Something Unspoken in April.  The fourth show is pending funding. It’s “all about isolation and being alone,” Schmidt says of a theme that can scarcely avoid resonating at the moment.

The phase two COVID logistics in phase two are certainly labour-intensive, as Schmidt points out. He predicts “no single ticket sales (only subscriber tickets) for some of our performances,” since one NLT production is part of Edmonton theatre’s annual between-company variety pack, the Theatre 6-Pack, sold to 250 theatre-goers.

In the course of 18 performances, the box office would be arranging groups, “two people here, three people there, registering for a sitting. Like a bad wedding,” says Schmidt.

NLT’s plans for audience safety include a ticketless box office, electronic programs, supplied sanitizer and masks. Call times. “Maybe you’d be seated at 7:19, and the next person at 7:21….” 

There are many uncertainties in the world of theatre. Like Cloran, Schmidt says he finally had to make a decision. “I can’t keep ripping the rug out from people…. If things change, we can offer people options, an extra ticket maybe, the chance to make a donation, another activity (instead).”

“Smaller companies are used to working on a shoestring. And I think we do have it easier than larger companies,” says Schmidt, who lost the last show of his current season (Confessions of a Reluctant Caregiver) to the pandemic. “It’s a great time for artists to be ingenious with small personally-driven projects….”

“I’ve never thought for a second theatre would die…. We’ve been going since the Greeks.” 

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