Signs of life: live theatre is coming back, with cautious first steps

Shaun Smyth in Playing with Fire: the Theo Fleury Story, at Persephone in Saskatoon, 2016. Photo by Electric Umbrella/ Liam Richards.

By Liz Nicholls,

And they’re back!

Very cautiously, of course, experimentally, a little tentatively, with ultra-sanitized jazz hands. And not full-blast: nary a large-scale musical in sight, needless to say. But live theatre is starting to be back … live and with live audiences.

For an arts industry whose raison d’être is the excitement of real live in-person experience, it’s been a wintry four-and-a-half months. And you’ve got to admire the resourcefulness, the resilience, the sheer tooth-gritting persistence of our theatre artists, who’ve devised ways to translate performance onto screens.

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But 2-D imaging does whet the appetite for 3-. Three theatres are up for the complicated challenge of inviting real live audiences, albeit a fraction of their usual capacity, back and on location: Edmonton’s biggest playhouse, the Citadel; Edmonton’s tiniest, Grindstone; and the venturesome Mayfield Dinner Theatre.

Start with the smallest first. Next week Grindstone Theatre in Old Strathcona is launching a Re-Set Theatre Fest in person (or online). As the company’s tireless artistic director Byron Martin describes, Re-Set is a mini-Fringe of sorts. Nine sketch, stand-up and improv comedy shows rotate five performances each, from Wednesday through Aug. 30, at the Grindstone’s bistro headquarters (10019 81 Ave.) and the nearby Sewing Machine Factory (under the Mill Creek Cafe, 9562 82 Ave.).

A socially-distanced audience of 36 max at either 84-seat venue, will catch sketch comedy troupes like The Debutants or Marv N Berry. Or a BIPOC standup showcase, Black Laughs Matter, hosted by Natasha Lyn Myles. The lineup includes You Might Notice Something Different About Me, from trans standup comic Cindy Rivers. There’s an improvised Yeg DND, to make the nerd crowd happy. And there’s even a puppet talk show, Gabbin’ With Gobber, with Malachi Wilkins. See the whole line-up and schedule at  

It’s not exactly curated. Word got out, “people applied, and we waived all producer fees” in favour of a $2 surcharge on tickets, Martin explains. “Ever since Phase 2 in July, we’ve started exploring the possibilities with our producers,” he says of the Grindstone’s weekly roster of troupes. “Everyone feels differently; everyone has a different comfort level.”

The pandemic check-list is reassuring, both in detail and enforcement. “The audience must wear masks. So, distancing and masks, sign-ups (at the start of every show) for contact tracing, hand sanitizing, separate entrance and exit, someone to seat people and make sure the rules are followed… We have to have a staff technical director onsite for every show, and we used to let the producers bring their own.Technicians have to wipe down everything between shows.” The list goes on. “And it’s a lot of work,” Martin admits. “But people are hungry for a live experience. And we’re very glad to be able to be open.”

Can the money work with an audience of 36?  “We have an average audience size of 30 anyway,” says Martin. “It works with 20 people watching.” And if your basic pandemic anxiety level isn’t tuned down yet to venturing forth in person, the shows will be live-streamed, with digital tickets available.

The Citadel’s return to live in-person performance after the long intermission is their experimental two-night Horizon Lab, a two-night “celebration of Albertan BIPOC, LGBTQ+ and disabled artists’ stories,” on the Shoctor stage Aug. 28 and 29. One hundred (free) tickets a night are available for masked, socially-distanced audiences in the scrupulously sanitized 681-seat Shoctor Theatre. For those not ready to gather, a video version will be available a couple of weeks after the live run.

Helen Belay, Cinderella, Globe Theatre Regina. Photo by Chris Graham.

The summer’s artistic associate team — Helen Belay, Tai Amy Grauman and Mieko Ouchi — has already launched a Horizon Series, now underway at, in which they interview leading BIPOC artists about their work, their experiences working on Canadian stages, their plans. Now the three have assembled five teams of BIPOC, LGBTQ+ and disabled artists, to devise a 10-minute piece each, in a months, for Horizon Lab. 

The prompt they offered artists was a question: “where are your stories?,” inspired by If This Is Your Land, Where Are Your Stories? Finding Common Ground, by the Canadian writer J. Edward Chamberlin. “The teams could choose to be their own performers, or bring others in,” explains Belay. 

Designer Elise Jason created a stage environment full of possibilities, “a palimpsest of artistic creation,” as Belay puts it. “There’s a hint of it in the graphic (above): A trio of celestial … suns? presences? in the sky. In beautiful rich course evocative of the landscape.”

“We asked ourselves what can we do right now that can serve the community. After the kind of miasma we’ve all been slogging through … everyone feels a real need for a 3-D space to gather. We’ve been inundated by screens. We just felt we had to incorporate a live element.”

“AND we wanted to put some money in the pockets of artists we believe in.”

Teams like Todd Houseman and Lady Vanessa Cardona (who created a piece for Christina Nguyen and Sheldon Stockdale), had worked together before. You may have seen their show The Whiteface Cabaret on FringeTV’s opening night Thursday. Other connections are new, “to plant seeds for future collaborations, to invest in relationships, and hopefully to change the landscape we live in, long-term,” says Belay. In the case of playwright/actor Mac Brock and Pepper’d co-founder Tasana Clarke, “they were two up-and-coming artists doing cool things…. Let’s see if they’d be interested in working together!”

The teams include a diversity of talents: Richard Lee Hsi and Morgan Yamada, both expert physical performers; Patricia Cerra, Carly Neis and Cynthia Jimenez-Hicks; Mohamed Ahmed and Elena Eli Belyea with Mahalia Carter-Jameson.

Says Belay “It’s been so fascinating, a privilege to be part of this moment, which hopefully will roll over into something for the future. Quite the illuminating experience!”

Tickets are free but required, with donations encouraged:

• The hit solo show Playing With Fire: The Theo Fleury Story is up on its skates once more — and back in a hockey-mad town staring Sept. 8. That’s when the Mayfield Dinner Theatre re-opens, in a socially distanced new configuration — with the magnetic Shaun Smyth as the NHL star haunted, and nearly derailed, by dark turbulence of his past as a victim of sexual abuse.

Ron Jenkins’ electrifying production, which happens entirely on skates on a specially designed rink, was on tour at the Citadel five years ago.  It returns, with Smyth in the title role, to tell (and show) the story of a small-town kid from a chaotic home life, with an extraordinary talent in a world that celebrated it, and then threatened it.

It runs Sept. 8 through Oct. 25. The Mayfield buffet has been replaced with table service. And theatre-goers can only remove their masks once they’re seated at the table.

Tickets and a list of precautions: or 780-483-4051.   



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