We need a little Christmas, right this very minute: the Varscona’s first-ever Virtual Holiday Gala

Kendra Connor, producer of the Virtual Holiday Gala. Photo by Adam Kidd.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

In a daunting year for live theatre, when the sound of Cheers! has rarely been heard across the land (and the sound of even one hand clapping is now a faint echo in the imagination), the Varscona people are throwing a bash.

Yes, there will be singing and dancing by star musical theatre performers. Yes, there will be an assortment of festive frocks, performers wearing red lipstick, and the making and hoisting of Yule-tide cocktails. And, hey, you’ll get to see other people’s Christmas trees.

But the black tie is optional. The Varscona Theatre, home to a cluster of resident companies and the site of many seasonal specials, is hosting a first-ever Virtual Holiday Gala Dec. 20. It happens, free (with donations really really encouraged), thanks to EPCOR’s invaluable Heart and Soul Fund. And the idea, says actor-turned-producer Kendra Connor, is a holiday gift to the Varscona’s coterie of theatre-lovers.

“The delivery is different, but the people are the same,” says Connor, of the online venture, with its cast of Varscona faves (from Teatro La Quindicina, Shadow Theatre, Die-Nasty, and the Varscona Ensemble of indie companies). “I just wanted to give our patrons something familiar but safe.”

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Connor herself, a Plain Jane and Teatro star, takes us into the empty theatre, turns on the lights, and talks from stage. Other than that, the performances comes to us direct from performers’ living rooms. Mark Meer and Belinda Cornish host (so we get to see their tree). Musical performers include such triple-threat faves as Jason Hardwick, Rachel Bowron, Chariz Faulmino, Andrea House. Connor is gathering messages from an assortment of  “Varscona pals,” like actor/ writer/ Die-Nasty star Stephanie Wolfe.

“Something interactive,” one of Connor’s goals with the Virtual Holiday Gala, has historical precedent at the Varscona. The archive is full of shows, fund-raisers, and special events that include the making and distribution of cocktails. Oh Susannah!, a 14-season monthly variety/interview series starring Meer, included a resident mixologist, and segment devoted to the onstage frying of salty snacks, that were passed around in the audience.

Varscona Theatre, Chantal Fortins set for Cocktails at Pams. Photo by Ryan Parker.

It’s a tricky moment for “interactive,” to be sure. But Connor is having a go at creating the effect. During the gala, Cornish and Matt Hulshof will be making Zoom cocktails, “punch for one,” from their respective abodes. There’s a “charcuterie party, hosted by couples Matt Busby and Jenna Dykes-Busby and Jenny McKillop and Garett Ross. Your participation is invited via the Varscona’s partnership with The Public and Wild Heart Collective (producers of the Edmonton Christmas Market) that will see curated “treat boxes” delivered to the audience on location at home.

“What makes the Varscona stand out as a venue,” thinks Connor, “is the way people gravitate toward the actors; the audience feels more of a relationship with performers.” The latter are the ticket-takers (and more recently, the temperature-takers); they work the box office and the bar; they usher.

That “singing and laughing” are verboten in the current age, “is especially cruel,” says Connor wistfully. “It’s what we DO.”

The anti-wistfulness gala, assembled by Connor (with her partner Adam Kidd a film editor and videgrapher), is another example of theatre’s learning and adaptability curve of 2020: stuck at home, theatre artists, ingenious souls, are adding television and video production to their skill sets. “Everyone has a microphone at home,” says Connor, who hasn’t been on a stage since a cabaret last January. “And iPhones do high-res video.… We’ve all been auditioning for things with ‘self-tapes’.”

EPCOR’s Heart and Soul has allowed the Varscona to think forward to the transitional moment when limited-audience live gatherings are possible. “We’ve been able to get improved sound equipment for live-streaming and video recording.”

The Virtual Holiday Gala happens Decl. 20 (7:30 p.m.) on the Varscona Theatre’s YouTube channel. Tickets are free, but “donations are happily received — it’s a fund-raiser for the theatre,” says Connor. Details on ordering tickets and  treat boxes are at varsconatheatre.com.


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