Live theatre. It’s been a year, and Act II awaits

Glenn Nelson, Amber Borotsik in Heisenberg, Shadow Theatre, March 2020. Photo by Marc J Chalifoux.

By Liz Nicholls,

Hard to believe. But it’s been a year.

One year ago (or a lifetime) this very weekend our lives changed. In  ways that don’t feel temporary.

I went to the opening of Heisenberg at Shadow Theatre on the evening of March 12, and The Children, a Wild Side production, the next night. That was the evening the Citadel premiere production of The Garneau Block had its final dress rehearsal. And everything ended.

Or  did it?

It’s unquestionably been a year of overwhelming damage for theatre artists, indeed for the entire performing arts industry. Jobs, livelihoods vanished overnight, whole companies alongside creative projects still in the dreaming stage. The raison d’être of live theatre as a connection, exciting, surprising, and kinetic, between real people — artists and their audiences — sharing a room, seemed untenably dangerous, if not suddenly obsolete at very least on hold indefinitely. A close-to-the-bone operation at the best of times, theatre and its chief investors, its artists, have never sat on margins to cushion that fracturing fall.

If this year has been a long and devastating intermission, with irreplaceable losses, Act II promises to be very different from Act I. Not least its because our theatre practitioners, in sudden forced exile from their usual habitat, stepped up, with inspiring resourcefulness and invention, to learn and devise ways to connect with audiences when the video screen is a venue and not just a plus.

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Little did I know that breaking the fourth wall, the mantra of immersive theatre, would be simplicity itself compared to breaking all the other walls that are built into digital technology.  And since March 13 2020 our resilient theatre practitioners have gotten more and more ingenious in their experiments. They’re quick learners. And they, along with their audiences, have had a chance to appreciate the work and spirit of companies from the Great Elsewhere too.

Act II, and the return to live theatre that’s live and not just a reminder (however imaginative a simulation) of what live is like, won’t be a mere continuation. Theatre has had to re-assess its own industry power structures, moved by the socio-cultural currents of the year towards greater diversity and a wider ethnic embrace of creative talent and audiences that reflect that.

Live theatre will be, must be, back after this terrible year. However gradually after so much loss, we will be together again. That much feels certain now. Its dimensions, its connection with a broader audience, its creative impulses … those remain to be discovered. Art will happen that helps us do just that.

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