When crisis strikes, 'art is our way out'Last summer, Toronto's Musical Stage Company piloted a concert series called Porchside Songs — private, intimate performances that took place in backyards and on front porches around the city. “We had people say it was the best artistic experience they ever had last summer, to come out of loneliness through performance,” said artistic director Mitchell Marcus.
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“[Theatre actors] are going to work in a parking lot outdoors in the hot sun, while their equivalent peers in film are working 50 people indoors, while their equivalents in the athletic world are practising for their games indoors,” he said.
The Musical Stage is looking to open its new play, Blackout, this summer at an outdoor amphitheatre in Toronto's High Park. But it's become a waiting game.
The reason there are delays and livelihoods are being threatened, he said, is because of a lack of thinking through how theatre could still operate.
“It would be so crushing to find out that this hard-hit industry, these artists who've been out of work, lose the summer simply because people didn't take the time to follow the science and think through how obvious this is as a solution.”
Not the same art form we used to know
Artistic director of Vancouver's Rumble Theatre, Jivesh Parasram, said that once the pandemic hit, most of his peers learned video editing, to allow them to start producing virtual shows.
“To have [a show] cancelled or to have to flip to a digital version is quite a lot of work and it can be quite a lot of risk,” he said.
“We've been doing this in addition to everything else. So what I really feel from a lot of people … is a strong amount of burnout.”
Rumble Theatre happened to be already exploring digital theatre pre-COVID-19. It managed to live stream a show right out of the gate, and continued with its 2019-2020 season online.
“It is ultimately good because it's forcing more multidisciplinary collaboration. … And the dissemination is so much wider,” he said.
Parasram acknowledged that it's quite a departure from how traditional theatre used to look.
“I don't know that it's the same art form anymore. And that's interesting to me.”
B.C. is approaching Stage 2 of its reopening plan as early as June 15, which will allow up to 50 people to gather for indoor events, including live theatre, with safety protocols in place.
Despite some loosening restrictions, Parasram, who moved to Vancouver from Toronto in 2018, suspects that theatre companies in both provinces will still favour outdoor venues — at least for now.
“Even just being in the same room, there's going to be a whole level of anxiety for some people who are there. And that level of anxiety is going to be hard to engage with the piece and things will be missed,” he said.
But he said that the arts can contribute greatly to “community wellness.”
“Relearning what it means to be in a space together, that's a big role that we can play.”
Headed back to Broadway
In March 2020, the Tony Award-winning Broadway musical Hadestown played for full houses eight times a week at Broadway's Walter Kerr Theatre, before COVID-19 shut it down.
One of the actors whose life was upended is Jewelle Blackman, who returned to Toronto, moved back in with her parents and turned to writing songs and plays to cope with the “trauma and distraught of theatre being gone.”
“I knew that, right now, I couldn't rely on the aspect of me performing to be what carried me through this pandemic,” she said.
She came up with a show called A Crack in the Wall, co-written with Evangelia Kambites, about love, loss and life during the pandemic. The duo will perform it for an audience of 10 people as part of The Musical Stage Company's Porchside Songs series.
It will be the first time Blackman will have sung live since last March. She said she is frustrated by how slowly theatre is recovering compared to other sectors.
Recently on a film set in Toronto, Blackman noticed a stark contrast between that environment and the performing arts.
“Every three days, they do a rapid test and you get your results pretty quickly. Before they yell, 'Shoot!', everybody still has their masks on. Everybody in the room. And then it's only the actors who take their masks off while shooting,” she explained.
But now that Broadway is back, Blackman will return to New York at the end of July in preparation for Hadestown's reopening on Sept. 2. She said she is looking forward to her first show.
“I don't know how long we'll all be crying, or yelling, or whatever. It's going to be a moment.”