Edmonton theatre in the time of COVID-19

COVID-19 is having a profound impact on Edmonton's theatres. // Image is free for re-use/re-mix. Made using files from https://www.scientificanimations.com / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0) and User:Booyabazooka / CC BY-SA (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)

As soon as the Government of Alberta cancelled all mass gatherings over 250 people on March 12, it spelled cancellation for theatrical productions across Edmonton. For theatres like the Citadel and Varscona, the COVID-19 pandemic means taking a huge financial hit, one impacting not only regular theatre staff but all of the artists they work with as well. But even amid the shutdown and uncertainty, theaters are looking for a way to bring art to Edmontonians and opportunities to artists. 

The Citadel Theatre was able to wrap its dress rehearsal for The Garneau Block—a play based on the novel of the same name by local author Todd Babiuk and developed by the Citadel—and Daryl Cloran, artistic director of the theatre, says no one has been on set since.

“After the dress rehearsal, we just walked away from the Maclab Theatre and locked the door,” he says. “So the set is still up, the costumes are still there; it’s ready to go when the ban is lifted.”

To support artists and keep theatre alive in Edmonton, the Citadel launched the Stuck-in-the-House Series on March 20 with an online performance from Oscar Derkx. He recently starred in the Citadel’s production of As You Like It, which had to be cut short, and in the video he performs The Beatles’ “Let It Be.”

“During the year, regularly we have our House Series, which is where we do our concerts and cabarets, and that sort of thing. And so we thought we could launch an online series called Stuck-in-the-House that gave artists, who were suffering because shows had been cancelled, an opportunity to both showcase some of the work that they had been working on and to keep creative and active—and to receive a small fee,” says Cloran. 

The idea originated with artists like Jann Arden and Chris Martin, who were posting video concerts from home, Chantelle Gosh, the Citadel’s executive director, elaborates in an email.

“I realized that the thing that all of us globally were going to be able to take comfort [from] in this was art.  That music, performance, visual art … those were things that were going to remind us of our collective humanity when we are required to physically separate ourselves from one another,” she writes.

The aim of the Stuck-in-the-House Series is to post a video for every day the theatre is dark and Corlan explains that thanks to the Edmonton Community Foundation (ECF), the Citadel is able to pay each artist a small honorarium.

“Through our partnership with the Edmonton Community Foundation, we got them to let us reallocate a grant towards this,” he says.

The Citadel is also accepting donations online, which go directly to the artists.

Gosh writes that so far the response to the videos has been “fantastic.” Some videos have been viewed more than 30,000 times by people watching them live or re-watching them, and the ECF has provided the project with more funding so it can continue longer than its organizers had planned.

“People are loving the intimate look at the lives of some of their favorite artists and the wonderful and unexpected pairings of the creative couples and families we have.  And the pets. Everyone loves the pets,” she adds in the email. 

As for future plans at the theatre, Cloran says though As You Like It was forced to end its run prematurely, the crew is hoping that ultimately all of the other performances scheduled for this season can simply be postponed. But all plans are tentative at this point.

“It’s a bit of a moving target right now,” Cloran says. “We’re making Plan B, but then we’re kind of going to have to make Plan C and Plan D.”

Without knowing when the ban on gathering will be lifted, Cloran can only guess at the overall impact the shutdown will have on the Citadel, but he says, “It’s a huge financial loss for us right now. It’s going to be in the millions.”

For her part, Gosh emphasizes the effect the current conditions are having on artists.

“The ban on gathering essentially became a ban on theatre artists’ and musicians’ ability to support themselves. In one day—theatres and artists lost the ability to earn any income,” she writes.

Gosh says that the Citadel wants to make sure that as a community, we are supporting those who make the art that we are relying on for comfort during the pandemic.

“We wanted to draw attention to the value and universal necessity of art—especially in times of struggle,” she adds.

If you’d like to support the Citadel Theatre, you can do so by keeping your ticket to an affected performance as a credit on your account, donating the refund from your ticket back to the theatre, or making a donation at citadeltheatre.com/support-us/donate.

Varscona Theatre also feeling the pinch

Since the ban on public gatherings, the Varscona Theatre has had to prematurely close Shadow Theatre’s production of Heisenberg, and cancel performances of the weekly improvised soap opera Die-Nasty. Kill Your Television’s production of In On It, by Daniel MacIvor, has also been cancelled, as has a May fundraiser for Ballet Edmonton.

Mat Busby, operations manager at the Varscona, says the theatre is closed for the foreseeable future and can’t say when it will reopen.

“We’ve had a few meetings where everybody puts forth what they would like to happen, but then if that doesn’t happen then it just doesn’t happen,” he says. “All of it’s very tentative because we have no control over when we’re going to be able to really perform.”

Busby adds that the theatre hopes to be able to resume programming at the end of June or early July with Teatro La Quindicina’s second show of the season.

“They would just do a three-show season and then Shadow Theatre would start up again in the fall,” he explains.

As for what the closure will mean for the theatre long term, Busby is apprehensive. The theatre’s building was finished a little over three years ago, and it was starting to pay off the debt it owed. It is currently looking for some forgiveness on some of the payments, Busby says. 

“It’s kind of a scary time,” he says. “We don’t have a huge margin of profit. I mean, we’re not-for-profit anyway, but we’re really hoping that some of these government programs will help us out.”

That being said, he’s confident the Varscona will make it through the pandemic, but he reiterates that it is a scary time. He also adds that the Varscona is working on delivering some kind of digital programming in the future.

If you’re interested in supporting the theatre during this time and already have tickets, contact the theatre companies about rebooking your ticket rather than requesting a refund. Alternatively, you can ask about receiving a tax receipt in return for converting the ticket price to a donation, or you can donate to the Varscona online.

Die-Nasty goes digital

The first to suffer a cancellation at the Varscona, the cast of Die-Nasty has not taken the disruption to its regular season sitting down … Well, I mean, okay. They are sitting down, but in front of their webcams while they continue to perform.

Since March 18, the cast has been continuing its regular season as an online radio play. Cast members record the episodes on Zoom and then post the videos to Youtube each week.

Cast member Stephanie Wolfe explains that the Die-Nasty season was building to a great finale when “we got hit in the head with COVID-19.”

Her fellow cast member Shannon Blanchet then came up with the idea of continuing the season online.

“When we realized that we couldn’t safely be in a room with our audience, many of whom are in an age bracket that is really at risk, we decided it was only responsible to shut down,” Blanchet says. “But we have fans—they’re the Die-Nasty DieHards—they come every week.”

Luckily, a number of the cast members have experience in radio and voice acting and so Die-Nasty had a way for the show to go on. 

Of course, all technology has its drawbacks.

“We’ve discovered a few things that we’re trying to troubleshoot,” Blanchet says.

Those include lag, especially when multiple people try to jump in on a scene, and issues with sound. Blanchet gives an example of something that happened during the first week: she wanted to sing a song and Paul Morgan Donald started playing guitar, but as soon as Blanchet started singing along, Donald’s music got pushed to the background.

“So I was playing to the memory of what Paul had played, while Paul’s playing to what he thinks I’m doing,” Blanchet explains.

But technical difficulties aside, the technology can also support some great moments.

“Stephanie’s dog walked into a scene in week one and somebody made a comment on it and now, spoiler alert, my character has become a werewolf,” Blanchet says.

“Yeah, so my dog’s a werewolf, who, when he’s not a dog, he’s played by Mark Meer, and he’s now infected Shannon,” Wolfe says. “So these little happy accidents propel our story forward and that’s the nature of the soap and we’re really happy that it can continue that way on this media.”

Wolfe says normally the Die-Nasty season would wrap at the end of May, but there’s no definite plans to wrap the online show.

“There’s so many unknowns right now; we’re just going to keep going with this,” she says. “It’s starting to pick up steam.”

Die-Nasty also participated in #CanadaPerforms on April 10 and several of the cast members have taken part in the Stuck-in-the-House Series. 

You can catch up with the radio play and follow along on YouTube and the Die-Nasty Facebook page.

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