How performance companies are keeping traditions alive and creating new ways to put on a show
Live theatre, like all performance arts, has had to adapt to the innumerable setbacks presented by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Nearly eight months after the initial lockdown in March, many in the industry have found creative ways to continue performing and exploring how theatre can continue in a post-COVID-19 world.
Many performances have been postponed indefinitely or outright cancelled throughout the pandemic, including Mirvish Productions in Toronto, which has paused performances of Come From Away and cancelled or postponed the rest of its season. Other companies, such as Factory Theatre, have moved to an entirely virtual model.
“Planning a virtual season, to me, was a no-brainer,” said Nina Lee Aquino, artistic director of Factory Theatre. “If people can’t come to the theatre and see and listen to our stories, then it was logical for me to creatively think of ways to get the stories to them.”
The result is what Factory Theatre has dubbed its “satellite season,” three different theatrical projects that each take a slightly different approach to the limitations on live performances. The first production, An Act of Faith, is a one-person show performed live over Zoom and written specifically for the satellite season. The next project is called You Can’t Get There from Here, a series of pre-recorded audio plays that will be released podcast style over five weeks starting in March 2021. The last project is a production of Through The Eyes, reimagined for livestream performances in the spring of 2021.
“If there was going to be a season to take risks and play, then this is the season,” said Lee Aquino.
Factory Theatre isn’t alone in exploring different ways to approach virtual performances.
“There’s such a spectrum of what’s going on,” said Kerry Hishon, a freelance theatre artist based in London, Ont., and a director with the Original Kids Theatre Company (OKTC).
OKTC is a non-profit after school program for young people in London, Ont., which has chosen to offer a full season of pre-recorded video shows to be broadcast online, since they are no longer able to hold in-person shows.
This fall, Hishon directed one of OKTC’s virtual shows, a production of She Kills Monsters that was specially adapted by playwright Qui Nguyen to be performed on video call apps such as Zoom.
But these new performance models come with their own challenges.
“My cast of She Kills Monsters and I would joke about doing technology bingo, because everything that could possibly go wrong went wrong,” Hishon said. “People’s internet would crap out, their cameras would go off, or the sound would go out.”
These technological challenges are part of why OKTC ultimately chose to pre-record their shows for the 2020-2021 season, according to Joe Recchia, the company’s production manager.
“During the beginning of the pandemic we did three or four online shows that were just sort of off the cuff while we were trying to figure out what we were doing,” Recchia said. “Three of the four were pre-recorded, and then one was a mix of pre-recorded and live which is very difficult.”
Beyond the technical difficulties, there are still significant differences to the nature of the performance.
“There’s such a disconnect, working through a screen,” Hishon said. “The in-person exchange of energy, we’re really missing out on that connection, the real human connection.”
After all, she said, simple things like being able to look someone in the eye, or feeling an audience in the room, can help actors feed off each other, and changes the performance.
Richard Rose, artistic director of Tarragon Theatre in Toronto, said that pre-recorded performances lack the simultaneous nature of live theatre.
“You want to capture that feeling of simultaneity of time,” Rose said, adding that performances that are live-streamed are “similar to theatre in that it’s the kind of liveness that makes it most attractive. When it’s recorded, it’s less attractive.”
When the pandemic began, Rose said he sent out a letter to all the Tarragon Theatre subscribers saying he didn’t know what to do. He asked the patrons of the Tarragon what they wanted, what they were comfortable with and how the Tarragon should go about its next season. The responses varied on conditions such as vaccines and social distancing in order to put shows back on, but Rose said the common thread in the responses was, “I don’t know what you’re doing, but can you do something? Can you give us something in theatre?”
Tarragon Theatre’s solution was Tarragon Acoustic, a series of podcast-style audio plays the company had made using plays from past, present and future seasons. Rose said the company is also exploring ways to incorporate livestream performances into their online repertoire for spring 2021.
But eventually, Rose wants to return to the normalcy of doing live shows because for him, it’s just not theatre.
“It came from a play. There’s a lot of similarities in approaches we’re doing, but it’s not theatre,” he said. “It’s of its own art form.”
When in-person theatre can return it will be like a sigh of relief, Rose said, and he hopes there will be a newfound interest and excitement in the theatre after going without live performances for so long.
Lee Aquino of Factory Theatre also said that her main priority when everything is said and done is to get back to live theatre, but she thinks that there will still be room for more exploration of different forms of theatre post-COVID-19.
“I’m a theatre director. I’m a theatre artist, and I know what my kind of theatre is,” Lee Aquino said, adding that she thinks, “it’s worthy to explore all kinds of ways to tell a good story.”
Factory Theatre has been able to offer this year’s season for free due to the financial support from TD Bank and other foundations that have donated to the company, Lee Aquino said, and she recognizes the privilege that allows her company to explore these new ways of producing their art.
“Our sector was the first to close when COVID hit, and we will probably most likely be the last to open when everything is all better,” she said.
“For artists and for theatre companies, the mid-size to small theatre companies especially, our recovery process is going to be brutal, it’s going to be slow, and we’re going to need all the help and support that we can get.”
Rose said that Tarragon has had to cut its budget by two-thirds, which has involved reducing the number of productions, reducing staff and only paying writers so they can continue to invest in new Canadian theatre.
Recchia of OKTC also serves as publicity director for Musical Theatre Productions, another company in London that relies on ticket sales. Its big fundraising focus is to help the company stay afloat throughout the season via a new virtual show called Quarantine Story, which uses musical theatre to examine life and relationships during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We rely on ticket sales and fundraising events and things like that to be able to keep our organization going,” Recchia said, but, “all of those things are kind of not available to us as they were before.”
Lee Aquino, however, remains optimistic.
“Make no mistake, the foundation of theatre, that’s not ever going to change. It hasn’t changed in a bajillion years,” she said.
“Theatre has survived so many other plagues in the past, with the coming of radio, with the coming of TV, the coming of cinema and especially with the coming of Netflix, and we are still here right? And we’re still here for a reason.”