Local theatre companies face tough curtain call thanks to COVID-19

The pandemic has some arts organizations rewriting the script.

Credit: Courtesy of Arts Club Theatre Co.

The Arts Club says so long, farewell to live productions (for now)

The pandemic has some arts organizations rewriting the script

As pandemic precautions make isolation the new normal, the spotlight shines hot on businesses that generate revenue from bringing people together. The Arts Club, Canada’s largest nonprofit theatre company, has cancelled or postponed seven productions since March. Based in Vancouver and touring B.C., those shows would have pulled in about $3 million in ticket sales.

“Eighty percent of our budget is earned revenue—ticket and bar sales—so the fact that we can’t do shows is incredibly problematic to our books,” says artistic director Ashlie Corcoran. Although the Arts Club is a not-for-profit charity, only 7 percent of its funding comes from all three levels of government.

B.C. has started easing some COVID-related restrictions, but there’s no end in sight for the ban on large public gatherings. For now, the Arts Club is mobilizing in other ways: it’s directed the wardrobe department to sew personal protective equipment, moved two education programs online and donated its theatre spaces as distance-friendly environments where media can view coronavirus innovations. The company has also launched the Chrysalis campaign, which will see board members and donors match up to $100,000 to support its re-emergence.

Another, smaller Vancouver theatre group found itself facing different problems mid-March. Upintheair Theatre had funding for the summer but no way to present its Revolver festival live and in-person. “A lot of pre-existing theatre was just being put into the container of online streaming,” says co–artistic producer Dave Mott. “We thought, That art was not intended for this medium.”

Rather than go ahead with Revolver, which had been in the works since last October, the folks at Upintheair decided to pay the artists for the work they’d already done, save them a spot in next year’s fest and use the remaining funds for a new project: Evolver, a live digital performance art festival. Evolver premieres in late June, both online and from a safe distance. Show creators will receive a commissioning and performance fee of no less than $1,000.

“All bets are off, everything has changed, and we recognize the world has shifted—let’s give these artists an opportunity,” says Davey Calderon, who is curating Evolver with Kayleigh Sandomirsky.

Looking toward the fall, companies like the Vancouver Fringe Theatre Society (which usually presents the Fringe Festival in September) are crossing their fingers. Rohit Chokhani stepped into the role of executive director in April; though the transition has been challenging, he has nearly a decade of experience in the Fringe community and a team of staff to support him.

“It feels like we are heading into a new normal of socializing and experiencing live events—only time will tell what’s in store for us,” Chokhani says. “Amid this anxiety and uncertainty, we believe in the resilience of our performing arts community and the human spirit at large.”