New Brunswick's theatres work to bring back live performances — possibly by year's end

·5 min read
Live theatre has come to a standstill under COVID-19 restrictions, but theatre operators in the province hope the 2021-2022 season will be a different story.
Live theatre has come to a standstill under COVID-19 restrictions, but theatre operators in the province hope the 2021-2022 season will be a different story.

(Brian Chisholm/CBC - image credit)

If the pandemic hadn't happened, Kim Rayworth would be busy getting ready for one of the biggest events of the year.

The managing director of Moncton's Capitol Theatre says right about now she and her staff would normally be in the midst of preparations for the Capitol's annual big-budget musical.

It would be weeks worth of rehearsals, stage design and technical setup for a show that has a budget approaching $300,000 and draws 10,000 ticket buyers to the theatre.

"Thanks for reminding me," Rayworth said with a chuckle after talking about the excitement of getting ready for a show like that. "I'll go mix myself a gin and tonic, now."

Instead, with the Moncton region just recently emerging from the red recovery phase, the Capitol has been cancelling and postponing show after show.

Back when the province was in the yellow phase, Rayworth could sell around 275 seats in the 783-seat venue. She hosted about 17 shows in the fall, taking advantage of the Atlantic bubble by using Atlantic Canadian talent.

Ian Bonnell/CBC
Ian Bonnell/CBC

But under the current orange restrictions, booking a show for an audience of 50 people just won't work, Rayworth said.

"It is really sad," she said, "There's a lot of emotion around the theatre business. We're very worried for the artists, for the technicians and for the management."

Rayworth said some artists and promoters have had shows rescheduled three or four times.

"This is the most challenging time."

'We've become very fluid'

"We've had 100-plus shows cancelled or postponed," said Angela Campbell, the executive director of the Imperial Theatre in Saint John.

But she and her staff are still planning for next season, mainly because they have little choice.

It's a business that works 12 to 18 months in advance.

Campbell said artists and promoters have simply taken the attitude that they'll need to adapt to the constant change.

Scott Munn/submitted by Imperial Theatre
Scott Munn/submitted by Imperial Theatre

"In a business that is used to every line in a contract being gospel, we've become very fluid," Campbell said with a laugh.

She is working on the assumption that the vaccination program will have progressed at the pace expected by health officials, and that by late fall, the theatre will be able to host shows again.

But that's just an assumption.

"That's the most exhausting part," Campbell said.

"All we can do is assume. I wish I had a crystal ball."

That would help in deciding who to book for the coming season. Will there be an Atlantic bubble soon? At what point will artists from Quebec, Ontario and points farther west be able to travel? And what about international acts?

Shane Fowler/CBC
Shane Fowler/CBC

These are all questions Campbell can't answer.

That leaves the people in this business often operating on faith, and sometimes that's not enough.

"Some big tours can't commit [to a booking] because they don't know if they're even going to exist next season," Campbell said.

It's something that worries Tim Yerxa, executive director of the Fredericton Playhouse.

"On the supply side [the pandemic] has been devastating," Yerxa said. "I would say there is a good number of artists that may not return [to the business], and companies that may not make it."

The Playhouse has been cancelling or postponing shows, moving many of them to later in the spring.

Shane Fowler/CBC
Shane Fowler/CBC

Yerxa's strategy is to do shows that can be done with a reduced capacity, with maximum seating at about 250, and with artists who call Atlantic Canada home.

He said everyone involved is taking a leap of faith, including the audience.

"We're asking people to buy tickets for a show that we couldn't even put on today."

It looks like ticket buyers are willing to take that chance.

Despite the rescheduling of dozens of shows, Yerxa said, about 90 per cent of ticket buyers have opted to keep their tickets, rather than request a refund.

Silver linings?

It's just one of a number of positives for theatre operators that have arisen out of this pandemic.

For Yerxa, the non-profit's annual fundraiser had a record year, with the community donating nearly $100,000.

Campbell discovered the audience had an appetite for performances streamed online, something the Imperial Theatre plans to expand in the future, and the Incubator program, which offered the theatre to local artists for workshops and other purposes, was a big success.

The Capitol's theatre academy ran online classes that were sold out through much of the pandemic.

And all three saw audiences grateful to be back for live shows last fall, even with limited seating and strict COVID-19 restrictions in place.

"I don't think I've had a more emotional two months," Campbell said, "People were leaving the theatre misty-eyed, smiling.

"We experienced the appetite of the audience."

Capitol Theatre/capitol.nb.ca
Capitol Theatre/capitol.nb.ca

"It was really emotional, just being there, quite remarkable to see" Yerxa said, "It's a deep human need to be with other people."

"People were so grateful to be at a live show," said Rayworth.

They're hopeful audiences will have the same hunger when live theatre returns, which they believe will be in the fall of this year or early in 2022.

Campbell said the next months will be like the last 30 minutes before curtain for theatre people — everything is in place, there's nothing left to do but wait, and those 30 minutes can seem to take forever.

"I say to my staff often, 'Won't it be great when we can just do things again.'"