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Monica Prendergast

The state of the arts in Victoria during pandemic times

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I never imagined I would ever live through a time like this, a time when it is no longer possible to go to the theatre, or to an opera, dance or musical performance. The social nature of performance, it greatest strength, has now become a threat. Knowing this has happened before in the history of theatre (including during Shakespeare’s time in the early 17th century) provides little comfort. I am someone who has dedicated my life to serving the theatre as an actor, educator, researcher and reviewer. To have that gift of performance snatched away by this deadly disease is painful.

I find indeed that I am grieving for the theatre these days, heartened only by the amazing resilience of theatre artists and companies who have moved their work online. Of course, watching or listening to a play on my iPad is not the same as experiencing it in person, far from it, but to hear and see an audience responding to a live performance is proving to be therapeutic for me.

Here in Victoria, Intrepid Theatre has moved its UNO solo play festival online (https://intrepidtheatre.com/festivals/uno-fest/), playwright Janet Munsil has started an online Canadian playreading group (www.plaything.ca) and Atomic Vaudeville launched its first online cabaret performance in April (https://tinyurl.com/qs4p542). Theatre persists, as it has done over many centuries and millennia. And theatre will survive and revive, with the generous support of both governments and theatre lovers. Please consider donating to a local theatre of your choice to assist them in recovering from this crisis. We will meet again at the theatre, I know it.

This forum was initiated as a space in which artistic directors and producers in Victoria could share, both with readers and each other, how they and their companies are navigating through the current crisis. Posts in this first stage of the forum were written in response to the question: What is sustaining you and your organization and keeping you hopeful despite the current situation?

We invite readers to respond to these posts and to come back often to see updates. I will be asking these same company leaders to answer  more questions over the coming weeks. So come here to view updates and to participate in the conversations that we hope will unfold.

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hapax theatre is a small organization. We run all administration/producing/etc. with just 2 people and we rely heavily on the support of Victoria audiences and artists to keep us going. Currently our entire revenue stream (the only way we can produce theatre) is through ticket sales, which means we are concerned about how we move forward.

Our mandate is to provide opportunities to emerging Victoria-based artists and recently had built the teams for our entire season with extremely talented, enthusiastic young artists and we stand beside the commitment that we made to them. So, really, what's keeping us going is that promise. We know that when we are able to be together again, when we can celebrate our closeness and resilience as a community, we will fulfill the promise that we made to these artists and our community. Even though we have taken on an incredibly challenging season, especially for a young company, we were and are adamant that by announcing our season we promised to be here. We promised to present these beautiful works utilizing and showcasing the talented designers, stage managers, and directors that have generously offered to share their work with us.

Which is all a very long-winded way of saying that what keeps us going and keeps us hopeful is the trust that these young artists have put in us. We have to keep going and we have to keep hopeful for them. https://hapaxtheatre.com

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Dance Victoria’s current fiscal year ends June 30, 2020. We have cancelled two performances. The first (Ballet BC’s Romeo + Juliet) was cancelled the day before the first performance so we had incurred significant advance expenses associated with marketing and production. The second presentation was to occur May 1 and 2. We had not yet launched the full advertising campaign so the losses were much smaller.

Our studios closed and all classes from various tenants were cancelled indefinitely in mid-March. It currently sits empty. We continue to pay rent on the space with virtually no rental revenues.

Despite these dramatic and unforeseen pressures on the budget a few things are sustaining us:

1. An outpouring of support from ticket buyers that have elected to donate the cost of their unredeemed tickets for cancelled performances to Dance Victoria. This has been very gratifying and speaks to the incredible loyalty our community has to our organization.

2. A significant reduction in expenses on the presentation side.

3. A robust season prior to the cancellations. All presentations on our 2019/20 season sold well beyond budget targets.

4. The commitment of the administrative team and board. Lucky for us there have been no layoffs at Dance Victoria and we don’t anticipate any moving forward. Everyone is working from home but we have daily Zoom meetings. The Board mobilized very early and have made themselves available for meetings on very short notice.

Next season, however is another story. https://dancevictoria.com

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Blue Bridge Rep has had to face many challenges during the past dozen years. None as threatening as this, of course, and none that have so directly threatened the lives of those that we so love and were created to serve—our audiences and our artists.

BBRT has not had the ability to rely heavily on government sources to steer its way through choppy waters in the past, nor does it appear that it will be able to turn to these agencies in this current crisis. Instead it has had to rely on its donors and supporters. And it is to them that BBRT has been once again turning since it announced the suspension of its entire 4 play summer season last week. And the early responses of the more than 60 artists we employ, our donors and our audience has been, once again, incredibly open and generous.

What keeps us hopeful? The human spirit and the knowledge that BBRT in its short history has proven extraordinarily resilient in the face of crisis.

But we are also aware that we are a small part of a larger history where various forces have attempted to kill off the performing arts for over two millennia. They have not succeeded in the past and they will not succeed in the present nor the future. And the reason for this is simple. Human beings need to be in the presence of other human beings to witness the response of our great storytellers to their times.

And when this happens, Blue Bridge Rep will be back playing a vital role in our city by offering glimpses of how past generations have dealt with that most theatrical of words—catastrophe.

We will return, we will congregate and we will put this in perspective when we return. No virus nor any other force, no matter how tragic, can interrupt this inevitability.

Stay safe. Stay healthy. And we'll see you in the theatre. https://bluebridgetheatre.ca

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With regard to Theatre Inconnu—assuming our operating grants come through as per usual—our monthly expenses I believe will be met. Our next show is not scheduled till the fall, and I hope that things will have settled down by then and people will be safely able to congregate once more. In the past 35 years there have been a couple of times when unexpected turns have threatened to shut us down, but we kept on and I believe we we’ll weather this one as well. Thank for your commitment to the cause. http://www.theatreinconnu.com

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We at the Belfry Theatre have been incredibly buoyed by the outpouring of love and concern from our patrons, subscribers, artists, donors, volunteers and sponsors. The important role the Belfry plays in this community—and the national theatre community—has been expressed again and again. Such deep-rooted affection and esteem reminds me that the Belfry has been here for 45 years and—with the hard work of our amazing staff—it will weather this storm and continue. For another 45 at least! https://www.belfry.bc.ca

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When I look back, resilience in time of crisis does not seem like any special elasticity or strength. Continued survival of Theatre Inconnu during past periods of threat has grown from combined areas of support: individuals from the public who did not want to see something they valued disappear; local government arts representatives who spoke up and gave both solicited and unsolicited support; provincial politicians who were willing to sit down one on one and listen to history and tales of commitment.

Having weathered a few of these periods, I cannot see any formula or specific recipe for pre-planning that could have been applied. Crisis moments are each unique and there is no alternative but to meet them head-on and hope that enough goodwill has been generated to encourage allies to come forward. These allies are those mentioned above, and also include fellow artists, and the mutual empathy experienced by sister organizations.

Of course, not everyone survives these periods. I am amazed that Theatre Inconnu is still living on “borrowed time”—which I define as “standard time” for any arts group.

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This time has me recalling the Gaming cuts of 2008. The sense of crisis is similar. The alarming sensation of not knowing. The differences this time round include, of course, the fact that this is a health crisis with broad (world-wide) implications. When I consider the resilience our company developed then, I consider how it forced us to improve individual fundraising. This crisis has us considering new ways of delivering theatre to very small audiences at a time. As we go forward, we'll be keeping the health of our staff, artists, contractors and audience top of the priority list.

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Langham Court Theatre volunteers continue to sustain us. Our volunteer Board has moved to meeting every second week, which has been very supportive in these trying times.

We did a public reading of Silent Sky with the cast on April 5 on the Zoom platform. We had about 70 viewers and it was a wonderful reading. See this tribute to the cast: https://tinyurl.com/ycqjd8gv

We will be producing the two shows that were suspended due to COVID-19 next season, and beyond that we are waiting to make a revised season announcement in the coming months.

Related to the online presentation of Silent Sky: To go through the process of trying something new, something we hadn’t as a community theatre done before was an extremely positive experience. What we “remembered” was the essence of storytelling is at the core of every play and sometimes that is all that is needed, a wonderful story and someone to tell it and someone to hear it. Sometimes the most powerful experience is one that is simple, giving space to the relationships and connections and during this time we need to look for those in new places.

 

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Things go wrong. Actors faint in the middle of shows—dancers fall into orchestra pits—actress’s costumes get left at the dry cleaner’s. My years in the theatre—especially my early years as a Stage Manager—taught me to take a step back when things go wrong. Don’t try to solve it instantly. Take a couple of breaths. Think. The rational solution will present itself.

And now I am learning to take a step back in life. Watch the world unfold. Think. Be at peace with the fact that plans, all plans, of necessity, are fluid plans. This is not the way I have lived ‘til now.  I can be spontaneous and creative in rehearsal, but not in life. So in the midst of this global upheaval, there is an opportunity: learn to move through the world—by choice—open to the possibilities that are present in every moment.

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I'd be interested in updates--especially since the Big Three have had to cancel an entire season.

Thanks for curating this conversation.  Anne Moon

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Here is my next question for the performing arts companies leaders on this Forum: What are you learning about leadership in the wake of this crisis? What might you bring forward into your approach to leading your organization as a result?

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