The show must go online: Theatre in the age of COVID-19

Across the province, companies are transforming existing shows and creating new ones to bring onstage action to the internet
By David Rockne Corrigan - Published on May 14, 2020
Michael Wheeler is the Festival of Live Digital Art’s director of artistic research and an incoming assistant professor at Queen’s University’s Dan School of Drama and Music. (Photo courtesy of SpiderWebShow)



No Ontario theatre festival could’ve been ready for the COVID-19 pandemic and the lockdown and self-isolation measures it brought, but the Festival of Live Digital Art was readier than most. The festival — which seeks to answer the question “Who are the professional artists creating live digital performance today, and what are they up to?” — has been hosting online events since its inception in 2018. Now, faced with a provincewide ban on organized public events, the entirety of the festival, slated to run from June 10 to 13 at Kingston’s Isabel Bader Centre for the Performing Arts, will be “coming to you live from the internet.”

Executive producer Sarah Garton Stanley, who is also one of the founding members of SpiderWebShow, which organizes the festival, suggests that the decision fits with FOLDA’s core mandate. “Our mission has been trying to create theatre for the future,” she says.  “What happened with COVID-19 is that the future arrived unexpectedly early. Whether or not we were prepared for that future, we were already thinking in that way.”

A man filming in The Agenda studio

Our journalism depends on you.

You can count on TVO to cover the stories others don’t—to fill the gaps in the ever-changing media landscape. But we can’t do this without you.

This year’s programming features shows about the climate crisis and how humans are affecting the Earth. One performance pairs two strangers for a “virtual communion” over dinner. Talk to Me, a live radio play, will air on CFRC, Queen’s University’s campus radio station. May I Take Your Arm, which started as a series of audio-recorded walks through Toronto’s Cabbagetown neighbourhood in the shoes of blind performer Alex Bulmer and her sight guides, evolved into a theatre piece combining live performance, immersive sound, tactile installation, and audience interaction. Though an earlier iteration of the piece was staged in a production studio at FOLDA last year, it has been reimagined as a live online performance. The show, says Stanley, has taken on new meaning in the era of COVID-19: “To take someone’s arm means I could possibly die. [Bulmer] is looking at that central question of what it means for someone who is reliant on that touch, on taking someone else’s arm.”

While FOLDA’s schedule does include discussions and webinars, it is decidedly not an academic conference, says Michael Wheeler, the festival’s director of artistic research and an incoming assistant professor at Queen’s University’s Dan School of Drama and Music. “Our initial desire to create this festival was that we saw this huge influx of work, on a new medium — which we’ll call the internet — and we want to have an annual place where we could come together and see how it is changing performance,” he says. “Come to Kingston annually, and you'll see what's going on. Only now you don't even have to come to Kingston to do that.”

For the weeks leading up to the festival, organizers have scheduled educational programming, particularly for artists eager to keep their theatres alive during the pandemic. A “Livestream 101” webinar, held this week, looked at some of the software, hardware, and planning that goes into creating an online performance. Vijay Mathew, of Boston-based HowlRound Theatre Commons, remotely guided a group of about 35 through some examples of good livestreams and gave tips on managing multiple audio and visual elements on the fly. Livestreaming expertise, it turns out, is in high demand. Wheeler says his phone has been ringing constantly during the shutdown, with calls from people looking for advice on how to keep the proverbial stage lights on. “All of the sudden, this is the only thing you can do. A lot of people have turned their head toward us,” says Wheeler. “It is illegal to do theatre any other way — it’s actually illegal.”

Canada’s biggest theatre festival — the Stratford Festival — put its entire 2020 season on hold, “with a plan to revisit programming as soon as it is safe to gather in theatres.” In the meantime, the festival has been livestreaming recorded performances of past Shakespeare productions on its YouTube channel. The Shaw Festival, in Niagara-on-the-Lake, has similarly cancelled all performances until at least June 30. Smaller regional festivals, such as the Blyth Festival and the St. Lawrence Shakespeare Festival in Prescott, have cancelled their 2020 seasons altogether. 

Other theatre companies are doing their best to adapt. The 4th Line Theatre, an outdoor summer theatre festival in Millbrook that produces Canadian plays, has been presenting (via Zoom) weekly artist chats between the company’s artistic director Kim Blackwell and renowned Canadian theatre artists, such as Jillian Keiley and Judith Thompson. And at least one festival popped up overnight — literally. “That day hit me pretty hard,” says Toronto’s Nick Green of hearing the news on March 13 that the musical he had been rehearsing had been cancelled. “So I went for a walk, and when I returned, I had the idea to create this site, where me and other artists could share what we were working on.” That evening, Green created a Facebook post describing his plans; the next morning, he awoke to discover it had been shared 2,000 times within his personal network alone. 

The resulting website, the Social Distancing Festival, garnered 250,000 views within a week of its March 14 launch, and hundreds of submissions have come in from around the world. “I have an installation from Wuhan, China. I have pieces from Italy, Spain, and Australia. Word has spread through the dance communities in Africa, so I have been getting work from there, too,” he says. “We really are creating a resource of art — from around the world — that speaks to our time,” adds Green, who notes that the U.S. Library of Congress recently contacted him about including his website in its digital archives.

Green says he’s always been interested in finding new ways to embrace art: “For me, I think that the art that is most valuable is the art that connects you to shared human experiences. I've always been less interested in the traditions of how it’s presented and more about how it makes you feel.” But not everyone feels the same. For some, moving live theatre online violates a sacred tradition. “I think there will always be purists who have trouble with a shift like this,” says Adrienne Wong, FOLDA’s artistic director, who compares it to other forms of technological change, such as the typewriter. “Any time there's a tech shift, there are folks who don’t want to make the leap.”

However, artists who do embrace the online world can reap certain benefits. “Theatre is a social form. One of the things, for better or worse, that the internet is good at is connecting people,” she says. “I don't know if this is so much about bringing people to theatre as it is about bringing theatre to where people are.”

This is one in a series of stories about issues affecting eastern Ontario. It's brought to you with the assistance of Queen’s University.

Ontario Hubs are made possible by the Barry and Laurie Green Family Charitable Trust & Goldie Feldman.

Related tags:
Thinking of your experience with, how likely are you to recommend to a friend or colleague?
Not at all Likely
Extremely Likely

Most recent in Coronavirus