Last week, on Monday morning, I sat down with my husband at our dining-room table, and he set up his iPad between a pile of mask-destined fabric and a half-completed jigsaw puzzle. We, along with about 500 other people — directors, dancers, actors, designers — then tuned into a virtual meeting held by the Stratford Festival.
The announcement from the artistic director and the general manager was what we’d been expecting: the entire 2020 season was on hold. (That’s a delicate way of saying cancelled, at least for now.) Even though we’d known the news was coming, their carefully chosen words still felt brutal.
This was set to be my husband’s 12th season as a sound designer at Stratford; he’d been contracted to work on three plays. But, instead of driving up and down the jam-packed 401 or staying at his sister’s house in town, he’s home with us in Toronto. I’m used to hearing musical refrains or the sounds of explosions and rain showers coming from his home studio, but it’s been quieter than usual: he’s sorting through tapes as he archives old sounds, working mainly with headphones.
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The closing of Stratford for the indefinite future is a huge creative and financial loss for our household.
It’s also a huge creative and financial loss for the other staff and creative-industry contract workers employed there and a gut punch for the town’s economy. Then there are the many other theatres, festivals, and other live events that will inevitably shutter — some of them permanently — across the province. (Mirvish Productions says it’ll start up again in January 2021. Toronto’s SummerWorks festival has “postponed” its August 2020 season. Other theatres will likely continue to extend their cancellation dates.)
But we all lose when there’s no theatre, live music, opera, or readings.
There will be no special night out to see Hamilton or Come From Away (you may have done handstands logistically and financially to get those tickets, but alas). No seeing your niece in the school production belting out “Let It Go.” No Shakespeare, not at Stratford or anywhere else. No symphonies, no concerts, no bands in clubs.
Who knows when it will be — or feel — safe to be part of an audience again. When you share a live experience with a group, you collectively respond to the energy onstage, and that, in turn, feeds the performance. Together, you hold up your lighters or phones for the power ballad. You gasp collectively at the height of the action.
Live theatre, in theory, derives its power from catharsis — Aristotle’s idea that the story onstage evokes something in us, purging us of powerful emotions. It’s something we do as a group, as a society.
Hey, I could use an emotional purge right now! Live art offers us fresh ways to see, understand, and process the world around us. Theatre transforms itself to address the issues of the day. You see that most obviously in a holiday pantomime, where half ad-libbed scripts riff off the daily news. A classic play in the hands of a talented team can tell that same familiar story and yet feel up-to-the-minute. Plays can take you around the world and connect the story of another place to the here and now. The new plays I’ve seen in recent years have explored science denial, the refugee crisis, gender-based violence, war, identity.
Clearly, the world has changed, and we all have much to process. Art helps us do that, but creative people are working with one hand tied behind their backs. Yes, from my laptop I can hear the Toronto Symphony Orchestra play a concerto and, via the National Arts Centre web site, see playwrights and authors do readings. This content may provide some sustenance for the art-starved, but it’s not quite the same.
As Stratford artistic director Antoni Cimolino told everyone during that meeting, theatre is likely going to be the last thing to reopen. Live art is pandemic-unfriendly on many levels. Actors onstage fight, hug, dance, and kiss. I am not sure I would like to see a production of Romeo and Juliet bound by the rules of social distancing. (Well, the balcony scene might work. Then, after that, not so much.) And, when actors talk loudly enough for the back row to hear, they spit. In fact, they speak so very moistly that Stratford performers did a video about it. (My husband attests that, when the lighting gets added during rehearsals, you can suddenly see the droplets fly.)
Audience sit in close proximity, for an hour or more, in houses with hundreds of others (Stratford’s smallest theatre has 260 seats). In the lobby, patrons are crammed together before and after the show. Women inevitably end up in squished bathroom lineups.
There’s talk of Ontario “opening back up” in the coming months, but you can expect live events to be in the final stages or to return only in a post-vaccine world. Some smaller venues might try limited-audience shows using small groups of performers that make no physical contact. Considering the slim-to-non-existent profit margins in the performing arts — and what months-long closures have already done to their budgets — this will not be a sustainable approach.
The people who give you live art are often precariously employed. They work long hours and make relatively low pay, and now they’re surviving on even less. Actors marry musicians, directors marry dancers, so many arts families have no one in the house with a paying job now.
Yet they’re keeping busy. My husband has his archiving project. He’s making field recordings; last week, he made a video about sound design, something he’s never done before. Other performance-related creative people will probably be similarly productive and likely do projects for little or no pay. When the world changes again, they’ll be ready with new productions and big ideas. We the audience members have our part to play, too: champion and advocate for the live arts while they’re on pause, and clamber excitedly into our seats when they return again.
Ontario Hubs are made possible by the Barry and Laurie Green Family Charitable Trust & Goldie Feldman.