Can Vancouver’s theater community recover from COVID-19?

The Arts Club Theater production of Noises Off is set to open February 15. But are audiences ready to get back to the show after two long years of COVID?

It was February 2020 when Colleen Winton stood with her castmates and said “Curtain” to bring the Arts Club Theater show series Noises off to an end.

Little did she know it would take her two years to set foot on stage again.

Now, opening night is almost upon her. The revival of the Arts Club production will run from February 15-27 at the Massey Theater – marking the biggest show of the season not just in New Westminster, but on the wider Vancouver theater scene.

For the team behind the production, it’s a do or die time.

“It’s now or never,” said Jessica Schneider, the theater’s executive director. “Showing up sends a message to the arts community that people want these great fun things to start again.”

Talk to Registration less than two weeks before opening night, Schneider felt “cautiously concerned” about ticket sales.

She faces the stark reality of the arts world in 2022: there is no rosy future unless audiences are ready to return.

“Companies aren’t going to do great shows anymore if they don’t sell tickets,” Schneider pointed out.

The success of this Noises off The race could very well influence the decisions of Vancouver theater companies as they plan for 2022/23.

“Right now the world of arts leadership kind of looks at itself and says, ‘Should I just take time off next year? says Schneider. “Everyone is very dependent on ticket sales. There is no professional arts organization that does not depend on ticket sales; such as significant ticket sales.

She pointed out that a show on the scale of Noises off – with its large professional cast and extravagant rotating set – wouldn’t even be on stage right now if it weren’t for a comeback, because no theater company could afford to take the financial risk of a production at such a high price. large scale.

The only reason it’s a tryout right now is because Schneider spoke to the Arts Club in 2020 about possibly tidying up the show’s trappings with a view to bringing it to Massey this fall.

It was not meant to happen.

Two years of challenge

The arts sector has taken a beating since March 2020, when productions across the country abruptly ceased in the face of the novel coronavirus.

“I think our audience doesn’t really understand what we’re dealing with,” Schneider said.

As the COVID-19 pandemic has risen and fallen in relentless waves, producers and artists have faced an ever-changing series of public health orders.

Theaters have been closed. They were limited to an audience of 50 people. They have faced, and continue to face, cancellation of show after show as touring artists cut back on travel – a particular challenge for the Massey, which relies heavily on touring shows.

“We’re kind of stuck in a place where a lot of events won’t even necessarily engage. They’re about to be announced at any moment, and the right time to announce them doesn’t quite seem to appear,” Schneider said.

Under current public health restrictions, theaters in British Columbia can perform shows at 50% capacity – which, in the 1,260-seat Massey Theater, still offers the potential for large audiences.

But those audiences did not return.

“We lack this essential connection with the public. Nothing matters if the audience isn’t there. We know that’s what the public needs to do, but it’s like everyone’s been waiting for that cue to be like, “Go back; start acting normal,” Schneider said.

“These people who know in their hearts that it is good and that others must come too? We need this grassroots encouragement to continue, from this art lover, theater lover, music lover.

Secure spaces

Schneider knows it’s not easy. She knows people have been cautious over the past two years and there is still a lot of anxiety about being in crowds, especially for those with vulnerable people in their lives.

But she hopes people who can’t or won’t go to the show themselves will still help spread the word – or take advantage of Massey’s half-price ticket offer to buy tickets for frontline workers or artists in their lives.

For those still hesitant to go, Schneider offers a message: “I think it’s time to have fun again, and the theater is a pretty safe place to do that.”

She points out that there has been no evidence of transmission of COVID between performers and audience members, or among audience members, during live theater productions.

Winton also notes how seriously artists take COVID safety. The cast adheres to strict health protocols, including regular rapid tests and masking during rehearsals. Without a stunt double, they all know that having a sick actor means the show wouldn’t continue.

“We take it very seriously that we want the public to be able to come and see this show,” she said.

Schneider and the Massey team are determined to keep this production as safe as humanly possible.

Ticket sales are currently capped at 50% capacity, and Schneider says that won’t change even if health restrictions are eased in the next two weeks. Many shows will have even smaller audiences than that, and ticket sales are held to allow space between parties.

Vaccination passports are required for entry and masks must be worn throughout the facility – except in the special lounge which has been set up in Studio 1C (aka the former small gymnasium in the Massey Wing of the NWSS) . This room will be licensed for the occasion, with separate seating areas scattered throughout the 4,000 square foot space.

Those who feel comfortable with the idea will be able to enjoy their glass of wine before the show and socialize with friends, just like in the pre-COVID era. Those who don’t can enter the theater directly and be seated.

“Sitting still, facing forward, with a mask on – I think that’s safer than a restaurant,” Schneider said.

Those still worried about sitting around other people can sit on the balcony, which will remain open but mostly unsold.

“You can go to the upper corner; there won’t be anyone else around,” Schneider said.

“A great loud and exuberant show”

Just as the theater needs its audience, says Winton, the audience also needs the theatre.

As for the actor, Noises off is the perfect show for the audience here, right now. If laughter is an antidote to the gloom of daily headlines, then there’s no better piece than Michael Frayn’s acclaimed comedy – often hailed as the funniest farce ever written.

“The set is huge; there is plenty of action. This show will fit right into the Massey – it’s a big, loud, rambunctious show, and the Massey is a great place to play,” she said. “This living room needs a lot of space, and the Massey will be perfect for that.”

Schneider hopes audiences will take the chance to experience live theater after two years in their living room.

“It’s a totally different Netflix experience, even a great Netflix show, because the energy and the skills of the actors – they have to be absolutely on point, and alive, and super-super-talented to pull it off. The simple to fully witness their talents and hear a whole bunch of other people laughing at the same time is a good feeling, it really is,” she said.

“You just feel like you’re all friends at the end of the night and you had a great time together.”

“I just can’t wait to hear people laugh again”

Winton, too, embraces the sense of connection that live theater creates.

“I just can’t wait to hear people laugh again,” she says. “The magical sound of a laughing baby – that’s what it’s like to hear an audience laugh.”

For an actor, she says, that sound sends the message that you’ve had an impact on someone’s life: that you’ve contributed to their well-being and mental health.

“For me, it’s the feeling of being in service. When all of this happened, that’s what I missed the most. I missed the feeling of being of service to other human beings. That’s what I think we do as artists, all artists; we help define the human condition. We are storytellers for each other.

“All this time, my God, haven’t we all been glued to our Netflix, Crave, all the streaming services, because we need to hear stories?

“But there’s nothing better than being in a room with other people, having that story told live.”

Get your tickets now

Tickets for the show are a regular cost of $75, $55 for seniors and students; the preview price for February 15 is $45/$35. Call the box office at 604-521-5050 or buy online.

Follow Julie MacLellan on Twitter @juliemaclellan.
Email Julie, [email protected]

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