Story by Jennifer Shea
Producers, actors, musicians and artists are welcoming back audiences with live performances and open arms.
Resilience and innovation were the watch words for the performing arts over the past two years. Instead of fear and stress, there was defiance and determination; instead of resignation, there was innovation. At the top of everyone’s agenda was the search for new ways of reaching out to loyal audiences – to entertain them as well as hold them close. These are the stories of how they not only survived, but thrived.
The Empire Theatre in Belleville has a reputation for attracting big name musical performers, but when the pandemic hit everything changed. In spite of restrictions, the shows went on. “We had major acts such as Downchild Blues Band and Gowan, who performed virtually,” says Andy Forgie, the Empire’s promotions manager. “We also had local acts who performed virtually in a series that we called ‘Music City Mondays.’ We had the opportunity to showcase local bands and artists.” The Empire looks forward to “raising the curtain for real,” as Andy puts it, and hosting live performers indoors – and outdoors for Empire Rockfest in July.
Although their live performances were replaced by digital ones during the early part of the pandemic, Westben Centre for Connection & Creativity through Music’s co-founder Donna Bennett says their audience engagement remained high with their “from away” audience doubling in size. “We’d always talked about having a bigger digital presence,” says Donna. “Then COVID said, ‘Do it or die.’” So they did it – and then some. Many ticket – holders donated to the “Sunshine Ahead” campaign which supported the free digital programming. Westben also built two new outdoor venues – the Willow Hill amphitheatre and the Campfire. A full summer program is planned, along with a three-week festival in the fall.
The seats in the Capitol Theatre in Port Hope have been mostly empty over the past two years. The upside is that the theatre was able to work on an expansion campaign. Patrons will now enjoy a larger gallery space in the lobby; and behind the scenes, there are new rehearsal, props, set and wardrobe facilities. Last summer the Capitol hosted a Tuesday evening outdoor music series, “Under the Marquee,” that was completely sold out. And for the future? According to artistic director Rob Kempson, “It’s a time of rebirth and growth. Moving forward, we’re really excited about all the new things. We’re responsible for something that is really important. It’s a cultural trust.”
Port Hope-based Ontario Street Theatre, with its pop-up performance model, was forced to stand down and wait out the pandemic, since their usual venues – restaurants and bars – were frequently closed. Founder Sean Carthew continued writing plays and acted as a host of the Capitol Theatre’s “Under the Marquee” in 2021. Sean will continue to scout shows of various genres to offer to Port Hope area residents and visitors.
While their curtains were down, Picton’s Regent Theatre held a year-long fundraising campaign that generated an amazing $160,000. Proceeds were used for structural repairs and upgrades to the decor. “We will have a fully art-deco, beautifully restored building that the County can be proud of,” says general manager Alexandra Seay. Accessibility upgrades are also planned. Although movie screenings are still the primary focus for the Regent, there will be some live performances. “It’s about building audience confidence in our choices curatorially, both on the film side and on the live event side and creating a total experience.”
The already-lean Tweed and Co. Theatre adapted its plans to offer virtual productions in 2020, followed by a flexible, innovative season (“online, outside, and beyond”) in 2021. “We think theatre shouldn’t just happen in the theatre. We want it to happen everywhere,” says artistic director Tim Porter. “Getting more local people involved in arts and culture is a big part of our company.” Tim is quick to emphasize the importance of partners in helping their company make it through the last two years: “We would not have survived without the support of local businesses and our local audience.”
River & Main Theatre Company in Belleville had just settled into their new Bridge Street East home – Theatre in the Wings – when COVID put everything on hold. When they finally opened, they presented two different plays. “We sold out all 16 shows,” says Peter Paylor, co-founder and technical director. “We proved our model is good and solid.” River & Main features not only theatrical productions, but also live music and comedy. The 40-seat theatre offers an intimate performance setting in a historical building.
This year marks season 31 for 4th Line Theatre in Millbrook. Managing artistic director Kim Blackwell says they tried “Everything from farmers’ markets to online readings to smaller shows in different venues over the last two years.” She says that the 4th Line team learned how to distribute their work digitally, to access new audiences globally and expand their concept of “what community means.” Their historical dramas are traditionally performed outdoors at the Winslow Farm, and there’s a buzz about returning to this in-person model. “That moment when an actor or group of actors are on stage performing and an audience is engaged and present, alive and having a symbiotic experience. I don’t know where else you can have that.”
Not having a permanent home beyond a small studio space provided some flexibility for the Festival Players of Prince Edward County during the pandemic, but a new model has evolved since. “Our partnership with The Eddie Hotel & Farm in Bloomfield was forged simply because we needed a space to play,” says Graham Abbey, artistic director. This largely outdoor venue has allowed an expansion of programming to include concerts, dance, and comedy. And they’ve been busy with new content creation, including “The Shape of Home,” an exploration of Al Purdy’s poetry through music. Its world premiere takes place at The Eddie in July. “It’s a real homage to the County and the region.”
A full season was in the wings for the Northumberland Players at the Firehall Theatre in Cobourg in 2020, and everything had to be bumped. With government support, the Players purchased equipment to move performances outdoors last summer and obtained 12 portable air scrubbers for indoor performance venues. They also moved into a new building with workshop and storage space and renovated the second floor of the Firehall. “Our approach recently has been to get a show ready and then keep our fingers crossed,” says Jack Boyagian, president. “What we’ve learned is that nothing is for certain, and if you wait for things to open, then you’re too late.”
This season marks the 71st year of operations for Belleville Theatre Guild, and it opened with the musical Mamma Mia!, originally slated to run in 2020. President Amy-Lyn VanLondersele admits the closure of the Playhouse for two years was daunting; ticket revenue is vital to their survival. Despite their Pinnacle Playhouse home being closed, Guild members found a way to stay connected with each other and their patrons. Fourteen virtual one-act play readings were staged online. “They turned into full productions,” says Amy-Lyn. “Instead of just reading from a script, we would have costumes and wigs and the whole thing.”
Two months before the opening of “Spring Awakening,” Prince Edward County’s Shatterbox Theatre was forced to cancel the production. The show finally went ahead at Macaulay Heritage Park in Picton. During the pandemic, Shatterbox cofounder and artistic director Georgia Papanicolaou did one-on-one workshopping with actors and writers in a dedicated studio space to create 30 YouTube videos through the “Speak It” series, where individuals communicated about mental health, education and social justice. “There’s nothing more thought-provoking than having people speak their minds and not being afraid to do it.” The pandemic has forced Shatterbox to think “how we can be a little more self-sustainable in the future.”
Old Church Theatre in Trenton had a reputation as the perfect hangout: wonderful acoustics and a comfortable bar. The pandemic forced a change in this model. “We resurfaced our gravelly, weedy parking lot with coloured concrete,” says Lesley Bonisteel, the Old Church’s co-owner, and they created a licensed patio with a wood-fired pizza oven. “Outside is where we’re going to be, even when COVID is behind us.” Being located in a country setting, crickets, birds, sunsets, and the odd tractor add ambience to the new outdoor performance space.
The Aron Theatre in Campbellford was able to survive an 18-month closure thanks to its committed membership. “People really have an emotional connection to the theatre and a sense of ownership,” says founding president and general manager Ron Christianson. The co-op members decided to move to e-commerce and e-pay systems to reach a broader audience. Beyond the Hollywood movie screenings, the theatre is offered for special events. “The most important thing is that whatever people come and do at the theatre, they’re enjoying it and getting entertained, forgetting about their troubles.”
The Stirling Festival Theatre took their work outdoors in the summer of 2021, hosting a drive-in musical show, a busker festival and an off-road comedy show for ATVs.
The Stirling Festival Theatre was stopped in its tracks in 2020, midway through the run of one of their spring productions. Undaunted, SFT took their work outdoors in the summer of 2021, hosting a drive-in musical show, a busker festival and an off-road comedy show for ATVs. “The key to survival is partnering whenever you can with different groups,” says artistic director Ken McDougall. “You make new friends.” The Christmas panto returned in 2021, with a video version for schools, and SFT patrons can expect more traditional programming to resume this year.
Port Hope’s three-day Cultivate Festival is returning in September 2022, after a two-year hiatus. This year, the event is moving to a new location – the 200-acre Haute Goat Farm north of Port Hope. “Our festival began as more of a food festival in 2015,” says Jeff Bray, festival director. “Over the years, the music was clearly the main attractor. We’ve always felt like we belonged on a farm. It matches who we are.” Haute Goat offers animals, walking trails, a mini golf course, and a café.
The common theme among theatre companies, arts organizations and performers has been the importance of community. Strong support has enabled these local organizations to regroup and move forward, with excitement and optimism for the 2022 season. The show will go on.