The traditional entertainment business adage ‘The show must go on’ is being severely challenged by the COVID-19 pandemic in the Central Okanagan.
Since the B.C. economy shutdown first took hold in mid-March, live theatre music, dance and stage production have been sidelined, with much uncertainty even as the provincial government begins to reopen the economy.
It has placed the arts community in a precarious financial position, raising questions about what the immediate future of live theatre will be as it is likely not coming back on stream until the fall of 2021 at the earliest.
Last week, Kelowna Actor Studio artistic managing director Randy Leslie issued a news release announcing the cancellation of his theatre group’s final three planned shows of the 2019-20 season – Deathtrap, Gypsy and Grease.
“Cancellations and closures due to COVID-19 have had a catastrophic impact on the Canadian arts sector….Dance companies have been forced to cancel their full seasons along with so many others,” Leslie said.
“We, like many, have been forced to make some heartbreaking decisions in order to survive.”
Among those decisions was the closure of the WorkRoom, where Kelowna Tickets/production offices/workshops and the KAS black box theatre resided.
“We have downsized, we will not disappear. We have been part of Kelowna’s cultural scene for 18 years and we want to be around for the next 18.”
Nathal Flavel, the co-owner of Kelowna Actors Studio, said two recent events hit home for him regarding the financial implications of the COVID-19 slowdown – the famed Broadway theatre row in New York City shutting down and the bankruptcy proceedings against the Cirque du Soleil.
“Broadway has never shut down since the Second World War, and now it won’t be back likely until next year,” Flavel said.
“Cirque du Soleil has always been a bit iffy on finances, but that organization like most arts groups is run on emotion and art, not necessarily strong business acumen, but rather about cultural impact. But it was terrifying to see that happen.”
Flavel said the numbers don’t work to produce stage productions at Kelowna Community Theatre, which can seat 853 people, and only be allowed a 50-person audience limit.
“Unfortunately, we also have to pay in advance for rights to shows like Peter Pan, Gypsy and Grease, and we don’t get that money back. So we are talking six figures that just sits there like a paid deposit, a lease agreement that we may or may not be able to use for staging a production in the future,” he said.
Flavel noted even extending credits for tickets already paid for the now-cancelled performances will create another problem when those tickets absorb potential future revenue.
“We are very fortunate that people who have already bought tickets have been very supportive. They have not asked for their money back, or in some cases told us to treat it like a donation,” he said.
Bonnie Gratz, artistic director of the New Vintage Theatre, says there is some frustration across the theatre community about allowing restaurants and pubs to open, but for stage theatres to remain closed.
“When we talk about determining what is safe to reopen, the arts are not figuring prominently in that conversation at this point, ” Gratz said.
“The inconsistencies are frustrating but at the same time, we want to make sure our community stays safe and not do anything to jeopardize that. We take our leadership from Dr. Henry and listen to everything she says.”
Gratz said her theatre company dabbled in the potential reality of filming and streaming play productions in the absence of stage theatres being reopened.
Vintage had the production of Pink Unicorn filmed by the Okanagan Society of Independent Filmmakers and saw widespread feedback to online viewing.
“It was exciting to see the reaction from around the world. People in China, Taiwan, New Zealand responded to it. We even got written up in the Globe and Mail newspaper,” she said.
But filming plays watched at home doesn’t offer the same experience of seeing live theatre with a theatre audience, admits Gratz.
“Digital is not ideal. I prefer that our productions would be live in the theatre but I guess at this point we have to try new ideas to adapt and learn new skills,” she said.
Vintage will also present the play Leaps And Bounds July 22 to 26 at the smaller Black Box Theatre, audiences limited to 20 people in a 125-seat capacity theatre, and stage street theatre presentations of the play at various outside venues, pending approval of a grant to help cover the cost.
Christine McWillis, City if Kelowna cultural services manager, acknowledges those sentiments of seeking live theatre presentations.
She recalls an Okanagan Symphony concert performance last spring of the Queen classic song Bohemian Rhapsody which included an accompanying rock band and choir.
“It gave me goosebumps sitting in the audience and seeing that performance. I don’t know if I saw it online that I would have that same emotional reaction,” McWillis said.
She said the Kelowna Community Theatre is also a victim of the COVID-19 shut down, as its normal booking run of 250 shows a year ended back in March.
The theatre remains closed with no reopening date in sight, the theatre employees either redeployed to other city jobs or laid off.
“Those 250 bookings suddenly went to zero. We are not likely to see the start of those numbers return before sometime around the fall of 2021,” she said.
She said a capital project to install a new sound system was included in the 2020 budget and will proceed this summer despite the closure.
“Like all public facilities, we are all trying to work together to figure out what reopening is going to look like, what health precautions will be needed, how restricted seating will be for audiences,” she said.
McWillis sympathizes with the financial implications facing groups like Actors Studio, Kelowna Ballet and the Okanagan Symphony, saying Kelowna has always been a great supporter of the arts and “I hope to see us come together and continue to find a way to support the arts going forward.”