Stage Door Review

2020: The Year in Review

Thursday, December 31, 2020

For theatre lovers 2020 will go down as the first year in living memory that theatres across the globe closed their doors because of a world-wide disaster. Even without a pandemic 2020 was a sad year since Canada lost such a high number of performers who had given us so much joy during their careers. The deaths of such irreplaceable artists as actors Mary Haney, David Schurmann, Shirley Douglas, Victor A. Young, actor/singer Brent Carver, blues singer Salome Bey, playwright Daniel David Moses and soprano Erin Wall all in one year created unrelievable heartache in the worlds of theatre and music in Canada.

Meanwhile the advent of Covid-19 has had the grim effect of separating human activities into what is essential and what is non-essential. When mere survival becomes a priority in itself, activities that one might have considered essential such as gathering with friends, much less gathering with strangers for live entertainment, become viewed not just as non-essential but dangerous. Much to their chagrin, performing arts organization that have liked to consider themselves essential to the cultural life of the community have found that they are near the bottom of the list of what people need simply to survive.

Some performing arts organizations have thought that they can continue presenting live theatre by pivoting (to use the annoying mot du jour) to other media such as video or podcasts. What they seem to ignore is that in producing videos or podcasts they are no longer producing live theatre even if these alternate media are livestreamed. Live theatre is a communal activity where performers and audience share without mediation the same space and time. Once theatre is recorded or even livestreamed it becomes an isolated experience mediated by the act of recording itself. The shared energy of live theatre that gives both performers and audiences the high they cherish vanishes once its immediacy is gone.

From its founding in 1994 Stage Door has always tried to emphasize that great theatre occurs all over Ontario, not just in Toronto. Thus when Toronto was placed under lockdown, we travelled to the communities that were not under lockdown and where live theatre was still thriving. In these travels we uncovered three models of determination and invention that found ways to present live theatre while still obeying the Covid safety procedures mandated by the Province.

One of these was the insistence of internationally acclaimed Canadian magician Greg Frewin in presenting his spectacular show Wild Magic in Niagara Falls until December 26 when a general lockdown was imposed on all of Ontario. Greg Frewin’s theatre seats 700, but Frewin was willing to present his show filled with large-scale illusion for an audience of only 50 seated following physical distancing guidelines. This clearly demonstrated that Frewin had a desire to perform, keep his troupe employed and provide Ontarians with a first-class entertainment that overrode any desire to make a profit.

In Stratford two different companies made sure that live theatre would take place in the city even after the Stratford Festival cancelled its entire 2020 season. Rebecca Northan and her troupe were slated to perform her show Undiscovered Shakespeare at the Festival wherein the cast would improvise a Shakespearean play based on the life story of an audience member. When the season was cancelled Northan, undeterred, dubbed her troupe Spontaneous Theatre. Before the Huron-Perth Public Heath (HPPH) allowed 50 people to gather outdoors, Spontaneous Theatre took advantage of HPPH’s drive-in rules and performed Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet for a maximum of ten cars in a car park at the Bruce Hotel in Stratford. This four-person production became the most inventive version of Shakespeare’s play I have ever seen and relocating the action to present-day Stratford gave the action powerful resonance about two young lovers who can only be fully united in death.

Once HPPH allowed 50 people to gather outdoors, another local company, Here For Now Theatre whose Artistic Director was Fiona Mongillo, was ready not just with a single play but with an entire six-play festival performed outdoors on the back lawn of the Bruce Hotel, a location that thus became the de facto centre for live theatre in Stratford this summer. The kind of inventiveness and willingness for these three companies to perform despite Covid health restrictions and necessarily small audiences showed the sort of spirit and expectations that other companies will need in the rest of Ontario once restrictions, one hopes, ease again sufficiently to allow at least 50 people to gather.

Before Covid reached Canada and before I left on two months of travelling (not knowing it might be my last excursion for the foreseeable future),  I was very grateful to see Rick Miller’s magical Jungle Book on tour in Guelph, Groundling Theatre Company and Crow’s Theatre’s exciting production  of Julius Caesar  and Canadian Stage and Studio 180’s vital production of Sweat in Toronto. In the few months in the summer when Toronto allowed outdoor gathering of 50 people, I was delighted by Kaleb Alexander’s performance in Wajdi Mouawad’s Alphonse in Dufferin Park. Strangely, this Theaturtle and Shakespeare in Action production was the only one to take advantage of these relaxed restrictions.

Once I had to look farther afield for live theatre, Theatre Kingston supplied an urgently relevant production of Jeff Stetson’s 1987 play The Meeting contrasting the philosophies of Malcom X and Martin Luther King, Jr. Later on in Kingston the ad hoc Little Prince Company presented a delightfully imaginative production of director Anne Marie Mortensen’s new stage adaptation of Saint Exupéry’s The Little Prince.

The always surprising Talk Is Free Theatre in Barrie presented Beau Dixon’s gripping solo show Beneath Springhill about an African-Canadian hero who deserves to be much better known. And the Burlington Performing Arts Centre, one of the few PACs to remain open when 50 people were allowed to gather indoors, presented Tom Allen’s well-conceived and performed A Poe Cabaret that original debuted at Luminato. Since I must depend on the kindness of those who drive, I was unable to see, among others, outdoor festivals in Peterborough, Kitchener and Huntsville, an outdoor play in Millbrook and an indoor play in Sudbury.

What all this activity outside of heavily restricted areas proved was that live theatre had not died as Torontocentric theatre lovers may have thought, but that it was alive and flourishing while theatres were closed in the metropolis. Greg Frewin Theatre, Spontaneous Theatre and Here for Now Theatre demonstrate that with enough ingenuity and willingness to perform for smaller audiences, live theatre can return to Toronto. This path, rather than providing more streaming content when there is already an overabundance of it, shows that there is hope for the future.

Christopher Hoile

Note: This review is a Stage Door exclusive.

Photo: Ijeoma Emesowum, Bruce Horak, Rebecca Northan and Kevin Kruchkywich in Romeo and Juliet, © 2020  Tristan Yurry; Greg Frewin in Wild Magic, © Greg Frewin; Fiona Mongillo in Whack!, part of the Here For Now Open-Air Theatre Festival 2020, © 2020 Here For Now Theatre.