Nothing to see here – Winnipeg Free Press

Posted By on March 21, 2020

Concerts have been cancelled. Theatre productions have been suspended. Museums and galleries are dark. Venues are facing uncertain futures.

As the world shuts down amid the global COVID-19 pandemic, Winnipegs arts and culture scene is taking a huge and immediate hit, with aftershocks yet to be felt. From the theatre to the symphony, from the opera to the rock clubs, the closures and cancellations are casting a shadow on one of our citys most vibrant sectors.

Here, Free Press arts reporters take a look at the immediate impact the virus is having on arts organizations in town, and how they are navigating unprecedented waters.

For Kelly Thornton, the newly minted artistic director of the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre, things got real on March 12.

Rehearsals were underway for the cast and crew of the mainstage show A Thousand Splendid Suns. While the threat of cancellation hung like a glycol fog over the production, two of the actors, Deena Aziz and Anita Mujumdar, did a phone interview with the Free Press that day, extolling the beauty and pertinence of the theatrical adaptation of Khaled Hosseinis novel about two women and their unlikely alliance in war-ravaged Kabul under the heel of the Taliban.

The first intimation of the shows ultimate fate came from Edmonton, where RMTCs Beatles-laced Shakespeare adaptation, As You Like It, was summarily pulled from the stage at the Citadel Theatre in response to the pandemic crisis that was inexorably creeping across the country.

Rehearsals were underway for the cast and crew of the RMTC show A Thousand Splendid Suns when the plug got pulled. (Leif Norman)

That same day, Beep, a touring childrens show from Australia scheduled to open at Manitoba Theatre for Young People, announced that its performers from Adelaides the Windmill Theatre Company were calling off their North American tour and returning home.

By the following day, RMTC executive director Camilla Holland had flown back from meetings in Toronto to join Thornton in a quickly assembled upper-management COVID-19 crisis team to respond to the worsening situation.

"The show was already set was up, the crew was ready to begin the cue-to-cue, everybody was in their costumes," Thornton says. "And we had to make a very hard announcement that it wasnt going to go.

"It was a heart-wrenching time for all of us, going down and talking to the company on Friday," she says. "There was a lot of tears from management, as well as from the artists. Everyone is devastated.

"I pledged that I will work hard to try and bring this production back to our stage," Thornton says. "I cant make promises of when that is, but I really want to see that play on our stage."

The upcoming drag comedy The Legend of Georgia McBride, previously scheduled to open April 23, was also cancelled as of Thursday, as was RMTCs annual fundraising Lawyers Play, Picasso at the Lapin Agile, which had been scheduled to run from May 6 to 9.

"Things are moving so fast and I think a lot of our colleagues across the country are starting to announce cancellations well into the summer," Thornton says. "(Toronto company) Canadian Stage just cancelled Shakespeare in the Park, which was quite shocking to me, because thats a long way out thats July-August."

RMTC produces the Winnipeg Fringe Theatre Festival, and for now, there are no plans to cancel the popular events start on July 15.

"But I think, in the face of this crisis, the entire industry is coming together and I think everybody is trying to support each other."

Thornton demurred when asked what kind of monetary pain the theatre might suffer in the wake of the cancellations of both A Thousand Splendid Suns and The Legend of Georgia McBride.

But over at Prairie Theatre Exchange, a much smaller venue, artistic director Thomas Morgan Jones has a figure $250,000 for the hit the company took on the cancellation of its remaining shows, By Grand Central Station (only six performances in, one-third of its run), and local playwright Sharon Bajers world premire of The Gingerbread Girl, as well as the annual Festival of New Works.

Thats an approximate number, Jones cautions, saying the final figures wont be known until the companys fiscal year-end.

"Its devastating on a number of fronts," he says. "What were doing in the organization is assessing what this means in terms of the financial situation for the end of the year. Many people have been graciously donating what theyve spent on a ticket rather than asking for a refund. That makes a huge impact and thats something that, if people are able, I would encourage them for all live performing arts or any museums

"Its an amazing difference, the impact of what that gesture can do."

Theatre Projects Manitoba has cancelled its world premiere of Rick Chafes Five Moments, set to open April 23.

At Winnipeg Jewish Theatre, another show from a local playwright looked as if it would go down in flames. Adding to the pain, it was also a world premire from local playwright Daniel Thau-Eleff. Narrow Bridge, scheduled to run from March 28 to April 5, is a provocative piece in which the central character has a vision of drifting through the mechitzah (the barrier separating men and women in Orthodox synagogues) and subsequently comes out both as transgender and an Orthodox Jew. It has now been scrapped as WJT has cut short its season.

But because WJT is a smaller, nimbler company, artistic director Ari Weinberg had some wiggle room to adjust the theatres newly announced 2020-21 season to accommodate Thau-Eleffs play. Narrow Bridge will now replace Trayf (scheduled for March 6-14, 2021) by American playwright Lindsay Joelle. That comedy will likely move to the 2021-22 season, Weinberg says.

"We were lucky. It was really a matter of connecting dots and lining up that allowed us to do it," he says.

His motivation to go the extra mile was tied to the invisible labour that goes into making a stage production.

"Weve been developing this show for the past 2 1/2 years at WJT," he says. "Daniel and I have been talking about the play since my first season five years ago, and hes been working on it for about seven.

"Why have we spent all this time developing a show a world premire for no one to see?" he says. "So because so many things happen to align, we were able to do it and I feel very fortunate."

Soon after the Aussie artists behind Beep cancelled their North American tour, MTYP artistic director Pablo Felices-Luna confirmed the cancellation of the last show of MTYPs season, Spelling 2-5-5, which had been touring in schools prior to a planned return home for a May 1 run.

It throws everything for a loop when it comes to planning, Felices-Luna says.

"We normally work on a three-year planning cycle, so any changes that are brought about by this could be played out next season or the season after that or if we are really bold, in three seasons time," he says, adding it is too soon to evaluate the impact on MTYPs financial outlook.

"Our core activity involves bringing people together, and when that cant happen, there is a definite hit to the organization," he says. "The extent of that, well, were just trying to adjust and figure it out on the run."

The injury to the artistic community may feel worse, he says.

"Its not just the theatre, its all of those artists who are involved. Theyre also not just being affected financially, but theyre being affected artistically," he says. "There is a life to a show. And when its truncated, it can be pretty hard. Thats something thats worth thinking about, as well."

For the time being, recording and livestreaming plays for home viewing doesnt look like a realistic option, because such efforts may be unsafe in the face of a pandemic. However, it had been planned for the PTE show By Grand Central Station, Jones says.

PTEs production of By Grand Central Station only got through one third of its run. (Mike Deal / Winnipeg Free Press files)

"In lieu of that, the producing company Heavy Bell has consented to having an archival video of the show sent exclusively to those who had tickets to the show," he says. "The link will be password-protected and will then be removed from the internet on what would have been the closing day of the production.

"There are no plans at this time for the video to be used in any way other than to be sent to the current ticket holder," Jones says. "I dont expect those plans will change, particularly because it is now only an archival video."

Summer feels like a long way away, and Rainbow Stage artistic director Carson Nattrass cant say for sure what fate awaits his season: The Drowsy Chaperone (July 2-19) and The Wizard of Oz (Aug. 13-30). As a performer himself, and the husband of actor-playwright Sharon Bajer, he feels the pain, he says. But hes holding out hope.

"When all of this passes, Manitobans will need a place to gather and celebrate the human capacity for collaboration, capability and community," he says. "That place is the theatre."

"Try to keep positive," advises Thornton. "Our job is to try and weather the storm so that theres a job to come back to, once we can raise the curtain again."

"The one positive I can find in all this," says Weinberg, "is that there will be a lot of art produced in the coming months. Thats something kind of exciting to look forward to... when we all come out of our isolations."

Randall King

"The orchestra business is precarious at the best of times," says Trudy Schroeder, the executive director of the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra. "I hope this isnt fatal."

When the Free Press reached her Wednesday night, Schroeder had just issued temporary layoff notices to the entire 67-musician orchestra, as well as to 30 full-time administrative staffers and 14 teachers in the Sistema after-school program. "Its heartbreaking," she says.

Four shows from the WSOs current season have been cancelled or postponed, as well as its spring gala. The Centennial Concert Hall has scrapped all rehearsals and shows until mid April.

The musicians cant even gather to practise because the orchestra itself is a group larger than 50; provincial health officials have urged Manitobans not to participate in gatherings larger than that.

The fiscal year is not looking good for the WSO, which was forced to lay off all its staff and musicians earlier this week. (Mikaela MacKenzie / Winnipeg Free Press files)

The WSOs anticipated May tour of the Netherlands marking the 75th anniversary of the liberation of that country at the end of the Second World War, may not happen either, owing to international travel restrictions.

The pandemic has already wreaked havoc on WSOs finances.

"Fiscally, this year is an absolute and total wreck probably for every business and arts organization," Schroeder says. The cancellation of last weekends Troupe Vertigo performances alone meant a revenue loss of roughly $300,000. The WSO stands to lose $1 million this year.

"Every two weeks, our payroll is $283,000," Schroeder says. "So you get to the point where theres no revenue coming in and gaping holes. Its amazing how fast it can become horrendously bad."

Indeed, the WSO started this year in its strongest-ever financial position thanks, in part, to the nearly $650,000 built up from 12 consecutive years of operating surplus.

"And now, that entire surplus has been eroded," Schroeder says. "By April 30, barring any special input, well have exactly $4,000."

The WSOs sister organization, Manitoba Opera, is also grappling with the cancellation of Carmen, which was supposed to run March 28, 31 and April 3 at the Centennial Concert Hall, performing with the orchestra.

"There were about 4,500 tickets sold to it, which represents, just in ticket revenue alone, about $330,000," says Manitoba Opera CEO Larry Desrochers. "So thats a big hit."

Like many arts organizations, Manitoba Opera is reaching out to its patrons and offering a tax receipt or a refund option.

"Were just at the beginning of that process, and many ticketholders are converting their purchased ticket into a tax receipt, which is very generous of them and very helpful," Desrochers says.

"For many sectors in the community, whether its health, education or arts and culture, its a very generous community. People come together, not only in a time of need, but in general. So Im not surprised."

Desrochers says more than 250 people including cast, chorus, childrens chorus, crew and orchestra are affected by Carmens cancellation, which represents half of the Operas two-production season.

"In particular, one of the groups that isnt talked about very much that I want to draw attention to is all the crew, all the (International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees) labour," he says.

"Thats one group of labour thats being affected by multiple closures, and thats easy to overlook. Its an important impact to recognize."

Eyeing an uncertain future, Desrochers points out that this is not just about the future of the Opera.

"Its the future of the entire cultural sector," he says.

Still, there are ways for patrons to support their local arts organizations during a stressful time.

"For many performing arts organizations, if you have a ticket, take a tax receipt for that ticket," Desrochers says. "That will be an immense help to whatever arts organization has sold you that ticket because it means they dont have to return that revenue. I cant underline enough how important that is."

Schroeder, meanwhile, is optimistic the WSO will survive.

"Our main job now is to make sure there will be an orchestra to re-emerge at the end of this pandemic. I have confidence well be able to do that, but well need our community to rally around us.

"Even if youve never been a subscriber to the symphony before, find a series," she says. "Weve got a movie series, weve got a childrens/family series. Go to our website and take out a subscription for next year. That would be a way to give us a little hope."

Posters of past shows line the backstage of an empty Centennial Concert Hall with house lights on and the solitary ghost light on the stage. (Mike Deal / Winnipeg Free Press)

The Royal Winnipeg Ballet has also closed its doors out of caution, which impacts both the company and the RWB School.

All classes and rehearsals for the 26-dancer company were suspended as of March 16. The companys U.S. Wizard of Oz tour was also cancelled, along with the RWBs 80th anniversary ball, Pretty in Pink, originally scheduled for April 4.

On Friday, the organization officially announced the end of its season.

RWB subscribers and ticket holders are able to donate their tickets back to the organization for a charitable tax receipt, apply a credit to their account or receive a full refund by visiting the RWB websitefor the companys full policy and adjusted box office hours.

The RWB is also encouraging the community to purchase a subscription to its 81st season billed as a season of Virtue & Villainy which is scheduled kick off with the Canadian premiere of Septime Webres Alice (in Wonderland) in October.

At the RWB School, classes and rehearsals are suspended in both its Recreational and Professional divisions, which impacts more than 1,200 students of all ages. The 11-date RWB Aspirants Manitoba on the Edge Tour has been cancelled, as well.

The RWB School residence currently remains open to ensure students who cannot make it home to their families have a safe space to live.

Artistic director Andr Lewis was not available for an interview, but the RWB provided a statement to the Free Press.

"In total, we have 68 full-time staff and 145 part-time staff and over 1,200 students and 26 company dancers who contribute to the successful operations of the RWB. The fortitude of our people as they face this pandemic has been inspiring. They are demonstrating courage, collaboration to seek solutions, and are making the best of an incredibly difficult situation," the statement reads.

Jen Zoratti

It seemed as if the first real recognition of the seriousness of COVID-19 in North America was the cancellation of one of the biggest music festivals and industry conferences in the world, South by Southwest in Austin, Texas, just a few days before it was scheduled to begin earlier this month.

Then another massive festival, Coachella in Indio, Calif., followed suit, postponing from April until October.

The projected loss of revenue, for SXSW especially, was astounding. In addition to many small businesses in town losing thousands of anticipated dollars from the festivals 100,000 attendees, the event itself laid off a third of its 175 year-round employees and said the future of the festival is in severe jeopardy.

Several Manitoba musical acts were set to attend the South by Southwest music festival in Austin, Texas. (Jay Janner / Austin American-Statesman files)

Winnipeg musicians eventually got caught up in this tornado of cancellations, being forced to return home early from tour and postpone any local shows until further notice, all but eliminating a main source of income for many of them.

Not-for-profit industry association Manitoba Music has already been made aware of a slew of concert and event cancellations by its members, and Wednesday released a survey in hopes of being able to more concretely gauge the impact of COVID-19 on individual artists, as well as the national music industry as a whole.

On Friday, the associated announced a new COVID-19 emergency relief fund will soon be available for the provinces artists and music-industry workers.

The fund will deliver "urgent micro-grants" to artists and music companies whose financial well-being has been, or will be, impacted by coronavirus-related event cancellations.

Manitoba Musics board of directors is seeding the fund with $20,000 to begin dispersing the micro-grants by the end of March. More details will be available next week as to how the funds will be administered and who is eligible.

Those interested in donating to the fund can visit manitobamusic.com/emergencyrelief. No tax receipts will be issued; Manitoba Music, a member-based organization, does not have charitable status.

"I think initially theres a real element of disappointment that comes with even having to cancel one gig, and then its a few and then its possibly a couple months worth and then theres some shock that has set in for people in terms of trying to figure out what their business is actually going to look like, says Sean McManus, executive director of Manitoba Music.

"And then we get to the stage of really digging in and figuring out whats next. I think were just coming out of that shock phase and theres still so much uncertainty. Weve seen folks cancel things in the next couple of weeks but I think its obvious now this is going to be a longer-term scenario but still with a fair bit of uncertainty as to how long."

Right now, music organizations are waiting with bated breath to see if the local festival season will be impacted by COVID-19. If those big events do end up getting sidelined, McManus says, the local industry would be faced with a much more difficult recovery.

"A local company I spoke to said if all of our summer festivals hang in and all those bookings stay and come true, well be OK and in a few months well be able to start to recover," McManus says.

"But if that goes down, thats a whole other level of crisis in terms of the business."

Over at Manitoba Film and Music (a government funding agency), CEO and film commissioner Rachel Margolis says they are taking stock and working with their stakeholders to try to analyze what the full impact of COVID-19 will be on both the music and film industries.

Film production is a huge economic driver in Manitoba, and while some productions have put a pause on their work, others are forging ahead while being "diligent and compliant" to ever-tightening restrictions. On the music side, Margolis says she and her team are regularly in touch with Manitoba Music and have no plans to stop the various music-funding programs Manitoba Film and Music offers.

"Were really focusing on being accessible, building strategies, working on business development so that when production, hopefully sooner than later, ramps up again, Manitobas doors are open and were ready to compete on the world stage again as we have been," Margolis says.

"Because this is a pandemic, were not the only ones that are in this were in this together with all of our peer provinces, were in this together as a world and global issue, so the challenges that are facing MFM are facing every other agency.

"Im in almost daily contact with my peer CEOs and film commissioners across Canada and were constantly sharing best practices and we are a forum for good business and good advice. That has been a tremendous support to all of us as we continue to be current with whats happening in our respective jurisdictions."

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