Pandemic-weary Toronto theatres adapt — again

“We’re battle-scarred but battle-ready.”

That’s the sentiment shared by Ghislain Caron, executive director of Théâtre Français de Toronto, as the company responds to new restrictions shuttering indoor performance venues yet again.

January was going to be the big comeback month for live stage performance in Toronto, but once again companies are adapting their plans.

Last Wednesday, the province introduced measures to curb the rapid increase in COVID-19 hospitalizations. The new restrictions include the closure of indoor theatres for at least 21 days. Rehearsals, along with livestreamed and recorded performances, can continue if there are no spectators in the venue and physical distancing can be observed between performers.

The regulations came less than three months after the province lifted all capacity limits to indoor venues Oct. 9.

Some organizations have turned their in-person programming into digital shows or postponed live performances. Tarragon Theatre’s production of Rosa Laborde’s “Light,” originally scheduled for Feb. 1 to March 5, has been reimagined for film and will be released in March.

Mike Payette, Tarragon’s artistic director, says the digital pivot is only possible because rehearsals and filming are allowed. “Thankfully, our theatres are open and we are allowed to work in some way, shape or form and continue our processes,” he said. “It’s a better scenario than what we experienced in the first shutdown.”

Chloé Hung’s dark comedy “Three Women of Swatow” will also have to wait for its premiere at Tarragon. The play, a bloody portrait of three generations of women as they navigate intergenerational conflicts, abusive relationships, addictions and murder, was supposed to have its world premiere in March 2020. That was pushed to later this month and has been rescheduled once again to run April 18 to May 15.

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Toronto Fringe’s Next Stage Festival was also slated to begin in the second half of January. Some of its programming was already planned as digital and Fringe executive director Lucy Eveleigh said the festival is working to see if in-person productions can be translated into film in time for the Jan. 19 start date.

“It’s heartbreaking,” Eveleigh said. “We were so looking forward to being in a room together, to showcase these incredible artists and to connect with our patrons.”

At Theatre Passe Muraille, Ho Ka Kei’s award-winning play “Iphigenia and the Furies (On Taurian Land),” scheduled to run live Jan. 8 to 29, will now be presented digitally Feb. 23 to 26. “She Spreads,” a play by Dead Roads Collective that follows the residents of a small town in Alberta as they succumb to a strange infection, has shifted from Jan. 12 to 23 to Feb. 23 to 27 at Factory Theatre.

Coal Mine Theatre’s productions of “The Antipodes” and “Detroit,” slated to open in January and April respectively, will each now be delayed approximately 10 week, in hopes that they can play to in-person audiences. Meanwhile Crow’s Theatre continues to rehearse “Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo,” originally scheduled to start performances on Jan. 11, as they wait for more information on the province’s reopening plans before naming a new date.

Some theatres have chosen to cancel productions outright. A remount at Tarragon Theatre of Human Cargo’s acclaimed “The Runner” was supposed to be the first theatre production to open in Toronto in 2022, but Human Cargo cancelled it on New Year’s Eve.

The show involves a single actor, Gord Rand, running on a treadmill for large portions of the play and sometimes shouting, a scenario that potentially creates a risk of COVID infection for performer and audience members alike. This, and the lack of clear information from the government about how to respond to the Omicron variant, “made it, in my opinion, very clear and obvious that the safest thing to do would be to stop,” said Christopher Morris, the show’s writer and producer. “Not everyone in the company felt safe to be working.”

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Canadian Stage has cancelled two shows scheduled to open in January: a stage adaptation of the sci-fi film classic “Solaris,” directed by artistic director Brendan Healy, and Red Sky Performance’s dance piece “Miigis: Underwater Panther.” Canadian Stage hopes to deliver the rest of its season as planned. While not ruling out shifting some productions online if necessary, executive director Monica Esteves said the “focus right now is on the reopening of our theatres and preparing to welcome audiences back in March.”

Before the government announcement of new restrictions, Mirvish Productions cancelled a January to March run of Tom Stoppard’s “Leopoldstadt” at the Princess of Wales Theatre and permanently shut down the Toronto production of hit musical “Come From Away.”

Mirvish has now postponed other productions in its 2021-22 season and moved several of them into new venues. They plan to start up again in April, following advice and research from doctors and epidemiologists that suggests that the Omicron variant peaks quickly, “so that by March it may be safe again for social gatherings to return,” said John Karastamatis, director of sales and marketing.

Their plans are based on playing to 100 per cent capacity; if only smaller audiences are allowed, Mirvish will consider each show’s potential for reopening or further postponement, said Karastamatis.

Théâtre Français finds itself navigating restrictions in two provinces: its co-production with Le Groupe de la Veillée of “Solstice d’Hiver” (Winter Solstice) by Roland Schimmelpfennig was meant to open Jan. 11 at Montreal’s Théâtre Prospero and then play Toronto’s Berkeley Street Theatre Feb. 4 to 12. Théâtre Français is moving forward with plans to mount the show briefly in Montreal in late January and to keep the Toronto dates intact, barring further restrictions: “One day at a time, one decision at a time,” said Caron.

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Factory Theatre’s relative caution in keeping its early 2022 programming virtual rather than face-to-face has paid off in that it will be able to deliver shows as planned. “Year of the Rat,” four one-person plays written and performed by Augusto Bitter, Charlotte Corbeil-Coleman, Rosa Laborde and Anita Majumdar, will be rehearsed online and livestreamed from the authors’ homes Feb. 24 to March 5. It will be followed by “You Can’t Get There from Here, Vol. 2,” commissioned audio plays released as podcasts in March.

This latest COVID wave has potentially existential consequences for the Assembly Theatre in Parkdale.

The volunteer-run indie venue paid its rent during the pandemic with the support of government grants and loans. Assembly was planning to reopen this month with the premiere of Michael Ross Albert’s “Two Minutes to Midnight,” performed by Cass Van Wyck and Luis Fernandes, who run the theatre. Following the Ontario government limiting audiences to 50 per cent on Dec. 15, they cancelled the production and started an online fundraising campaign to keep the theatre alive.

“We have fought hard for two years to keep the lights on until it is safe to welcome artists back to our space,” said Van Wyck, “and we are hopeful that these fundraising efforts will allow us to continue that fight.”

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