Creativity and community support carried the Chemainus Theatre through 2020

“We will continue to need to work with strength, diligence and flexibility to move forward in the coming year and years,” Chemainus Theatre’s artistic director says.

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It’s the year that Elf got put on the shelf.

Many families make the Chemainus Theatre’s holiday show an annual tradition. This year, the theatre planned to host a musical adaptation of the modern Christmas classic for a long run from Nov. 20 to Dec. 31. But with provincial COVID-19 restrictions in place since March, the show, like a bulk of the theatre’s productions, had to be shelved.

“While we have decorated the exterior and lobby, we will miss gathering in the theatre and celebrating together this year,” says artistic director Mark DuMez.

Crisis relief for the theatre

In addition to Elf: the Musical, the theatre cancelled 39 Steps, Beauty and the Beast, Glory and Joyful Noise. The Marvelous Wonderettes shut down in mid-March, two-thirds into its run. In total, the theatre had to cancel 280 performances in 2020 as well as offerings such as summer camps.

“Much of our operational health will be tenuous from this extended closure,” DuMez says. “Cancelling the main stage, KidzPlay and education programming for 2020 has had a significant impact on many communities: wonderful patrons and kids, the artists we work with, as well as staff and volunteers. Much of the staff hasn’t had work for the bulk of the season.”

In the spring, the theatre set up a Crisis Relief Fund that has elicited a good response, including from a local couple who contributed a $50,000 matching donation. Earlier this month, the theatre ran its annual silent auction as a virtual event to support the crisis fund, with donated items from local artists and businesses. 

“We are thankful for sponsors and patrons who understood the vulnerability of being mandated to close and donated tickets back or kept credits,” DuMez says. “We know this is what has been required for the public good and our community’s health and safety and have been thankful for many kinds of community support and a general spirit of goodwill.”

He adds that the theatre is also very appreciative of government COVID-19 programs as well as grants from the Vancouver Foundation and the Island Coastal Economic Trust. The latter funded the purchase of equipment for the theatre to experiment with live streaming.

In September, the Chemainus Theatre lit up red alongside other buildings across Canada to raise awareness about struggles the entertainment industry is facing during the COVID-19 pandemic. Photo courtesy of the Chemainus Theatre

Life this fall at the cabaret 

This fall, with the 270-seat main stage closed, the theatre put together a Cabaret Series in its Playbill Dining Room. A stage was added to the room and the tables were spaced out to provide physically-distanced viewing and dining. 

Artists, including comedian Mike Delamont and musician Michael Clarke, performed at the cabaret in October and November.  

“It was great to see patrons who we hadn’t since March. It animated the building and town and gave some artists opportunities who had previously been on our main stage,” DuMez says. “It was great to gather, even with 50 or less, at that time, and we are thankful it was consistently sold out. People wanted to gather, even with tables and performers at a distance.”

DuMez says it was going quite well until the province announced new restrictions last month, and the remaining shows were cancelled.

Exploring all kinds of options

The Playbill Dining Room is still open on select evenings, including a sold-out dinner on New Year’s Eve. The Gallery Gift Shop will also be open that evening.

But everything else is very much up in the air, DuMez says. “The planning for shows is typically months, sometimes years in advance. So, we had a number of shows in various forms of planning when we closed and we are assessing the runway, as it were, that will be required for pre-production work, as well as rehearsals.”

The artistic director says that the theatre is “looking at all kinds of options” as it tries to plan for various scenarios. 

“We continue to work on several contingency plans for 2021,” he says. “We know that gathering places like live theatre will likely be one of the last businesses to restore out of the pandemic, so we have quite a path in front of us in 2021. We will continue to need to work with strength, diligence and flexibility to move forward in the coming year and years.” [end]

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