It was March 12, 2020, just hours before Canadian fiddler Natalie MacMaster was set to perform a near-sold-out concert at the Cowichan Performing Arts Centre. Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry announced that all gatherings of more than 250 people were immediately cancelled. The theatre notified ticket holders of the cancellation by email, but not everyone saw it in time.
“We had to stop people as they came into the lobby. It was really a very sad day for everybody,” recalls Kirsten Schrader, manager of the Cowichan Performing Arts Centre for the Cowichan Valley Regional District. “It came as a bit of a shock of how this was going to play out. We were the first division in the CVRD to be impacted like that, and we will be the last to reopen.”
No COVID-19 relief for publicly funded theatres
Since then, it’s been a rough go for the 731-seat civic theatre, owned and operated by the CVRD, Schrader says. Many theatres in the province, operated by non-profit societies, were eligible for COVID-19 emergency relief funding. But as a government-owned theatre, Cowichan’s theatre is not.
The result is less programming, fewer jobs and less support for local artists, says Schrader. “Our reason for being is to support the arts, and yet we’re unable to do that right now. It’s been very frustrating.”
Provincial and national art service organizations are exploring opportunities for civic theatres to become eligible for COVID-19 supports, Schrader says. Cowichan MLA Sonia Furstenau recently sent a letter to B.C. minister of finance Selina Robinson requesting that eligibility requirements be changed “to enable civic theatres such as CPAC to benefit from the same funding opportunities as non-profit theatres.”
Schrader adds that local officials have been sympathetic, and she is hopeful that CPAC will receive some pandemic-related funding via the CVRD early in the new year.
Many impacted by Cowichan Performing Arts Centre closure
Schrader says that it was devastating for local clients who had to cancel dance, theatre and music performances last spring after so many months of planning. And this month, the community will miss holiday traditions such as The Nutcracker performed by the Royal City Youth Ballet and school winter concerts.
“It must be very sad for the kids to miss their concerts because they so look forward to that every year,” she says. “It’s really fun to see them coming in by the hundreds and practicing their songs and their musical numbers. I think that is a huge hole in the lives of families locally.”
Schrader says, “There’s just so many sad stories out there of artists who are really struggling, and we wish that we could do more to support them.”
Turning to digital
In September, the theatre streamed a short film by local actor Nicole Ratjen called Standing By that was filmed on the empty CPAC stage. The film captures the impact of the pandemic on performers and the loneliness of an empty theatre.
Schrader says that the theatre pivoted quickly to offer live streaming after COVID-19 hit, thanks to her staff’s digital expertise. “We’re finding there is a small but also loyal audience for the live streaming, but it’s certainly not seeing numbers that we normally get,” she says. She is in regular conversations with theatres across the province and they all report a limited audience appetite for paying for streamed content.
People can still buy tickets to stream A Celtic Family Christmas, a performance by Natalie MacMaster and Donnell Leahy. They recorded the show from their home in Ontario on December 5 and it is available to watch throughout the month. This Thursday, Dec. 17, Handel’s Messiah Part 1, presented by the Cowichan Symphony Society and Victoria Baroque, will be available to stream by suggested donation. A holiday concert by local band Cabin Fever will be available for free, on demand, as of Dec. 22 at 7 p.m.
Thanks to a grant from the Canada Council for the Arts, CPAC will be offering courses and workshops on digital literacy for other arts groups. “We’re excited that we’re going to really help those art councils or non-profit arts organizations in the Cowichan region who do need help with trying to figure out how they can put on events … in this new time,” Schrader says.
Looking ahead to 2021
Schrader says she is tentatively booking touring acts for the fall of 2021, on the promise of widespread vaccinations. If the theatre reopens sooner, she says the majority of events in the first part of the year will be local clients, such as dance competitions, the Cowichan Musical Festival and the Cowichan Musical Society’s Christmas Pantomime, currently slated for late January.
When the theatre reopens, it will be with a safety plan that involves extra sanitization and staggered entrances and exits, Schrader says.
“We’re working really hard on having a good, safe way of bringing patrons back in once we’re allowed to do that,” Schrader says. “We’re working with some theatres across the province and the country to make sure that our best practices and ways of managing traffic and crowds of people is consistent with other theatres.”
Also, Scharder says she is also exploring the possibility of offering outdoor programming in the summer. But a big unknown is how audiences, even after a vaccine is widely available, will feel about attending indoor performances.
“Some people need to see live performances and they’re willing to come out, but some may not. We may not ever see them back,” Schrader reports, based on audience surveys. The theatre will likely never return to the pre-pandemic version of normal, she says. Schrader expects that both digital and in-person events will be part of the performing arts centre’s future. [end]
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