For stage artists, to stream or not to stream is the question


One by one, each of Toronto’s theatres and arts organizations have closed to help curb the spread of COVID-19.

It began with Roy Thomson Hall, the Art Gallery of Ontario, Hot Docs, TIFF and the Stratford Festival, followed by independent movie theatres, Tarragon Theatre, the National Ballet, the Canadian Opera Company, Mirvish, Soulpepper and cinema chain Cineplex.

Toronto is far from alone. After the World Health Organization declared novel coronavirus a global pandemic, Broadway shuttered all performances until April, theme parks closed and major Hollywood releases are being delayed.

At a time when social distancing is the new norm, sectors that rely on audiences – theatre, film, music, sports – are going dark.

Mirvish has put shows on hold until April 12, including Hamilton and Come From Away, but a limited run of The Boy Friend was cancelled.

After Ontario announced a state of emergency on March 17 that will last until March 31, any theatres still trying to remain open were forced to close.

Artists and performers – many of whom already work part-time or freelance – will be facing an even more precarious time in the weeks ahead. Some are looking to industry groups for financial support, while others are turning to livestreaming while stuck at home.

“Theatres will survive, albeit with lower revenues for the period, but these nights are lost – you cannot inventory things like these,” says Richard C. Powers, associate professor of business at the Rotman School of Management. “One-off productions, events and festivals may not be able to reschedule, thus they lose what may be their primary source of income for the year – that could be a critical hit to those organizations.

“This also hits the part-time employees and other event-based staff who depend on these events for their incomes,” he adds. “Without these events, they are not working.”

The Actors’ Fund of Canada (AFC), which works as a support to artists experiencing tough times, the pandemic is a call to arms.

“There’s a different meaning to ‘tough times’ at the moment, but not much change to the meaning of our work,” says AFC communications coordinator Lilya Sultanova. “Artists and entertainment professionals, for the most part, have no or very few safeguards when it comes to employment protection. The impact on their livelihood and the livelihood of their families – financial, emotional and psychological – is almost immediate.

“We are working in an ‘all-hands-on-deck’ mode to respond to the impact of COVID-19, with all other projects and aspects of work put on hold,” she says.

The AFC, which is tracking and documenting closures and cancellations, is offering short-term charitable assistance to cover expenses like basic living, rent, housing and medical costs that cannot otherwise be met, as well as help accessing resources. The organization has seen a significant spike in applications for emergency financial assistance in the last few days, while receiving major donations from industry members and groups.

“We’re not alone,” adds Sultanova. “We’ve noticed a great deal of self-organizing, knowledge-sharing and support that have emerged in our community since the beginning of the outbreak. Individuals and organizations have been stepping up with raising funds, sharing resources and information, and organizing support initiatives.”

Indeed, for other organizations, the show must go on – just not in the way theatregoers are used to.

The Playwrights Guild of Canada (PGC) has spent the last week brainstorming ways to support the community. The organization will host a seven-hour online playwright reading marathon on March 27, which also happens to be World Theatre Day. The PGC is also giving its 900 members the option to perform 10-minute play readings for $100 a piece.

Toronto playwright Nick Green, whose musical In Real Life was cancelled, is launching the Social Distancing Festival online to “celebrate and showcase the work of the many artists around the world who have been affected by the need for social distancing.

“We are all feeling the hurt, disappointment and fear,” says Green, whose show was in developmental production with Theatre Sheridan before it was cancelled. “I really want to facilitate an online space that brings us together.”

Artists are able to submit and share whatever work they’d like. So far, submissions have included clips from rehearsals, scenes performed with cast-mates via webcam, design plans and more from all over the world, including curated links that feature everything from the Metropolitan Opera to Toronto’s Choir! Choir! Choir! Green says the goal is to “keep feeling a sense of artistic community, even from our living rooms.”

Livestreaming seems like an increasingly popular option for a variety of companies, but it may not be feasible for all productions.

Toronto Dance Theatre (TDT) nixed a March 27 livestream of Bin Chicken that was to replace the show’s cancelled run. The move suggests that certain shows will have a harder time going digital: Bin Chicken is highly physical and involves a team of 18, including eight company dancers.

“It was a tough decision, but with how everything has been progressing each day in regards to COVID-19, we knew postponing Bin Chicken to a time that would be safer for everyone was the best decision,” says TDT communications manager Emma Joy. “If we asked our team to continue coming in every day for rehearsals when they should be practicing social distancing, that would be equivalent to asking them to risk their own health and safety.”

Meanwhile, companies such as TDT, Tapestry Opera, the Tarragon and others are requesting audiences purchase gift cards or memberships instead of requesting refunds, ticket exchanges and/or credit. They are also asking for donations in order to stay afloat and be ready to return after the crisis has passed.

“While it is reasonable to assume that this virus may cause some organizations to fold, it is a little premature to consider those drastic events at this time,” says Powers.

Still, it’s not hard to fathom, he admits.

“If the cancellations persist for longer periods of time, that is exactly what will happen,” he says. “Most organizations can survive a short-term hit, but they will definitely become more vulnerable if the virus isn’t under control by May.”

At any other time, theatres are the place to go for an escape. Without live entertainment, this period might feel desolate – but it doesn’t have to.

“If Canadian-made theatre, film, TV, music or dance means something to you,” adds Sultanova, “and you want to support the people who make the work you love – donate.”