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Still from She Sells Sea Shells, a virtual show currently being streamed by the United Players of Vancouver. Photo: Nancy Caldwell

Vancouver theatre companies are bringing the stage to their audiences

Companies are turning to technology to keep performance art alive in the face of COVID-19 restrictions

By Eleni Vlahiotis , in City , on February 18, 2021

Theatre companies in Vancouver have been finding ways to flourish by using digital technology to bring performance art directly to their audience’s computer screens.

According to theatre critic Colin Thomas, some companies, like the Arts Club, tried to stay open with live performances, while others like the Cultch immediately went online.

“As it turned out, the Cultch made the sustainable decision,” he observed. “And that has really paid off for them.”

The pivot from offline to online has been necessary for theatres to maintain their audiences and keep providing acting opportunities for local artists.

Finding the silver lining

Some theatres have even found inspiration in the new digital mediums they are now faced with.

Richard Wolfe, director of the Pi Theatre. Photo: Matt Reznek

Richard Wolfe, director of the Pi Theatre, is encouraged by the new forms of performance art that have emerged.

“The biggest silver lining may be the fact that people are being innovative and exploratory, which is really great to see. And it’s exciting,” he said.

The Pi Theatre has an upcoming series of live broadcasts at the end of February — Macbeth Muet, which will be broadcast live from Montreal, and Frequencies, which will be broadcast from Halifax.

The pandemic has also increased accessibility for those who are unable to attend in-theatre events or travel long distances for location-specific shows.

“One of the things that pandemic has done for me is it’s opened me up to theatre from other places,” Thomas said.

For example, Thomas recently was able to watch a performance from the Wilma Theatre in Philadelphia, an opportunity he wouldn’t have had if not for live-streaming.

‘It’s been devastating’

However, the transition to digital hasn’t been an easy one for the performing arts.

United Players of Vancouver, which is currently streaming their version of She Sells Sea Shells, is struggling with a decreased number of subscribers and viewers.

“Because of the demographics of a community theatre audience, there are many people who aren’t habituated to watching anything on their computers, even if they have — let alone watching live theatre,” said Toph Marshall, University of British Columbia theatre professor and director of the theatre company United Players of Vancouver. “So that is a challenge.”

Toph Marshall, director of United Players of Vancouver. Photo: Toph Marshall

It’s also harder for smaller community theatres like the United Players of Vancouver, which runs out of the Jericho Arts Centre, to come up with the money to run marketing campaigns to reach a wider audience.

“The change to online is proving an obstacle,” Marshall said.

The impact of the new provincial health order prohibiting live performances, which came into effect on Nov. 20, has been widely felt among Vancouver arts organizations.

Prior to the new restrictions, some theatre companies had begun to re-open at the end of the summer with new COVID-19 safety guidelines in place.

According to Statistics Canada, the entertainment arts sector is the furthest away from economic recovery, compared to other labour sectors.

The statistics also show that the sector was the hardest hit by unemployment in 2020, with a drop of 25 per cent.

“It’s been devastating,” said Marshall. “Our season is normally five shows a year. We run each show for 16 performances over the course of four weeks. And the fourth and fifth shows just had to be cancelled last year.”

Staying connected

Another issue with moving online is the loss of connection that actors have with their audiences and the connection audience members have with one another.

“The most difficult thing to recreate is a sense of intimacy and event,” Thomas pointed out. “Those things are really difficult to recreate. And that’s where sound and live-streaming come in.”

In response to this challenge, Wolfe has been experimenting with live-streaming shows directly from the filming location, instead of having shows available on demand.

“What it does share with theatre is proximity,” Wolfe said. “So you’re not physically with somebody. But if it’s live in real-time, and you’re watching it, especially if you’re on a platform where you can interact with others who are watching it — we are together.”

Still from the Pi Theatre’s Macbeth Muet. Photo: Sophie Gagnon Bergeron

The good news is that performing arts companies are persevering despite the odds.

“We’re taking it a day at a time,” Marshall said. “We want to do theatre, and we want to put it on, and the people who have seen our online shows have been really happy with them.”

Wolfe hopes that the pandemic will help audiences see how important the arts are to their lives — especially the performing arts.

“I hope that when we return to live performance, there will be a greater appreciation for it,” he said. “And people recognize the impact that it may have on their lives, and also the skill and dedication that individuals who provide it are offering.”

Marshall echoes that sentiment.

“I hope that the arts that emerge on the other side of this pandemic receive the support and people will recognize what it is that they have been missing.”