In times of crisis and overwhelming anxiety, the arts has been what has helped us through.
Sometimes that’s by taking issues head-on, whether that’s been mezzo Joyce DiDonato’s transcendent Vancouver Recital Society performance here of "Lascia ch’io pianga” to reflect on the Paris attacks, or Alannah Mitchell using only a chalkboard to synthesize the meaning of the death of our oceans in Sea Sick at the PuSh festival.
Sometimes it’s been by offering an escape, through a serene recital of Stabat Mater or a dazzling production of The Marriage of Figaro. Or being one of the many to catch Keith Haring's subway drawings and a Jean-Michel Basquiat painting at the Vancouver Art Gallery in the months leading up to Donald Trump’s election.
Now, paradoxically, we are faced with a situation that threatens to torpedo those rituals on a large scale. As Leila Getz, founder and artistic director of the Vancouver Recital Society, puts it: “What we do and what everybody in the performing arts does is bring people together for a collective experience. And now we're doing the opposite.”
Suddenly, thanks to worldwide concerns about COVID-19 and the way it might be spread in public gatherings, arts groups are having to advise people that it's best if they stay home for a while.
The effect on the thriving local scene, at this point in the season, could be devastating. There are still troupes mounting smaller shows for under 250 audience members who need support. For the ones having to axe shows that have been in the works for months or years, they’re making a humble plea for those who are able to donate the price of their ticket for a tax receipt. And they’ll need help in the coming month and season—whether that’s volunteer hours or fans investing in subscriptions.
“We will need the support of our patrons and kindness, whatever form it takes from the community," said Carole Higgins, artistic director of Carousel Theatre for Young People, which has just cancelled the run of its The House at Pooh Corner. "This is a time for the community to reflect about what is important to us, because this is... Wow.”
Higgins’s account of the shutdown gives you some indication of the emotional side behind the economics of the situation. “I called all our actors in last night and we all just sat on the stage together hugging the puppets and saying goodbye to this beautiful show they created,” she recounts.
Quantifying the costs at this stage is a bit more difficult. To give some indication, Carousel expects to lose somewhere near $80,000 from cancelling the remainder of Pooh's run.
The effects will be greater at big companies paying touring artists. For her part, Getz felt it was important to offer Brit pianist Benjamin Grosvenor the fee for his efforts this week, which included flying from Germany to Santa Barbara before coming to Vancouver Sunday, only to find out all the North American dates were off.
“We’re hemorrhaging money by giving refunds,” explained Getz. “We don’t have enough inventory in the rest of the season to offer people the opportunity to come to a future concert.”
The fallout from the B.C. Health Advisory banning gatherings of more than 250 people has sent shock waves through the arts community, and the trouble continues with cancellation after cancellation.
The mass-gathering ban could be devastating for Vancouver Opera, which stages one of the most expensive art forms and has gone through upheaval and format changes in an attempt to build new audiences in the past few years. Another Brick in the Wall was the organization's hugely anticipated show of the season, and now it’s cancelled along with the entire upcoming Vancouver Opera Festival. For just a hint at the financial hit, consider good seats for the show were running $116.75 to $186.75 each.
VO interim general director Tom Wright issued this statement to the Straight today: “At this time we are looking at all available options through government agencies but have no other information to provide. As we communicate with our patrons regarding show cancellations we hope many will donate their tickets to the organization in exchange for a charitable tax receipt to continue to support the organization.”
Early Music Vancouver has just shut down the rest of its 50th-anniversary season. In his announcement, executive and artistic director Matthew White also made a plea for people to donate the price of their ticket for a tax receipt. “This generous gesture will help us weather this crisis and support the gifted artists that make our lives so much richer. As I have often said, the musicians who grace our stages could have chosen to do many other things with their extraordinary intelligence, discipline, and commitment. Instead, they have committed their lives to the creation of beauty. In many cases, they have done so at the cost of financial stability and other professional benefits that many of us take for granted. In fact, they are among our most generous and important donors.”
DanceHouse has just announced the cancellation of two major shows, Montreal’s RUBBERBAND dance troupe and what was destined to be an historic appearance by renegade Spanish flamenco megastar Rocío Molina. Earlier this week, the Straight talked to Molina in Seville just minutes after she had heard all American dates had been cancelled due to Trump’s travel ban. She, like any artist, was worried about the massive implications. The fallout for their managers, the techs, and everyone behind the scenes will be just as devastating.
Tonight the Arts Club announced the cancellation of at least two shows, including the postponement of the much anticipated Carried Away on the Crest of a Wave, saying, "It is imperative that we act on the advice of government officials, public health authorities, and medical professionals. Of course, the impact of lost performances on the Arts Club, a not-for-profit theatre company, is enormous. These cancellations affect all the artists and staff, both on- and off-stage, who bring our shows to life. However, the safety of our patrons, our staff, and our artists remains our top priority."
Amid all the fallout today, which included the cancellation of everything from the Vancouver International Burlesque Festival to the Sonic Boom music festival, Gateway Theatre and Ruby Slippers' From Alaska, and Vancouver Symphony Orchestra concerts, there was some hope to be found.
For her part, Getz feels like she can weather the storm. She had hope that Sir Andras Schiff will reschedule his monumental recital of the Goldberg Variations. “I have to see it before I die,” she quipped.
Getz’s biggest concern is that subscription sales for next year don’t fall off amid all the fear and distraction now. Now, more than ever, is the time to support the future of organizations for their survival. “We have to weather this--we have too much wonderful music we have to book into the future,” she says. “We’ll get through this now and carry on after if our public comes back strong—that’s the way we’ll regain our strength.”
Higgins, too, has been seeing a bright side to the situation. With the donated tickets today she says she’s getting more unsolicited testimonials about Carousel than she’s ever received. “One said what we do made them far richer than any refund could do,” she said.
“It’s interesting," she observed, "because in this the whole thing is social distancing. But the natural inclination is to come together."