While audiences are back, Vancouver arts groups are adjusting to the possibility there's a "new normal"

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      Blame the COVID-19 pandemic all you want for disrupting an arts scene that’s yet to fully recover from months and months of lockdowns, capacity limits, and travel restrictions, but don’t forget to point a finger at Netflix. 

      Somewhere along the line, many of us got a little too comfortable sitting on the couch and watching Better Call Saul, Ozark, and every episode of Shameless. And so, at the risk of oversimplifying things, when crowds began to return to live arts events in 2022, the news was both good (bodies back in seats) and somewhat concerning (on many nights, nothing close to every seat was filled). 

      How to sum that up in an overview? 

      There’s no pretending otherwise—with arts groups spanning countless disciplines in the city, finding a commonality can be daunting. While no one’s suggesting that cross-pollination doesn’t happen, the audience for a Vancouver Opera extravaganza isn’t necessarily the same you’ll find at a Radical System Art dance blowout at the Firehall on a Friday night.

      Still, there are common threads. Broadly speaking, arts groups surveyed by the Straight suggested that, while they were happy to be back putting on live events in 2022, they were left with the feeling that the landscape had shifted as a result of the pandemic. And while they’re optimistic about their expectations for this year, they also acknowledge there’s work to be done attracting audiences back to theatres. 

      Reached in New York, where he’s attending something of a state-of-the-union conference held by the International Society for the Performing Arts, DanceHouse executive/artistic director Jim Smith notes that his company made a commitment to coming back strong in 2022. High-profile productions included the Hofesh Shechter Company’s Double Murder and Stations featuring Canadian icon Louise Lecavalier.

      Jim Smith of DanceHouse.
      Rebecca Ross.

      “We put out a full complement of big shows and were trying to be quite bullish in terms of trying to lead and saying ‘We’re back, welcome back the theatre, and come back and join us,” Smith says. “Numbers are certainly not what they were pre-pandemic, and I don’t think anybody is at that place at this point. In various conservations that I’ve heard it’s been a softer return. It’s a puzzling question that I hear everyone turning over: ‘Have behaviours changed? Is it that we’ve all discovered what it’s like to stay at home in our pyjamas and be satisfied with Netflix? Or is it that there’s still an element of fear, particularly in this cold-season time, and that’s keeping people on guard about the COVID virus, or another virus being passed around?’”

      That sentiment is echoed by Donna Spencer at the Firehall Arts Centre. 

      “It was so uncertain all of the time because the ground continued to shift even though we were allowed to gather again and bring people into the theatre,” she says of the Firehalls’s last season. “But it was a bit unpredictable. I mean, arts are always unpredictable in terms of how people are going to receive them and whether they’re going to come or not. Last season we did have successes—White Noise was tremendously successful in terms of bringing people out, and some of the other projects were as well. So having people in the theatre was fabulous. But the uncertainty about how we create and what we produce was pretty much there the whole season. There wasn’t a lot of time to relax.”

      Making things challenging, Spencer offers, were concerns about safety. Thanks to vaccines, COVID-19 might seem less scary than it did in 2020, but that doesn’t mean folks are­—no matter how much they love the arts—as willing to gather in theatres as they once were.

      “People were concerned about their safety and staying healthy, so we continued our policies of masks and all those things,” Spencer says. “But, as for the uncertainty of whether or not things were going to close down—even though we were assured by public health that wasn’t the plan—I don’t think anyone is over that, actually. So we didn’t make nearly as much money as we would have if we’d been fully operational—and by that I’m talking about ticket sales.”

      Still, it’s important, she suggests, to be realistic as the world adjusts to a new normalcy—whatever that is. 

      “Overall, I’m not trying to sound optimistic—actually I am optimistic—but I felt like last year was not as bad as it could have been,” Spencer offers. “But on the other side it did give me a few more grey hairs.”

      Touchstone Theatre’s Roy Surette describes 2022 as “challenging,” including having to cancel a major show at last year’s PuSh Festival thanks to a COVID-19 case. A Jason Sherman play at the Performance Works later in the year struggled to fill seats.

      But Touchstone’s Christmas-season-friendly projection of Yaga hit big with holiday audiences, driving home how the right show at the right time can convince people to get out of the house. Working in the company’s favour was a short run, combined with all performers in the play managing to not get COVID­—an ongoing concern every time a production is mounted.

      Yaga proved a seasonally-themed hit for Touchstone Theatre in 2022.

      “The show was so intense for the three performers that we kind of crossed our fingers and we were lucky,” Surette says. “We did okay and everyone made it to the finish line, which seems to be the theme of the past year-and-a-half: just get to the finish line.”

      He suggests that moving forward requires a conviction that everything will work out in a world which has been throwing people no shortage of curveballs. Touchstone is currently gearing up with a Flying Start production, which is designed to support playwrights early in their careers. A family comedy titled The Wrong Bashir, the 10-person play by Zahida Rahemtulla, calls for a leap of faith on the production side of things. 

      “We have to cross our fingers that everything goes smoothly because we haven’t really built a contingency plan in terms of understudies,” Surette shares. “Because our runs are so short, it’s basically like doubling our costs when you add another person onto the payroll for the run of a show. So we’re taking the risk of not doing that.”

      The big word there is “risk,” and it comes up again with those interviewed here. Surette suggests it’s important to accept we now live in a world where, for the time being, there are new risk factors. 

      There’s also the reality that—Netflix and streaming services again—the kind of art we consume has changed during the COVID era.

      Arts groups don’t operate in a vacuum—discover the beauty of dance or live theatre or classical music or opera when you’re still impressionable, and it can make a lasting impact. The past couple of years represent a missed opportunity on that front. At the same time, older audiences have aged out—when you’re in your 70s, the idea of taking in Don Giovanni or Ballet BC’s OVERTURE/S now requires something more of a leap of faith than loading into the car and hoping you score a decent parking spot near the Queen E.

      Given the challenges, Vancouver Opera general director Tom Wright suggests that the company’s ’21-’22 season “was a success as far successes are granted coming out of the pandemic.” The company’s Orfeo Ed Euridice was a critically well-received hit that reached its box office goals, with a concert version of Cavalleria Rusticana that resonated with patrons despite being focused on music rather than a full-scale theatrical experience. 

      But falling short of expectations was Gilbert and Sullivan’s HMS Pinafore.. 

      “It was a big learning experience, and that was that our audience is changing,” he says. “We are officially in a rebuild of an opera audience here in Vancouver. A certain percentage of our audience is not coming back.”

      So the work becomes attracting new opera-goers at a time when the world has never had more digital distractions to offer. 

      “It is exactly that—a challenge,” Wright says. “Although it’s also, as I look at it, a great opportunity in today’s world to engage the younger audience. One that really appreciates the reality of opera. Yes it’s sung in a foreign language for the most part. But we solved that three decades [ago] with subtitles, so there’s no reason that you can’t come and enjoy an amazing evening of musical storytelling that encompasses all aspects of theatre. And that’s what opera does—you can get great music, great singing, and amazing design in both scenic and costume and projections.”

      One key, he suggests, to ensuring future audiences continue to be engaged is moving away from over-familiar go-to operas. Although they fill seats, they can also leave audiences feeling that they’ve seen things one time too many.

      “I’m trying not to produce shows that are super, super popular too much,” Wright says with a laugh, “even though I have to bring back some of the top 10s or subscribers will start to leave.” 

      Tom Wright of Vancouver Opera.
      Photo courtesy of Vancouver Opera.

      Concerns moving forward, at least for the foreseeable future? 

      “With what’s going on now with the viruses out there, I have to admit that, as the leader of a large arts organization, I am concerned,” Wright says. “I had a nightmare last night that the entire creative team came down with COVID, and the director was standing there going ‘Well, good luck’ two days before opening. 

      “So we have the mechanisms in place that we’ve learned about over the past couple of years,” he continues. “We rehearse with everyone in masks, we do testing twice a week—following the systems that were put in place by the movie industry.”

      Back in New York at the International Society for the Performing Arts conference—the first one since 2020—DanceHouse’s Smith says the theme of this year’s event is “The Urgency of Now.” The big question on the minds of arts groups attending from around the world is, predictably, what does the future hold?

      With audiences showing some reluctance to come back to the arts en masse in Vancouver, Wright says a new commitment to funding from governments is a key to keeping the Vancouver scene healthy. 

      “There’s even a national initiative in the performing arts community to try and reach out to a government that’s been remarkably supportive throughout the pandemic,” he says. “For me, I’m talking about all three levels of government—Vancouver, the province, and the federal government. And yet there is still a need where everyone is going, ‘Yeah, um, but now.....’”

      Smith continues with, “We’re in a restart phase, and there’s still a gap in financing given that ticket sales are not as dependable or reliable. I almost feel like we’re back in a start-up phase where we have the thinking ‘How do we develop a curiosity and change behaviours so people actually want to be out and convening and falling in love with going to the theatre again?’ That notion of uncertainty continues, and there’s that element of things being unpredictable, which is an uncomfortable place to operate from. It’s just the moment that we’re living through.”

      For DanceHouse, a way forward includes thinking about who the organization wants to reach with its programming, while also taking into account factors like the cost of travel, inflation, and Vancouver’s ever-increasing unaffordability. 

      “The other thing that comes up for me, and this is not COVID related at all, is that we’re also in an environment where there is a social reckoning going on as it relates to who is in the theatre, who is onstage, and where are we with equity, diversity, and inclusion,” Smith says. “Are we ensuring that we’re making space for everybody to see themselves being reflected back from the stage?”

      Complex? Absolutely, especially when a lack of financial resources is making things doubly challenging. Along with other groups on the Vancouver arts scene, DanceHouse isn’t alone. 

      Noting that the impression from the conference is that everyone around the globe feels a level of uncertainty, and nobody is back at a pre-pandemic level, Wright asks this: “Maybe there is no back to normal, but is there a new normal and have we arrived at it? Have we arrived at the next thing or are we still in a process of transition? Or said another way, it’s easy to land this on the door of the pandemic, but I actually think there are a lot more factors at play.”