With announcements made this past Tuesday about the British Columbia government’s plan to reopen the province, the thought of once again experiencing live music and theatre is at the top of many minds across Vancouver. This is especially the case for those whose livelihoods depend on running the venues in which these live events take place.
Live performances played for an in-house audience have been banned off and on since March of 2020. This means theatres, concert venues, and arts clubs have needed to pivot their business strategies. Some have depended on government funding and grants to help them through, others have had to temporarily close up shop.
With the news of something resembling a return to normalcy in September (and limited-capacity events as early as June 15), music and theatre venues across Vancouver are eagerly preparing to host events again.
Mo Tarmohamed, owner of the Rickshaw Theatre, says now that a date is set for unrestricted concerts, filling the September calendar is his top priority. Booking bands for an in-house audience hasn’t been something he’s been able to do for well over a year.
The details on how to proceed with so much on the world still in COVID-19 lockdown are, however, proving to be a bit challenging.
“We rely heavily on touring acts—most from the U.S. and some international,” Tarmohamed says in a phone interview with the Georgia Straight. “And in the absence of a Canada-wide strategy, we’re still a bit hamstrung when it comes to booking shows—other than local shows.”
That being said, local gigs won’t be hard to come by, Tarmohamed says, adding that he’s been flooded with B.C. bands sending him messages about doing shows in the fall.
The appetite for live music doesn’t worry Tarmohamed either, as he predicts people are eager to see live music—any live music—again.
“People have been so starved for this,” he says. “Even for bands that normally don’t attract a huge following- people will just show up because they want to enjoy being around everyone else.”
Limited-capacity events aren’t in the cards for the Rickshaw this summer, with the venue opting instead to continue to provide streaming events online until fully reopening in the fall. For now, Tarmohamed’s attention is “fully focused” on September and the (hopefully) full audiences the events will be able to bring in by then.
Other venues in the city, however, plan on filling their seats (or at least filling as many seats as they can with limited capacity) as soon as possible.
The Rio Theatre, which hosts live music and theatrical events when not screening films, infamously lit up its marquee with “Screw the arts, we’re a sports bar now” in the middle of the pandemic. Staff took to their sign today with a happy announcement: “Hallelujah! Movies are back. June 15th.” At last, the theatre will be a cinema once again.
“We are innately able to adapt,” Rachel Fox, senior programmer at the Rio Theatre, says in a phone interview. She’s referring to past challenges that have included: the theatre’s 2012 battle with the Liberal government to serve alcohol; the 2018 Save the Rio campaign; and now staying alive during a pandemic. “We’re resilient, we’ve had to be.”
Plans for re-opening begin next week with a return to the Andy Kaufman-esque stunt of operating as a sports bar of sorts, catering to hockey and MMA fans, and then, starting June 15, ditching the sports to return to being a cinema again.
“I’m most looking forward to seeing people in the lobby after a movie,” Fox says. “I can’t wait to see people after they’ve just experienced something. You know? I feel like we’ve all become numb zombies sitting on our couches, pressing next to the next episode of whatever mindless drivel I’m watching…. It’s the little things!”
Jericho Arts Centre’s board of director’s chairman Adam Henderson agrees that the experience of human connection is the thing he’s most excited about when the time comes to have live audiences again.
“It’s been very destructive to have everyone in their own little conversations and to have a healthy society, we need to have places where we share values and share conversations,” he tells the Straight via phone. “And that’s what theatre is for.”
United Players, a resident theatre company at the Jericho Arts Centre, has been able to produce full seasons of shows over the course of the pandemic through webcasting. Henderson explained that while the company is grateful for its “very generous and faithful” season ticket holders, selling additional tickets to the streamed events has not been profitable.
United Players hopes to have a limited live audience at the Jericho Arts Centre by the end of June, but Henderson admits that he’s a bit hesitant to promise that.
“Everything is up in the air,” Henderson says, concluding that live theatre can only happen if COVID numbers stay low and everything stays on track.
Across town, the Firehall Arts Centre also feels “cautiously optimistic” with the new B.C. timeline.
Donna Spencer, the artistic producer at the Firehall says while they’re happy to have the news that a reopening is planned, there is still some tentativeness moving forward.
“There’s still a lot of question marks,” Spencer says. “Will everything go to schedule? We hope so because it’s difficult to plan when you don’t know how you’ll be operating.”
If things go according to plan, Spencer says that, come autumn, the Downtown Eastside theatre plans on producing several of the shows that had to be postponed in the 2020 and 2021 seasons.
The Firehall is also planning for some bigger, expensive productions once 2022 arrives and they’re feeling more secure. Once COVID-19 is no longer something people are actively worrying about, Spencer is confident that audience attendance will be up again.
“I think everyone’s ready to see stuff,” she says. “I don’t know if people will be flocking back—I don’t know if that’s gonna happen. But I know people wanna see stuff. They wanna go to concerts, they wanna go to plays…. People want to be able to do it and feel safe, and that you’re not doing something that you shouldn’t be doing.”
So while music and art venues across the city prepare to make live entertainment possible again, Vancouverites can do their part by following the safety protocols in the home stretch of COVID-times.