When the pandemic hit in March, many felt it was curtains for the performing arts in Vancouver. Not Donna Spencer, the artistic producer of the Firehall Arts Centre in Vancouver.
“I spent my whole career producing or performing or being in live theatre performances or presenting dance,” Spencer recently told the Straight by phone. “And I know how much audiences appreciate it—and need it. So I felt if we didn’t move forward [with] some kind of plan to engage audiences, we were simply letting them down.”
She also knew that any strategy also needed to keep the artists safe.
To advance understanding of their predicament, Spencer launched the Dramatic Pause: Conversations About the Arts podcast, offering an outlet to discuss everything from how they were coping to their thoughts on inclusion and the Black Lives Matter movement.
That’s not all. She also staged five live performances, including four in the Firehall’s courtyard, during the Dancing on the Edge Festival, keeping audiences to a maximum of 30 people.
This came after Spencer studied a guide on how to reopen spaces safely, which was created by 300 presenting and producing organizations in the United States.
According to her, they had “thoughtfully” gone through all aspects, including how to sell tickets safely and how to remain physically distanced in going to washrooms.
In addition, the Firehall’s courtyard was the site of Pride Performance Empowers!, featuring drag, theatre, and music over three days, from July 31 to August 2. Again, audiences were capped at 30.
Later in the summer, audience sizes were boosted to 40 for another series called Music in the Courtyard.
“We added intermissions so there was time for people to get to the washroom safely without having to go by people,” Spencer said.
All of this has set the stage for this fall’s theatre season, which begins on October 15 with veteran Vancouver actor and writer Allan Morgan’s one-act play I Walked the Line. It resulted from his experience being locked out along with dozens of other members of MoveUP B.C.—and how they kept their spirits up despite being out of work for 132 days.
No more than 50 people will be allowed in the theatre for I Walked the Line, with everyone in the audience wearing masks. People in different groups will not be seated side by side.
“Someone said, ‘Are you going to allow them to take off their mask when they have a drink?’ ” Spencer said. “My response to that is simply, ‘The mask can stay on, and they need to lift it and have a sip and put it back down.’ If that’s a problem, we’ll stop our concession offering.”
Actors, directors, and stage-management people are being kept separate from Firehall Arts Centre administrators. Because Morgan’s show is a one-actor performance and has already been staged, it’s ideal for the season opener.
Morgan credited Spencer and her team for being brave enough to continue producing live theatre and dance in Vancouver.
"This in the face of the pandemic," he told the Straight by phone. "They’re doing it well, everything is in place, protocols are in place. I can’t say enough good about her. I love that she took this show on."
Spencer said that the staging details are still being worked out for the second show, In the Beginning.
In this production, she and filmmmaker and performer Rosemary Georgeson will tell the history of Indigenous people in the neighbourhoods of Strathcona, Chinatown, Gastown, and Japantown. It runs from November 4 to 7 as part of the Heart of the City Festival.
According to Spencer, the three or four people on-stage will be physically separated and kept away from the audience. Also, the theatre will be thoroughly cleaned after every performance.
The Amaryllis, which will premiere on November 12, has two actors, Jillian Fargey and Shawn Macdonald, playing a voice-over artist and talent agent, respectively. It's directed by Mindy Parfitt.
“We were just talking yesterday about how some of the rehearsal time might be done slightly differently,” Spencer said. “They might not be in the room at the same time.”
Moreover, lighting people will have to remain in their own bubble.
“What we’re trying to do is something that’s similar to what’s going on in the film industry,” she explained. “There’s usually one liaison person who’s moving back and forth. If anyone does get sick, we have a backup plan for that.
“The first thing, of course, would be testing and finding out if it is, indeed, COVID," Spencer continued. "If it’s not, then of course everything can go forward."