Are audiences returning to theatres? Vancouver Presents checks in with a number of arts organizations to find out how they are coping with the pandemic. Photo by Julian Bossert/Unsplash.
Are audiences returning to theatres? Vancouver Presents checks in with a number of arts organizations to find out how they are coping with the pandemic. Photo by Julian Bossert/Unsplash.

When the Greater Vancouver Professional Theatre Alliance (GVPTA) released its BC Patron Insights survey results in September, the biggest finding showed that while 62% of those surveyed stated they were eager to return to in-person programming, only 29% said they have a high level of comfort in returning immediately.

For at least one local theatre company, that audience sentiment is playing out in real-time. For others, while the impact of physical distancing requirements limiting the number of seats that can be sold is challenging, there remains hope.

Based on a public Facebook post from the Arts Club Theatre Company‘s artistic director Ashlie Corcoran, audience numbers are not where they would like them to be at this time.

Talking specifically about its current production of No Child… at the BMO Theatre Centre, Corcoran encouraged audiences to check out the critically acclaimed show either in-person or online. She goes onto say that she is worried about the effect the low ticket sales will have on “the level of programming we will be able to do in the mid-term future while we stick handle our way through this long-term pandemic.”

That got us wondering at Vancouver Presents how other professional arts organizations in Vancouver were weathering the pandemic storm and reached out to find out what is happening for them. We also check in with a diverse group of audience members for their thoughts on attending live in-person shows.

Firehall Arts Centre

Despite coming off a successful summer run of music in its courtyard, at the Firehall Arts Centre, artistic producer Donna Spencer admits to being a little more concerned as the weather shifts people inside. And of course, in keeping with pandemic restrictions, its maximum 155-seat capacity has been reduced to just 50 seats.

“I think theatre will come out of this but it’s going to take a while.” – Donna Spencer, Firehall Arts Centre

“We do have presales, but it’s not like the presales one would normally think, so it is a bit nerve-wracking to see what will happen as the fall goes on,” says Spencer. “I certainly haven’t given up hope that people will come, but I think with all the messages to clamp down, for very valid reasons, is going to affect people going anywhere. We’ll see what happens.”

Also, taking advantage of the federal wage subsidy program, Spencer says the money has definitely helped. “We might not be closed yet, but we would be closing fairly soon,” she says.

Spencer’s prognosis is cautiously optimistic, with a plan to continue offering smaller cast offerings for its 2020-2021 season.

“People like stories, and I think good stories, whether they are told either in music, theatre or dance, are better told when enjoyed in a room with people as opposed to online,” she says. “I think theatre will come out of this, but it’s going to take a while.”

Pacific Theatre

At Vancouver’s Pacific Theatre, it is still early days for both the company who re-opens for live performances this week and its new artistic director Kaitlin Williams.

“I definitely entered into all of this knowingly and willingly,” says Williams, who began interviewing and ultimately chosen for the position in the middle of the pandemic. “One of the interview questions was something like if fear wasn’t a factor, what would you do? And I said this is it.”

As with other venues, Pacific Theatre has reduced its capacity. For them, it meant going from 128 to 35 seats. And while ticket sales are not currently where Williams hoped for their first show, Suitcase Stories, it is still early days as the box office only opened last week.

“I’m confident we are going to weather this and get through. We just need to be nimble and responsive to the challenges at this moment.” – Kaitlin Williams, Pacific Theatre

“We’re approaching everything this year like a test kitchen,” says Williams. “We’re going to try something, and we’re going to learn from it. We really have no idea how many people are going to feel about coming in person, but I think we will get more people; we’re just early days in terms of getting the word out about the show.”

To help, Pacific Theatre has adopted a sliding scale pricing model with tickets starting at just ten dollars. “I think it is important that we acknowledge people’s finances have been affected during this time, so it was important for us to make sure there were no barriers to coming,” says Williams.

Williams also credits the Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy in allowing Pacific Theatre to keep its staff on the payroll. Its loyal donor base has also helped.

“I wouldn’t say it is resting on one show right now,” she says. “I’m confident we are going to weather this and get through. We just need to be nimble and responsive to the challenges at this moment.”

Acknowledging it can be overwhelming at times with so much uncertainty, Williams is focused on the now.

“That is all you really can do as there are too many questions going forward,” she says. “I know that theatre, in general, is going to come back and we will re-emerge; it is just figuring out how to stay around until that time.”

Presentation House Theatre

At North Vancouver’s Presentation House Theatre, managing director Andrea Loewen says, despite reducing 150 seats to just 30 due to current restrictions, they are keeping the lights on with a unified commitment to serve its community, the Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy and sell-outs of its recent theatre-for-young-audience (TYA) programming.

“… I feel confident that we can get through this season with the support that is in place to put on work for our community and that we’ll be okay.” – Andrea Loewen, Presentation House Theatre

Adult programming, on the other hand, has been a bit more up-and-down. While a September staged reading of a new script sold out both online and in-person, a more recent trio of comedy nights struggled to attract an audience.

“We’re still not sure how that is going to land,” she says. “I think adults are more worried about taking that risk just for their own entertainment. But we’ll see.”

Despite the uncertainty, Loewen, who is also an occasional contributor at Vancouver Presents, remains positive.

“If there is one thing I’ve learned from the pandemic, it is not to try to plan too far in advance,” she says. “But the way things are right now, I feel confident that we can get through this season with the support that is in place to put on work for our community and that we’ll be okay.”

The Cultch

Moving largely to a digital fall season with a couple of in-person events scheduled in October, executive director Heather Redfern says making plans more than a few weeks out is futile in the current environment as The Cultch remains committed to delivering on everything it promises.

“We are also trying to be realistic about how long it will take for audiences to feel good about participating in live performances,” says Redfern. “For many, there needs to be a vaccine, that will then need to be distributed, and then people will need to feel comfortable in crowds again.”

“We are doing this one government announcement at a time. As long as we are supported in a significant way we will make it through and come out the other side richer and with more tools in our belts.” – Heather Redfern, The Cultch

Using Science World, which saw 12% of its box office revenue when it reopened this summer, as a benchmark, Redfern considers anything over that number both in terms of dollars and audience a huge success. Its recent Transform Cabaret Festival significantly surpassed that benchmark, and Redfern is encouraged.

Going on to say it is not an overnight process, Redfern continues: “While we love to do small cast shows for a few live audience members, many artists’ visions reach beyond that, and at this point, their work can best be realized on video. For example, we simply could not have put 14 performers safely on stage to the opening bashes for Transform Cabaret Festival and doing it with one or two people would not have realized the artistic vision and the international engagement that is crucial to that show.”

So while our numbers have dropped significantly, we can really pay attention to the folks that are coming on the ride with us and getting the most out of what we are doing,” she says. “We all miss live performance terribly, and for some people, the digital is just not an option. These folks are supporting us through donations and wonderful notes of encouragement. We have had amazing messages, and it has really helped us get through.”

But while in-person performances may be the ultimate goal, Redfern is also realistic. “We are desperate to be live once more, but digital will always be a part of offerings from now on. Digital significantly increases the access and accessibility of performance, so our future will include both,” she says.

Optimistic that The Cultch can survive, Redfern does have concerns about the next generation of artists who miss out on training or are being forced to make other choices because of the pandemic.

“I would like to see some kind of guaranteed minimum income for freelance artists that will give them the ability to realize their full potential as creators and use this time to make extraordinary work,” she says.

What Audiences Are Saying

While the majority of potential audience members we checked with indicated a theatre’s COVID-19 safety plan was the most important aspect for them to make a return to theatres. Some have already returned to live theatre, while others report personal barriers preventing them from attending right now. The overwhelming sentiment appears to mirror the GVPTA survey results, with audiences keen to get back into theatres.

Here are some of the responses we received when we asked if they have or will see live theatre anytime soon:

“For me, I think it depends on the theatre’s Covid-19 safety plan. – are they mandating masks? Will social distancing will be enforced?”

“… sitting for an hour + without being able to leave my seat or shift my mask would not be an enjoyable experience. I’d be too distracted to enjoy the performance.”

“Too many friends and family who are immune-compromised for me to take the risk. My age group puts me at risk, too.”

“If the theatre provides a safe, clean environment with a limited number of attendees I would probably go.”

“For me to chance attendance would not be very prudent. You no doubt would expect the same answer from others of my generation with … compromised medical issues.”

“Social distancing makes me feel quite ‘alone’ in a presentation that truly requires ‘belonging.’ I long to be at the theatre, fully engaged in thinking and responding to the magical gift of actors performing. At this juncture in time, my theatre experience is on ‘pause.’ I am an avid theatre supporter and can’t wait for the next full show.”

Finally, Vancouver theatre artist Shawn Macdonald posted a Twitter thread after seeing the Arts Club’s No Child… Here is some of what he said:

“I feel really blessed that I got to sit in a theatre and watch a show live. When the end came, which was expectedly uplifting but not overdone, I find myself choking back tears. I was kind of surprised, to be honest, because the moment wasn’t anything huge in terms of reveal or catharsis. When I left, I tried to figure out why I was so emotional. Then I realized: I miss the theatre so much. I miss watching someone perform right up there in from of me. It was so cool. Clapping and hooting … at the end, felt so joyous. It was so simple and great. …if you love theatre, and you live in Vancouver, and your comfort levels allow you to sit in a theatre for just over an hour, go. You won’t regret it.”