What is happening in theatre right now, and how you can help
It is really hard to know how to begin this article. I want to strike the right tone, you see. As an arts worker* I want to talk about how the performing arts sector is taking a huge hit, but I’m concerned. I know that everyone else is going through a rough time right now, and some may argue that the arts are not an essential service.
However, would it even be possible to get through this lockdown without the arts? Without books, films, shows, music, and live streams — which some creators are making available for free? Of course, if you are reading Mooney on Theatre, then I imagine you are among the converted, so I will cut my preaching short.
So let’s talk about what’s actually happening in the theatre world right now.
First, a quick word from our publisher Megan Mooney:
Mooney on Theatre is a Toronto-centric publication, so I want to put what kind of losses we are talking about in Toronto alone into some perspective. The Toronto Star reported on Wednesday that Toronto arts organizations can expect a loss of ticket revenue of over $500 Million over the next three months. The number comes from the Toronto Alliance for Performing Artists, otherwise known as TAPA.
It is important to note that TAPA doesn’t represent all performing artists. For instance, they do not represent comedy performers (stand-up or sketch), storytellers, slam poets or other such performers. But what many may not realize is many smaller companies or productions presenting more ‘traditional’ theatre either don’t qualify or can’t afford to join TAPA. So, think of this TAPA count of $500 Million as just one part of the picture.
Now, back to your regularly scheduled article…
What the general public sees is theatre companies cancelling the rest of their seasons. Everything is an unknown at this point: social-distancing makes rehearsing for upcoming shows impossible, and shows touring from other areas are having to cancel whole tours.
That’s what we see from the outside. What exactly is going on behind the scenes? Well, in brief, there are tons of art professionals working frenetically — from home, of course — trying to balance commitments to their artists, staff, audiences, sponsors and communities.
Since all performances have been cancelled, theatres are in the process of refunding or exchanging tickets. They have taken a huge hit on a major source of income: ticket sales. However, most are doing their best to meet their obligations to artists who had been signed to contracts.
Theatres are not just losing out on ticket revenue; they are also losing on income from sponsorships, donations, subscriptions, and even the money they would normally have made selling drinks during intermission make a difference. Some organizations may not be able to withstand the financial effects of this pandemic.
And yet, it’s not all doom and gloom. Many venued theatre companies are in talks with the federal government to open up their spaces to be used as testing or blood donation centres.
You may also have noticed that Mooney on Theatre is still trying to do weekly listings, just sticking to Digital Performances. Artists are putting out a ton of content online. Some of them are fundraisers. And some of them are for free for the benefit of the community.
Which reminds me, have you heard of The Social Distancing Festival? Toronto artist Nick Green created the website to act as a hub after his show was cancelled, and it quickly grew, showcasing work from around the world. It has also garnered international press attention as it presents art to the world. While it started to provide artists with the opportunity to present cancelled performances to an audience, it has, in its very short life, grown and evolved and now houses all sorts of work. I suspect we will see a lot of this kind of thing in the coming months — artists finding their footing in new media, starting with one idea, and changing it as they go. These are fantastic things to support too.
If there is an artist whose work you absolutely love or a theatre company whose shows you have been going to see for years, then now is the time to act to ensure that these people and institutions are left standing once we emerge from this pandemic.
So what can you do?
If you are holding onto a ticket for a show and can afford to do so, please consider donating its value to the theatre instead of asking for a refund. If the theatre company is incorporated, then you will get a shiny tax receipt and eternal kudos from the theatre’s staff.
Also, reach out and check in with your arts worker (or gig economy worker) friends. The shut down is hard on everyone and even more stressful if you are concerned about your financial stability or job security. Have a Zoom (or video conference platform of your choice) lunch date or just send them a text. It really makes all the difference in the world.
Talk about the arts on social media. Share what work has affected you. Tell people what the arts mean to you, how they affect your day to day life. I’m not asking you to do this for the hell of it. I am asking you to be an arts advocate. Help people understand how and why the arts are essential. People are more likely to listen to the people in their lives than an advocacy group. You are more influential than you imagine.
Now more than ever, it is critical to advocate for the cultural sector while the government is working on a relief plan for Canadians. Ensuring that the conversation includes the arts helps keep our artists, arts workers and cultural institutions top of mind.
And finally, make a vow, in the most dramatic way you can think of, to go see at least one live performance once we get to the other side of this.
We are all in unknown territory right now. And we will all get through it. And thankfully, we will have various forms of the arts to make it easier for all of us to make it through. Let’s all find ways to give back to this industry that gives us all so much.
* Disclosure: I work for the Professional Association of Canadian Theatre (PACT). This piece is not meant to represent PACT, these are my opinions and written in my capacity as a writer at Mooney on Theatre, not as an employee of PACT.