The Shaw Festival has cancelled performances and public events through Sept. 15, but has not given up on a fall and holiday season.
Shaw CEO Tim Jennings is continuing the juggling act he began performing when the theatre was shut down, working with ever-changing provincial and public health regulations and guidelines, in the hope he can safely open the theatre.
His concern, as it has always been, is not only what will work for the Shaw, but to resume bringing theatre-goers to Niagara-on-the-Lake to help local businesses and the Niagara economy. And his focus is on possibilities.
“I’m so used to knowing what we can do, of being the guy with the information,” he says. “But I have no information. Things are changing daily.”
He says that without rancour — he knows the ultimate goal, for everyone, is keeping the public safe.
“We just have to stay open to the idea of changes, and possibilities.”
Based on the provincial framework for reopening businesses, and the further extension of the state of emergency, most of the season’s productions have been cancelled.
Left on the Shaw calendar are Charley’s Aunt and Flush, through September and October, and A Christmas Carol, in November and December, but even those are not a certainty.
Charley’s Aunt, he says, “is closest to the deck,” but has a large cast, an issue that might not be surmountable. “It may be easier to do other things,” says Jennings.
All three productions are scheduled to be performed at the Royal George Theatre, a small theatre.
Flush and A Christmas Carol “are small enough, but it will depend on the numbers we can have in the theatre.” He’d like to see at least 30 per cent capacity, he says.
Although opening the three productions is his goal, he has to remain flexible, knowing how quickly things can change.
At the moment, provincial guidelines will allow only 50 people in the theatre, no matter the capacity.
He’s also looking in every direction at the possibility of grants, to help fund performances that will not likely make a profit with reduced seating. As much as he wants to present a season, “there’s an affordability issue,” he says.
Since larger groups, up to 100, are permitted outside, he’s also looking at outdoor productions as an option, although the Shaw has never done that before.
Once he has a better idea of a realistic schedule, it will take four to six weeks to prepare. “This isn’t something we can do quickly,” he says, although he hopes to have plans in place to move forward as quickly as possible.
Another challenge will be getting casts sorted out. All acting contracts were cancelled, although some actors are still in the area and continuing to work as Shaw employees, others have returned to permanent homes, and some will have to be juggled to accommodate the new schedule, but that work can’t begin until Jennings knows what the schedule will look like.
Since the pandemic led to the first round of cancellations, and in his involvement helping the Town through recovery decisions, Jennings has continued to be conscious of the $220-million impact the Shaw has on the economy of Niagara-on-the-Lake and the Region.
“I don’t even care if we lose money, as long as we don’t lose a lot of money,” he says, if opening means helping local businesses get back on their feet.
“I’m trying to get the road blocks out of my way to make that happen. That’s still the job, to do what is needed to make it work.”
The question now, he said, is also one of doing it safely, and waiting for word from the Province and the local public health department on how to do that.
Details of protocols and safety measures are expected to be released in the coming weeks, in conjunction with guidance from Public Health and the Town, and following the directives of all government and public health agencies.
Tickets for Charley’s Aunt, Flush, and A Christmas Carol continue to be available online.