Although Queen Street has been teeming with cars and visitors most weekends this summer, local businesses are reporting a shift in demographics to day-trippers who might stop for an ice cream or a patio meal, but aren’t in town to shop.
Shaw Festival patrons traditionally have stayed in town longer, spending more while they’re here, and the festival is now giving those patrons a reason to visit, even during a pandemic.
Small musical revues are taking place in private backyards, at wineries, in the Shaw Festival garden and other locations around town, and those who attend are loving the live performances.
But many were also hoping for a return to the indoor stage soon, including CEO Tim Jennings.
Those hopes were dashed with the news this week that A Christmas Carol is not to be, at least not this year.
Jennings said last week he wasn’t giving up altogether on staging the holiday classic, although chances weren’t looking good.
“We’re really hopeful we can move forward,” but with cases of COVID rising, he said, “we’re very concerned. We’re working against a tidal wave.”
He expected a decision this week, and the announcement of the cancellation came as no surprise Tuesday.
“We held off making this decision for as long as we possibly could because we had set our hearts on getting back into one of our theatres this year. But it was not to be: the situation clearly calls for caution. We need to keep everyone safe,” said artistic director Tim Carroll in the media release. “But our optimism remains unquenchable: we will do what we can, when we can, and we will be ready to leap into action the moment we get the nod. We are about to announce our plans for next season, which I hope and believe will be our best yet, not only because of the quality of the work we can offer, but because the people making that work, and witnessing that work, will do so with such passionate, renewed commitment to the life-affirming value of live theatre.”
Audiences for the musical revues are small, and so far, have been limited to those with Shaw Festival membership, but there could be some public availability in the coming weeks, says Jennings.
The festival has developed partnerships with Jackson-Triggs Winery and Vintage Hotels, among others, and there could be ticketed events, depending on the venues, but the best chance to see a performance, he says, is to become a Friend of the Shaw through membership opportunities, and to find out more about the events, sign up for the Shaw e-newsletter.
The concerts have been free, and were put together quickly, once the Shaw received its $400,000 federal grant for live, outdoor performances. “Soft openings” have taken place in recent weeks, says Jennings, featuring eight performers involved in three musical revues, including ensemble members Kyle Blair, Andrew Broderick, James Daly, Kristi Frank, Élodie Gillett, Alexis Gordon, Olivia Sinclair-Brisbane, and Jonathan Tan, with associate music director Ryan deSouza.
The revues are funded by the grant, which paid for capital costs, and by the federal wage subsidy, says Jennings. Each venue is setting its own safe pandemic protocol, according to space, and provincial guidelines.
The outdoor performances “help to connect us with our patrons,” Jennings says, adding orchestrating the current endeavour has been “complicated and weird,” and very different compared to what the Shaw had been hoping to offer, which was on-stage performances, although to a limited capacity.
The performances, however, are a start. “It’s great to be going outside, and trying this out with small audiences,” he says, and while not the norm for Shaw, “they are beautifully staged concerts, lovely revues of great composers.”
As to fulfilling the goal of driving economic recovery, Jennings says, “I think it’s working. People are going out to dinner, shopping, lounging on patios. We’re trying to get people to come here and stay longer.”
The concerts have been scheduled to finish before dinner to encourage patrons to come and spend the day in town, and go out to eat, he says, and to reassure them that NOTL is a safe place to visit.
“Businesses of Niagara are really focused on public safety, and have been unbelievably resilient with patios, popups and offering more options,” says Jennings. “We want people to stay, shop and make use of all our amenities.” The town is hurting, he added, “and we need to help.”
This is the Shaw’s way of “pivoting to a different, safe-gathering world,” and its desire to do more than offering only online programs. “The act of getting together and sharing art is a basic need.”