UPDATE: This interview took place before the province declared a state of emergency and a stay-at-home order, but Tim Jennings made it clear all plans were being made knowing provincial restrictions could change at any moment.
Tim Jennings is desperate to see the Shaw Festival return to what it was intended to do.
The season won’t be following many of its past traditions, but he is planning for a season to occur, unlike last year, when play openings were postponed several times due to the pandemic, and eventually cancelled as time ran out.
This season is expected to see seven plays that were intended to be part of the 2020 season, with previews beginning in May, and openings in June, about a month later than most years.
Jennings, Shaw CEO, says plans are being made based on 30 per cent capacity, which is what is anticipated by May, but as he was all through last season, he’ll be ready to pivot “up or down” if needed.
It might have to be 25 per cent, it could be 100 per cent, “what’s important is to be open,” he says.
“It’s important from our point of view to be the anchor we are for the Niagara Region, in terms of economic impact. As an employer, we want to make sure our folks have jobs, and as a charity we want to return good to the world. But the importance of all of this, I truly believe, is that theatre serves a bunch of basic human needs we are simply not meeting at the moment, and we need to. That’s why this is charity, and why we’re trying desperately to get back up and running, because the sooner we start meeting those needs again, the better off we’ll all be.”
The mental health issues people are having from isolation, from not gathering, from a lack of empathy and human contact, says Jennings, “we’re seeing everywhere. The advantages we’re getting from the arts, and performing arts especially, are big. That’s why I’ve dedicated my career to this. We’re desperate to get back in some small way, just like we did with the concerts all fall. They had a real impact on people who needed that, needed that kind of gathering, and we’re finding there is a way to open safely.”
He is counting on seeing things open up quickly once the vaccine starts to be distributed, once flu season ends, and when the situation improves during the summer, as it did last year.
He’s also basing his optimism on what he’s seeing in most public health models, and the government’s plan for the wage subsidy going on only until June, at least at this time — and hoping those factors are correct.
With the growing number of COVID cases in Niagara now, it may be hard to look ahead to that time “from this moment, because we’re in the middle of this, but I think once we turn that corner it will get better very quickly.”
Long-term, 30 per cent capacity is not a financially viable model, he says, “but we have to invest in our community, and our people. My board has been 100 percent behind us. So if 2021 ends up being a year that we don’t make as much money as we spend, that’s one of the reasons why we’re a charity, and not a for-profit organization, to know that happens sometimes. But we’re hopeful we will be able to break even at least, while continuing to provide a good economic impact for the community, which is our first priority.”
A lot of the sets, props and costumes for this season’s performances were in progress last year, and Jennings says those who make them will continue to finish what was started, moving forward carefully.
“Shops are working differently than they normally would be, with protocols, including distances and masks, in place, that allow them to continue their work.”
Most meetings with staff, at this stage, he says, “are around how to make sure everything’s done safely.”
Rehearsals are planned to start in March, but “almost all of the shows were rehearsed for weeks and weeks last year,” he says.
What needs to occur is for the acting ensemble to be in good shape physically and ready to go, especially for those dancing in Gypsy, this year’s Festival Theatre musical, but he is sure they will be fit in time for rehearsals to begin.
“Some cast members’ life choices and circumstances have changed since last year, and we have a few people who are not able to join us in 2021, but the vast majority are going to be back,” says Jennings.
“On the craft side, some have decided to retire, and on the arts side, some have gone back to school for a master’s degree, some decided to stay closer to home, have gone back into film, and a couple of young ladies are having babies, all choices they’re letting us know about. We’re not worrying about finding options. We can move others over from the cancelled plays, but the vast majority of the ensemble will look very much like it was intended to last year.’’
With this being a lighter year of productions, with five fewer than on last year’s playbill, “it makes a difference in how much space we need, and how fast we can get the other shows happening. It feels like it’s enough time right now, and if something happens between now and then that makes us reconsider, we’ll do that, and we’ll fix it. It’s how we’ve been existing for a year now, It’s what we all have to do to keep that optimism, to be ready to change again. Hopefully we won’t need to, and it all works out better than we think.”
At the end of the day, “it feels a little like our job is to keep people engaged with art, and use art as a way to make a better world. Right now it’s a very rough world, and we want to be there when we come out of it. It’s an important part of my job, to make sure we’re able to do whatever we can do, and obviously we have to do that safely,” says Jennings.
“That’s the gig right now, to figure out how to make art as best we can, and as safely as we can.”