As of last Friday, after eight weeks of Zoom rehearsals, Shaw Festival performers were able to move outdoors to prepare in-person for the coming season, although with no more than 10 performers in one location.
Locals may have seen tents springing up around town to provide rehearsal space for plays expected to begin opening next month.
Tim Jennings, Shaw executive director and CEO, is keeping tent locations close to his chest, trying to avoid attracting gatherings. “Spectators are not permitted” at this stage, he says.
Some tents are more visible than others, he says, although several are on festival locations, including parking lots. “We’re creating spaces that are different from anything we’ve done before.”
The news that step 1 reopenings were to start last Friday, three days ahead of the original schedule that was to begin Monday, came from the province in response to declining infection rates and an increasing percentage of people with one or both doses of vaccination.
Step 1 allows concert venues, theatres and cinemas to open outdoors for the purpose of rehearsing or performing a recorded or broadcasted concert, artistic event, theatrical or other performance, with no more than 10 performers, among other restrictions.
It also allows non-essential retail to operate at 15 per cent capacity, outdoor dining with a maximum of four people per table, and outdoor gatherings of up to 10 people to take place.
Leading up to last week’s announcement, performing arts organizations were lobbying the province for fairness, having originally been left out of the step one regulations regarding outdoor activities.
While the ability to rehearse outdoors was welcome news, says Jennings, and plans for performances are underway, there are still many unknowns as to what restrictions there will be with regards to capacity.
To ensure safety for all, rapid tests are being used onsite under the guidance of McMaster Health Labs, which is working with large groups of people in congregate settings, says Jennings. Results so far have been all good, with no case counts.
The testing is important to alleviate some anxiety and concern about being together in person, after so long a time of isolation, says Jennings.
“We’re all wanting to do this well and do it safely,” he says, adding it means working at a much slower pace than normal.
With the exception of a few ensemble members who are not back this season by choice, all have roles to play, he says, and although there is a little nervousness about a very different season, “there is also huge excitement to be back.”
For some ensemble members, specifically those who were to be cast members in Gypsy, the broadway musical that was intended to be the highlight of last season, cancelled, on the bill again for this season and then cancelled again due to COVID restrictions, it means being part of some new outdoor events, concerts and shows that are being planned in addition to those who have been on the schedule for indoor performances since the season was announced.
All shows expected to be performed this season are in rehearsal, and although there are question marks that remain about how the season will proceed, he says, “if there are hoops put in front of us, we’ll jump through them. We’ll figure it out.”
It may be a cliche, but it’s one that’s more appropriate than ever, Jennings adds, “that the show must go on.”
While at the moment — and that could change— Jennings is looking at audiences of 100 people outside, and 50 inside, although the industry is pushing for percentage capacity, he says.
A tent that could seat 400 in normal situations could have 100 audience members physically distanced, he says.
“That’s our starting point, and we’ll adapt if necessary.”
With the Shaw’s charitable framework, the theatre is fortunate to be able to operate under those circumstances, with more than 50 per cent of its costs typically subsidized by grants or donations, “and this year, a lot more than others.”
It may still mean ending up with a deficit, “but hopefully we can manage that,” with the continuation of theatre important to all those involved, the audience, and the community which benefits from all those who come to town to see a Shaw production, or stay to see several.
“Others will benefit, the restaurants, wineries, hotels, and all businesses. It is an eco-system for sure, with everyone working together to create this brand experience that is Niagara-on-the-Lake.”
The season will begin with Charley’s Aunt, by Brandon Thomas, directed by artistic director Tim Carroll. Previews are scheduled to begin July 9, for a July 25 opening.
Andrew Lawrie as Charley and Peter Fernandes as Jack are two eager young men hoping to court their sweethearts. Mike Nadajewski is wild-card Lord Fancourt Babberley, whose turn in fancy-dress just might save the day.
Charley’s Aunt also features Neil Barclay, Patrick Galligan, Alexis Gordon, Claire Jullien, Marla McLean, Ric Reid and Gabriella Sundar Singh.
Flush, based on the novella by Virginia Woolf and adapted and directed by Carroll, featuring Julie Lumsden, Drew Plummer, Jonathan Tan and Jacqueline Thair, opens in previews July 10.
Next to open in previews on July 14 is The Devil’s Disciple, by Bernard Shaw, directed by Eda Holmes.
Martin Happer is scoundrel Richard Dudgeon in Bernard Shaw’s first theatrical hit featuring his unique blend of dark comedy and melodrama. Verbally sparring with Happer are Katherine Gauthier as Judith Anderson and Graeme Somerville as Reverend Anderson.
The Devil’s Disciple also features David Alan Anderson, Damien Atkins, Kristopher Bowman, Fiona Byrne, Julia Course, Tom McCamus, Peter Millard, Chick Reid, Johnathan Sousa and Shauna Thompson.
Opening July 23 is Sherlock Holmes and the Raven’s Curse, directed by Craig Hall. Damien Atkins once again dons the deerstalker as Sherlock Holmes and reunites with Ric Reid as the incomparable Dr. Watson and Claire Jullien as the long-suffering Mrs. Hudson. It also features Jason Cadieux, Katherine Gauthier, Marla McLean, Mike Nadajewski, Chick Reid and Donna Soares.
Also coming later this season are A Short History of Niagara, commissioned and presented by the Shaw Festival, and directed by Carroll. The 30-minute presentation features puppet theatre that brings to life the rich history of the Niagara region. Its preview opens July 29.
Next, on Aug. 8, comes Trouble in Mind, directed by Philip Akin. Nafeesa Monroe is Wiletta, the Black actor at the centre of Alice Childress’ unflinching look at privilege and race in the theatre community. Appearing alongside Monroe is Kiera Sangster as veteran actor Millie Davis and Graeme Somerville as director Al Manners.
Trouble in Mind also features Kaleb Alexander, David Alan Anderson, Neil Barclay, Kristi Frank, Patrick Galligan and Peter Millard.
Desire under the Elms will be shown in the fall, opening Oct. 15, at the same time as the Shaw’s regular holiday productions.
For more information visit shawfest.com.