Omicron has decimated performing arts centers across Canada, but the lifting of restrictions gives cause for optimism

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Tirion Law and Siphesihle November in The Nutcracker, December 9, 2021.Karolina Kuras/National Ballet of Canada

The National Ballet of Canada played Nutcracker last month but it might as well have danced Swan Lake for all the evil curses and tragic twists swirling around the production. Audiences had returned in droves, buying tickets for the annual Christmas treat, but as COVID-19 cases forced more performers into self-isolation, the company had to shut down before the half was over. of the race, disappointing thousands and losing millions of dollars. In income.

And yet, halfway through the 2021-22 season, as governments lift restrictions and Ontario theaters return to half capacity on January 31, the ballet’s general manager is delighted with the immediate future of the performing arts.

“People were really excited to come back; it was the silver lining,” Barry Hughson said. “It has been an incredibly difficult time for the sector. We were the first hit and we’ll be the last out, but what I’ve seen gives me a lot of hope.

In a normal January, performing arts directors often happily add up the dependable revenue from holiday shows that help underwrite riskier bets for the rest of the season: before the pandemic, the National Ballet could expect to make a third of its annual box office revenue. of a three-week series of Nutcracker. The show was approaching its usual 98% for ticket sales. “We had budgeted for 70 per cent, but we were way ahead, close to a normal season,” said executive director Barry Hughson. “Sales have been really robust.”

After all the closures and cancellations that have decimated the performing arts since March 2020, the recent holiday season was shaping up to be good. Even before this seasonal boost, labor statistics showed that the performing arts were beginning the slow recovery from the trough of the pandemic. Statistics Canada figures collated by the Canadian Performing Arts Association show live performance added 9,000 jobs in the third quarter of 2021. The sector had made progress last summer, increasing its real gross domestic product. above the 2020-21 collapse, although still less than halfway from full recovery.

But then the Omicron variant arrived. In mid-December, Ontario gave cinemas two days notice that they had to reduce their capacity to 50%.

“We had to contact 4,000 people and tell them they couldn’t come to the theater,” Hughson said. “After that, things happened pretty quickly.” In four more days, Nutcracker had to close completely after a few cases arose in the cast and orchestra: the entire woodwind section had to isolate themselves. Long before the province closed theaters completely on Jan. 5, it was clear the show couldn’t go on. Nutcrackerwhich was on track to sell $4.6 million in tickets, had only played 11 of its 26 scheduled performances.

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The ballet’s losses were among the most dramatic, but shows were closing across the country, leaving businesses – and the restaurants and shops frequented by their audiences – without crucial holiday sales. Like Ontario, Quebec has ordered the closure of its cinemas; most provinces, including Nova Scotia, Alberta and British Columbia, have simply imposed capacity limits. A vaccinated and masked audience seemed safe, but that didn’t stop Omicron from sneaking onto the stage.

Canada’s largest urban theater company, Vancouver’s Arts Club Theatre, is relying on a popular holiday deal and another annual blockbuster to subsidize its riskiest shows. That was good news then At Dolly Parton’s Smoky Mountain Christmas Carol, an American adaptation of the Charles Dickens story with songs by the country singer, sold well, at 88%. But when cases of COVID-19 emerged in the cast and orchestra, the show had to close on December 27 and refund $300,000 in tickets.

Even with 41 performances completed, Arts Club executive director Peter Cathie White says losing 13 shows takes “the sauce” out of its budget. Like the National Ballet, the company is now predicting that it will be in deficit for the 2021-22 season, and the Arts Club has postponed its January show to March, Made in Italy, a musical about a second-generation Italian-Canadian growing up in Alberta. However, you cannot reschedule A Christmas Carol Where Nutcracker for spring.

At the Shaw Festival in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario, the December entertainment is a more recent entry, and this year the theater had scheduled two shows: its annual production of A Christmas Carol was sold while the musical holiday hostel, in the largest Festival Theatre, was also doing well. But both shows had to close early after a member of the company tested positive, leading to the cancellation of a dozen performances. While the holiday shows aren’t a key revenue stream for Shaw, they attract a more local crowd, build new audiences for the spring-summer festival, and make a big difference for small businesses in the tourist town.

Christmas song could gross between $500,000 and $600,000 over the course of the race, but what it does for the city in terms of economic impact is that it took December to be month number 10 of the Year in Niagara-on-the-Lake for number two,” said executive director Tim Jennings.

What also worries Jennings is the loss of momentum the live performance was building after a treacherous year and a half: “There’s something worrying about restoring consumer confidence when you have to pull out like that.”

It really put the wind in its sails that the public came back. I’m exhausted but I’m incredibly optimistic

— National Ballet of Canada Executive Director, Barry Hughson

It’s a much-discussed topic in the performing arts: When will audiences feel safe to return?

Performing arts directors point out that their issues have involved cases of COVID-19 in their actors, who have to rehearse and perform without a mask, not in their audience. During the 11 performances of Nutcrackermore than 14,000 people visited the Four Seasons Center: The ballet had to trace the contacts of two spectators.

“There is strong evidence that theaters and performing arts centers are not a source of community spread,” Hughson said.

Regular polls conducted by Nanos Research for arts lobby group Business/Arts and the National Arts Center show audiences split into three rough groups: one that would return the minute restrictions were lifted; one who would wait a few months and another who was unsure or would never return. After a good summer, the most recent survey, taken at the end of December, included responses from the 27% who had already returned to indoor arts events.

However, as Omicron struck, the investigation also showed renewed fears as almost a third of respondents cited the virus as the main obstacle to participation, compared to 18% when this question was asked the previous month. The number of those who say they will never return is low – 9% in December; 7% in November – but have risen sharply since the survey was carried out last May.

Still, Hughson warns that surveys of public comfort levels tend to reflect the tenor of today’s COVID-19 news. In November, before Omicron, the National Ballet presented a mixed program, including atlas of angels by Canadian choreographer Crystal Pite – the kind of dance event that appeals to die-hard aficionados, not families looking for seasonal fun. The show sold $1.4 million in tickets, slightly surpassing its pre-pandemic run in 2020 and setting a corporate record for revenue from a mixed program.

“It really kicked things up that the audience came back,” Hughson said. “I’m exhausted but I’m incredibly optimistic because of what I saw in November and December.”

With files by J. Kelly Nestruck.

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