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Aug. 14, 2020 | Friday
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Shaw cancels August shows, but hopes to salvage some performances in fall
Tim Jennings, CEO of the Shaw Festival. (Supplied/David Cooper)

Any resumption of live theatre will mean audience members must wear masks, CEO says

Niagara's live theatre season, which has been plagued by upheaval due to COVID-19, received yet more bad news this week when the Shaw Festival pulled the plug on all of its planned August performances.

The decision, which follows the extension of the province's emergency orders and continuation of states of emergency in Niagara-on-the-Lake and across Ontario, puts the festival one step closer to losing the entire season, an unprecedented situation.

Despite that, Shaw chief executive Tim Jennings remains optimistic that something can be salvaged, with performances of some kind in September and October, leading up to the popular pre-Christmas season.

He just doesn't know exactly what any of those performances might look like. It could mean some outdoor shows, pop-up performances around town or small-scale concerts. Or even partly filled theatres.

Everything depends on COVID-19 cases continuing to drop and the province giving the entertainment industry the go-ahead.

Whatever happens, if it happens, live theatre will look much different than in the past. And audience members will all be wearing masks, he said.

"We're in conversations with the government and our insurers about what would be allowed," Jennings said in an interview Tuesday.

"We just have to get the numbers down to the point where it makes sense to be able to try things and I can't imagine any version of intentional gatherings that doesn't require face coverings for the audience," he said.

Working 12 hours a day and six to seven days a week, Jennings has been in regular contact with senior provincial officials and cabinet ministers to push the case for reopening live theatre in some form.

"Some of them are convinced we'll be able to try some things in the fall, which is why we're still trying to figure out what to do. There are certainly folks who feel strongly that outdoor things might be easily allowed and that would probably be the early fall at this point," Jennings said.

He is a bit confused about why churches are allowed to open at 30 per cent capacity and airlines are permitted to fly with some separation between passengers, but live theatre has not yet been given the green light.

"If you can have 300 people in a plane for four hours, why can't you have 100 people in a 300-seat theatre, for instance," Jennings said. "Why are those different" than live theatre, he asked.

He's tried without success to get an answer to that, he said.

"Right now I think the the biggest answer to that question is that the feeling is that air travel needs this kind of support more than theatre does, but I think that's about lobbying and I think it's about showing safety protocols in ways that they're seeing as 'OK, this is necessary to every person who needs to travel,' " he said.

But live theatre needs support, too, and is prepared to ensure everyone is safe, he said.

"I get that they're focused on the parts of the economy that are in some ways, easiest to reopen right now because that makes sense for a larger group," he said.

"But at some point, they're going to have to think about the entertainment economy which is, which has tens of billions of dollars of money coming into the province that isn't going to be happening until something's allowed to restart."

Jennings noted contact tracing is not a problem at the Shaw. Patrons will be asked screening questions, but once they're inside the Shaw's buildings, "We know not only exactly who's sitting there, but we have cameras in the lobbies and things that would allow us to track movement."

However, the festival doesn't even have clearance to try that outside yet, he noted.

NOTL Lord Mayor Betty Disero said she has been "lobbying with everyone who will listen in upper levels of government that the Shaw is better equipped, given that the right protocols are put in place (masks sanitizer and shields), to help with contact tracing."

"They know exactly where each ticket holder is coming from, what their address and phone number is, who sat six feet away from them, when they attended the performance, more readily than any other community space," Disero told The Lake Report.

Her only concern is if the Shaw is allowed to open is, "Will the people come? The messaging and the advertising must be very clear, concise and direct about how safe it really is. And, with the Shaw, I have every confidence."

Jennings, too, is confident that, with all the proper precautions in place, people will be "excited" to come back, whether it's to sit on a lawn for an outdoor performance, or in a sparsely filled theatre.

He understands how important the Shaw is to NOTL's economy and how the festival's patrons could help boost area businesses.

So, among many scenarios, the festival is "trying to figure out if we could do some kind of much reduced fall-winter season to help the town out and to try to figure out how to move forward from here."

However, no matter what happens, he also doesn't foresee things returning to normal – whatever that will be – any time soon.

"I don't think we're going to get back up to normal until at least next summer and probably later than that, depending on what happens with next summer."

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