The Impact of COVID-19 on the Theatre Industry

By Robbie Tamblyn

The pandemic is impacting every imaginable aspect of the global economy, but when it comes to the theatre and entertainment industry, actors, in particular, are paying a steep price creatively and financially. COVID-19 has left the theatre industry in a concerning predicament as playhouses continue to remain closed, artists are left without work, and companies suffer major financial losses. Since most courses are movement-oriented, countless acting programs have also been continuously postponed, and the associated financial losses are leading to a precarious future for many in the industry. 

As a result of live theatrical performances in indoor spaces being cancelled, millions of actors and musicians alike are affected by sudden club, wedding, birthday, and numerous corporate event cancellations. There is little indication of when these exclusive events that would provide a large stimulus to the hospitality industry will return back to a state of normalcy, leaving these specialized creative professions helpless while the threat of a drastic deduction of Pandemic Unemployment Assistance benefits looms in the air. 

As mentioned, theatre playhouses have also been greatly suffering. Toronto’s Ossington Theatre has announced that it is permanently closing its doors amidst the pandemic. The company released a statement on their website saying that they were trying to hold on as long as possible, but the rent was no longer sustainable. “While it is likely no surprise by now, considering that countless other small venues have already disappeared, not to mention large national businesses, it is nonetheless heartbreaking,” the statement said. Toronto’s “The Mod Club Theatre” in Little Italy also announced that they would be closing effectively immediately, along with several other similar playhouses. The performance theatre and venue, which opened in 2002, has given upcoming artists a platform to perform live music for the past several decades. Grammy Award-winning artist The Weeknd started his career on this very stage back in 2011. 

One of the ways that playhouses that have been fortunate enough to remain open have responded to the pandemic’s restrictions is by using technology to fill the gap between the audience and actors. Given social-distancing protocols that prohibit physical gatherings, theatre-makers have responded creatively to the COVID-19 pandemic by turning to online, digital and lo-fi or “non-embodied” modes of performance that use radio and phone. Many argue that when theatre performances are mediated through technology to audiences, the experience loses its inherent thrill and intimacy; however, when done properly, it has been demonstrated that the resulting production can be quite good, especially given the circumstances. 

Recently, as part of Dr. Churchward’s HL Theatre course, Y11 students had the opportunity to watch a digital production delivered live through Zoom. The performance of ‘Orestes’ hosted by the Tarragon theatre, was cherished by the class, particularly appreciating the technology-based theatricals. Much of the class agreed that the production team auspiciously delivered a strong sense of liveliness and intimacy. 

Orestes is a modern adaptation of the much-retold myth about a certain son of the House of Atreus who murders his mother after killing his father following the countless deaths of the Trojan War. In the playwright Rick Robert’s equally difficult to interpret adaptation, Orestes (Cliff Cardinal), an online influencer of great nobility, has been let off for the killing of his mother Clytaemnestra but has been banned from the internet as a condition of release. “Banished from all platforms!” Electra would yell out. Electra (Krystin Pellerin), Orestes’ sister, makes it sound a fate worse than death. Electra wants her popular uncle Menelaus (Richard Clarkin) to plead Orestes’ case so he can upload once more to the web – and also tries to enlist the aunt she hates, Helen (Lisa Ryder), formerly of Troy, to the cause. 

The director, Richard Rose’s production of Orestes, takes place entirely in cyberspace. At its most basic level, the form of the show is a video conference between characters logging on to a custom interface. In addition, a chorus of four appears in their own line of boxes at the bottom of the screen and also reacts to the story in real-time in a virtual chat room that the audience has the capability to join as well.

Though sounding relatively straightforward, the video and streaming design by Frank Donato goes well beyond the typical Zoom meeting, as the interface employed required an immense amount of video/audio engineering from the production team. The ‘boxes’ where performers appear (in front of theatrically flickering backgrounds) move around and can carry out curious tricks (such as shrink or get swallowed), while animated overlays occasionally augment the actors’ performances.

This is just one of the many ways the theatre and entertainment industry has shifted the way they deliver content to stay afloat and keep intact with their audiences during the Pandemic. Stay tuned for more news about the theatre and entertainment industry during this time.