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Pandemic-spawned cloud of silence, darkness envelops city's arts and culture community as wounded finances, uncertain timelines stoke survival fears

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 20/3/2020 (191 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Concerts have been cancelled. Theatre productions have been suspended. Museums and galleries are dark. Venues are facing uncertain futures.

As the world shuts down amid the global COVID-19 pandemic, Winnipeg’s arts and culture scene is taking a huge and immediate hit, with aftershocks yet to be felt. From the theatre to the symphony, from the opera to the rock clubs, the closures and cancellations are casting a shadow on one of our city’s most vibrant sectors.

Here, Free Press arts reporters take a look at the immediate impact the virus is having on arts organizations in town, and how they are navigating unprecedented waters.


For Kelly Thornton, the newly minted artistic director of the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre, things got real on March 12.

Rehearsals were underway for the cast and crew of the mainstage show A Thousand Splendid Suns. While the threat of cancellation hung like a glycol fog over the production, two of the actors, Deena Aziz and Anita Mujumdar, did a phone interview with the Free Press that day, extolling the beauty and pertinence of the theatrical adaptation of Khaled Hosseini’s novel about two women and their unlikely alliance in war-ravaged Kabul under the heel of the Taliban.

The first intimation of the show’s ultimate fate came from Edmonton, where RMTC’s Beatles-laced Shakespeare adaptation, As You Like It, was summarily pulled from the stage at the Citadel Theatre in response to the pandemic crisis that was inexorably creeping across the country.

Rehearsals were underway for the cast and crew of the RMTC show A Thousand Splendid Suns when the plug got pulled. (Leif Norman)

Rehearsals were underway for the cast and crew of the RMTC show A Thousand Splendid Suns when the plug got pulled. (Leif Norman)

That same day, Beep, a touring children’s show from Australia scheduled to open at Manitoba Theatre for Young People, announced that its performers from Adelaide’s the Windmill Theatre Company were calling off their North American tour and returning home.

By the following day, RMTC executive director Camilla Holland had flown back from meetings in Toronto to join Thornton in a quickly assembled upper-management COVID-19 crisis team to respond to the worsening situation.

"The show was already set was up, the crew was ready to begin the cue-to-cue, everybody was in their costumes," Thornton says. "And we had to make a very hard announcement that it wasn’t going to go.

"It was a heart-wrenching time for all of us, going down and talking to the company on Friday," she says. "There was a lot of tears from management, as well as from the artists. Everyone is devastated.

"I pledged that I will work hard to try and bring this production back to our stage," Thornton says. "I can’t make promises of when that is, but I really want to see that play on our stage."

The upcoming drag comedy The Legend of Georgia McBride, previously scheduled to open April 23, was also cancelled as of Thursday, as was RMTC’s annual fundraising Lawyers Play, Picasso at the Lapin Agile, which had been scheduled to run from May 6 to 9.

"Things are moving so fast and I think a lot of our colleagues across the country are starting to announce cancellations well into the summer," Thornton says. "(Toronto company) Canadian Stage just cancelled Shakespeare in the Park, which was quite shocking to me, because that’s a long way out — that’s July-August."

RMTC produces the Winnipeg Fringe Theatre Festival, and for now, there are no plans to cancel the popular event’s start on July 15.

"But I think, in the face of this crisis, the entire industry is coming together and I think everybody is trying to support each other."

Thornton demurred when asked what kind of monetary pain the theatre might suffer in the wake of the cancellations of both A Thousand Splendid Suns and The Legend of Georgia McBride.

But over at Prairie Theatre Exchange, a much smaller venue, artistic director Thomas Morgan Jones has a figure — $250,000 — for the hit the company took on the cancellation of its remaining shows, By Grand Central Station (only six performances in, one-third of its run), and local playwright Sharon Bajer’s world première of The Gingerbread Girl, as well as the annual Festival of New Works.

That’s an approximate number, Jones cautions, saying the final figures won’t be known until the company’s fiscal year-end.

"It’s devastating on a number of fronts," he says. "What we’re doing in the organization is assessing what this means in terms of the financial situation for the end of the year. Many people have been graciously donating what they’ve spent on a ticket rather than asking for a refund. That makes a huge impact and that’s something that, if people are able, I would encourage them for all live performing arts or any museums…

"It’s an amazing difference, the impact of what that gesture can do."

Theatre Projects Manitoba has cancelled its world premiere of Rick Chafe’s Five Moments, set to open April 23.

At Winnipeg Jewish Theatre, another show from a local playwright looked as if it would go down in flames. Adding to the pain, it was also a world première from local playwright Daniel Thau-Eleff. Narrow Bridge, scheduled to run from March 28 to April 5, is a provocative piece in which the central character has a vision of drifting through the mechitzah (the barrier separating men and women in Orthodox synagogues) and subsequently comes out both as transgender and an Orthodox Jew. It has now been scrapped as WJT has cut short its season.

But because WJT is a smaller, nimbler company, artistic director Ari Weinberg had some wiggle room to adjust the theatre’s newly announced 2020-21 season to accommodate Thau-Eleff’s play. Narrow Bridge will now replace Trayf (scheduled for March 6-14, 2021) by American playwright Lindsay Joelle. That comedy will likely move to the 2021-22 season, Weinberg says.

"We were lucky. It was really a matter of connecting dots and lining up that allowed us to do it," he says.

His motivation to go the extra mile was tied to the invisible labour that goes into making a stage production.

"We’ve been developing this show for the past 2 1/2 years at WJT," he says. "Daniel and I have been talking about the play since my first season five years ago, and he’s been working on it for about seven.

"Why have we spent all this time developing a show — a world première — for no one to see?" he says. "So because so many things happen to align, we were able to do it and I feel very fortunate."

Soon after the Aussie artists behind Beep cancelled their North American tour, MTYP artistic director Pablo Felices-Luna confirmed the cancellation of the last show of MTYP’s season, Spelling 2-5-5, which had been touring in schools prior to a planned return home for a May 1 run.

It throws everything for a loop when it comes to planning, Felices-Luna says.

"We normally work on a three-year planning cycle, so any changes that are brought about by this could be played out next season or the season after that or if we are really bold, in three seasons’ time," he says, adding it is too soon to evaluate the impact on MTYP’s financial outlook.

"Our core activity involves bringing people together, and when that can’t happen, there is a definite hit to the organization," he says. "The extent of that, well, we’re just trying to adjust and figure it out on the run."

The injury to the artistic community may feel worse, he says.

"It’s not just the theatre, it’s all of those artists who are involved. They’re also not just being affected financially, but they’re being affected artistically," he says. "There is a life to a show. And when it’s truncated, it can be pretty hard. That’s something that’s worth thinking about, as well."

For the time being, recording and livestreaming plays for home viewing doesn’t look like a realistic option, because such efforts may be unsafe in the face of a pandemic. However, it had been planned for the PTE show By Grand Central Station, Jones says.

PTE’s production of By Grand Central Station only got through one third of its run. (Mike Deal / Winnipeg Free Press files)

PTE’s production of By Grand Central Station only got through one third of its run. (Mike Deal / Winnipeg Free Press files)

"In lieu of that, the producing company Heavy Bell has consented to having an archival video of the show sent exclusively to those who had tickets to the show," he says. "The link will be password-protected and will then be removed from the internet on what would have been the closing day of the production.

"There are no plans at this time for the video to be used in any way other than to be sent to the current ticket holder," Jones says. "I don’t expect those plans will change, particularly because it is now only an archival video."

Summer feels like a long way away, and Rainbow Stage artistic director Carson Nattrass can’t say for sure what fate awaits his season: The Drowsy Chaperone (July 2-19) and The Wizard of Oz (Aug. 13-30). As a performer himself, and the husband of actor-playwright Sharon Bajer, he feels the pain, he says. But he’s holding out hope.

"When all of this passes, Manitobans will need a place to gather and celebrate the human capacity for collaboration, capability and community," he says. "That place is the theatre."

"Try to keep positive," advises Thornton. "Our job is to try and weather the storm so that there’s a job to come back to, once we can raise the curtain again."

"The one positive I can find in all this," says Weinberg, "is that there will be a lot of art produced in the coming months. That’s something kind of exciting to look forward to... when we all come out of our isolations."

— Randall King


"The orchestra business is precarious at the best of times," says Trudy Schroeder, the executive director of the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra. "I hope this isn’t fatal."

When the Free Press reached her Wednesday night, Schroeder had just issued temporary layoff notices to the entire 67-musician orchestra, as well as to 30 full-time administrative staffers and 14 teachers in the Sistema after-school program. "It’s heartbreaking," she says.

Four shows from the WSO’s current season have been cancelled or postponed, as well as its spring gala. The Centennial Concert Hall has scrapped all rehearsals and shows until mid April.

The musicians can’t even gather to practise because the orchestra itself is a group larger than 50; provincial health officials have urged Manitobans not to participate in gatherings larger than that.

The fiscal year is not looking good for the WSO, which was forced to lay off all its staff and musicians earlier this week. (Mikaela MacKenzie / Winnipeg Free Press files)

The fiscal year is not looking good for the WSO, which was forced to lay off all its staff and musicians earlier this week. (Mikaela MacKenzie / Winnipeg Free Press files)

The WSO’s anticipated May tour of the Netherlands marking the 75th anniversary of the liberation of that country at the end of the Second World War, may not happen either, owing to international travel restrictions.

The pandemic has already wreaked havoc on WSO’s finances.

"Fiscally, this year is an absolute and total wreck — probably for every business and arts organization," Schroeder says. The cancellation of last weekend’s Troupe Vertigo performances alone meant a revenue loss of roughly $300,000. The WSO stands to lose $1 million this year.

"Every two weeks, our payroll is $283,000," Schroeder says. "So you get to the point where there’s no revenue coming in and gaping holes. It’s amazing how fast it can become horrendously bad."

Indeed, the WSO started this year in its strongest-ever financial position thanks, in part, to the nearly $650,000 built up from 12 consecutive years of operating surplus.

"And now, that entire surplus has been eroded," Schroeder says. "By April 30, barring any special input, we’ll have exactly $4,000."

The WSO’s sister organization, Manitoba Opera, is also grappling with the cancellation of Carmen, which was supposed to run March 28, 31 and April 3 at the Centennial Concert Hall, performing with the orchestra.

"There were about 4,500 tickets sold to it, which represents, just in ticket revenue alone, about $330,000," says Manitoba Opera CEO Larry Desrochers. "So that’s a big hit."

Like many arts organizations, Manitoba Opera is reaching out to its patrons and offering a tax receipt or a refund option.

"We’re just at the beginning of that process, and many ticketholders are converting their purchased ticket into a tax receipt, which is very generous of them and very helpful," Desrochers says.

"For many sectors in the community, whether its health, education or arts and culture, it’s a very generous community. People come together, not only in a time of need, but in general. So I’m not surprised."

Desrochers says more than 250 people — including cast, chorus, children’s chorus, crew and orchestra — are affected by Carmen’s cancellation, which represents half of the Opera’s two-production season.

"In particular, one of the groups that isn’t talked about very much that I want to draw attention to is all the crew, all the (International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees) labour," he says.

"That’s one group of labour that’s being affected by multiple closures, and that’s easy to overlook. It’s an important impact to recognize."

Eyeing an uncertain future, Desrochers points out that this is not just about the future of the Opera.

"It’s the future of the entire cultural sector," he says.

Still, there are ways for patrons to support their local arts organizations during a stressful time.

"For many performing arts organizations, if you have a ticket, take a tax receipt for that ticket," Desrochers says. "That will be an immense help to whatever arts organization has sold you that ticket because it means they don’t have to return that revenue. I can’t underline enough how important that is."

Schroeder, meanwhile, is optimistic the WSO will survive.

"Our main job now is to make sure there will be an orchestra to re-emerge at the end of this pandemic. I have confidence we’ll be able to do that, but we’ll need our community to rally around us.

"Even if you’ve never been a subscriber to the symphony before, find a series," she says. "We’ve got a movie series, we’ve got a children’s/family series. Go to our website and take out a subscription for next year. That would be a way to give us a little hope."

Posters of past shows line the backstage of an empty Centennial Concert Hall with house lights on and the solitary ghost light on the stage. (Mike Deal / Winnipeg Free Press)

Posters of past shows line the backstage of an empty Centennial Concert Hall with house lights on and the solitary ghost light on the stage. (Mike Deal / Winnipeg Free Press)

The Royal Winnipeg Ballet has also closed its doors out of caution, which impacts both the company and the RWB School.

All classes and rehearsals for the 26-dancer company were suspended as of March 16. The company’s U.S. Wizard of Oz tour was also cancelled, along with the RWB’s 80th anniversary ball, Pretty in Pink, originally scheduled for April 4.

On Friday, the organization officially announced the end of its season.

RWB subscribers and ticket holders are able to donate their tickets back to the organization for a charitable tax receipt, apply a credit to their account or receive a full refund by visiting the RWB website for the company’s full policy and adjusted box office hours.

The RWB is also encouraging the community to purchase a subscription to its 81st season — billed as a season of Virtue & Villainy — which is scheduled kick off with the Canadian premiere of Septime Webre’s Alice (in Wonderland) in October.

At the RWB School, classes and rehearsals are suspended in both its Recreational and Professional divisions, which impacts more than 1,200 students of all ages. The 11-date RWB Aspirant’s Manitoba on the Edge Tour has been cancelled, as well.

The RWB School residence currently remains open to ensure students who cannot make it home to their families have a safe space to live.

Artistic director André Lewis was not available for an interview, but the RWB provided a statement to the Free Press.

"In total, we have 68 full-time staff and 145 part-time staff and over 1,200 students and 26 company dancers who contribute to the successful operations of the RWB. The fortitude of our people as they face this pandemic has been inspiring. They are demonstrating courage, collaboration to seek solutions, and are making the best of an incredibly difficult situation," the statement reads.

Jen Zoratti


It seemed as if the first real recognition of the seriousness of COVID-19 in North America was the cancellation of one of the biggest music festivals and industry conferences in the world, South by Southwest in Austin, Texas, just a few days before it was scheduled to begin earlier this month.

Then another massive festival, Coachella in Indio, Calif., followed suit, postponing from April until October.

The projected loss of revenue, for SXSW especially, was astounding. In addition to many small businesses in town losing thousands of anticipated dollars from the festival’s 100,000 attendees, the event itself laid off a third of its 175 year-round employees and said the future of the festival is in severe jeopardy.

Several Manitoba musical acts were set to attend the South by Southwest music festival in Austin, Texas. (Jay Janner / Austin American-Statesman files)

Several Manitoba musical acts were set to attend the South by Southwest music festival in Austin, Texas. (Jay Janner / Austin American-Statesman files)

Winnipeg musicians eventually got caught up in this tornado of cancellations, being forced to return home early from tour and postpone any local shows until further notice, all but eliminating a main source of income for many of them.

Not-for-profit industry association Manitoba Music has already been made aware of a slew of concert and event cancellations by its members, and Wednesday released a survey in hopes of being able to more concretely gauge the impact of COVID-19 on individual artists, as well as the national music industry as a whole.

On Friday, the associated announced a new COVID-19 emergency relief fund will soon be available for the province’s artists and music-industry workers.

The fund will deliver "urgent micro-grants" to artists and music companies whose financial well-being has been, or will be, impacted by coronavirus-related event cancellations.

Manitoba Music’s board of directors is seeding the fund with $20,000 to begin dispersing the micro-grants by the end of March. More details will be available next week as to how the funds will be administered and who is eligible.

Those interested in donating to the fund can visit manitobamusic.com/emergencyrelief. No tax receipts will be issued; Manitoba Music, a member-based organization, does not have charitable status.

"I think initially there’s a real element of disappointment that comes with even having to cancel one gig, and then it’s a few and then it’s possibly a couple months’ worth and then there’s some shock that has set in for people in terms of trying to figure out what their business is actually going to look like, says Sean McManus, executive director of Manitoba Music.

"And then we get to the stage of really digging in and figuring out what’s next. I think we’re just coming out of that shock phase and there’s still so much uncertainty. We’ve seen folks cancel things in the next couple of weeks but I think it’s obvious now this is going to be a longer-term scenario but still with a fair bit of uncertainty as to how long."

Right now, music organizations are waiting with bated breath to see if the local festival season will be impacted by COVID-19. If those big events do end up getting sidelined, McManus says, the local industry would be faced with a much more difficult recovery.

"A local company I spoke to said if all of our summer festivals hang in and all those bookings stay and come true, we’ll be OK and in a few months we’ll be able to start to recover," McManus says.

"But if that goes down, that’s a whole other level of crisis in terms of the business."

Over at Manitoba Film and Music (a government funding agency), CEO and film commissioner Rachel Margolis says they are taking stock and working with their stakeholders to try to analyze what the full impact of COVID-19 will be on both the music and film industries.

Film production is a huge economic driver in Manitoba, and while some productions have put a pause on their work, others are forging ahead while being "diligent and compliant" to ever-tightening restrictions. On the music side, Margolis says she and her team are regularly in touch with Manitoba Music and have no plans to stop the various music-funding programs Manitoba Film and Music offers.

"We’re really focusing on being accessible, building strategies, working on business development so that when production, hopefully sooner than later, ramps up again, Manitoba’s doors are open and we’re ready to compete on the world stage again as we have been," Margolis says.

"Because this is a pandemic, we’re not the only ones that are in this — we’re in this together with all of our peer provinces, we’re in this together as a world and global issue, so the challenges that are facing MFM are facing every other agency.…

"I’m in almost daily contact with my peer CEOs and film commissioners across Canada and we’re constantly sharing best practices and we are a forum for good business and good advice. That has been a tremendous support to all of us as we continue to be current with what’s happening in our respective jurisdictions."

Of course, it’s not just individual artists who are affected by event cancellations; venues of all sizes are already feeling the hit of having to close the doors to avoid the spread of coronavirus.

The Good Will Social Club on Portage Avenue promotes social distancing as it remains closed. (Jesse Boily / Winnipeg Free Press)

The Good Will Social Club on Portage Avenue promotes social distancing as it remains closed. (Jesse Boily / Winnipeg Free Press)

The Good Will Social Club recently cleared its normally packed calendar and shut the doors, forcing owners to lay off all the venue’s staff.

Co-owner and general manager David Schellenberg says the decision to shut down for the foreseeable future was a no-brainer, as they are dedicated "to the safety of the city and every patron we’ve ever had," but the Portage Avenue space’s ability to open again after many weeks without revenue relies entirely on the ability to take advantage of the federal government’s stimulus package that includes small businesses, which was announced Wednesday.

"We’re returning product to make sure we have enough money to pay our bills, to be completely honest," says Schellenberg.

"We operate on such a shoestring budget in the first place, and in a situation such as this, without any support from the government, the Good Will will be over, there’s no doubt in my mind."

The West End Cultural Centre, another of the city’s mid-sized venues, is in slightly better shape, given its not-for-profit status, but is still already feeling the heat from event cancellations. For the time being, all venue staff will remain employed, but after next week, executive director Jason Hooper says it’s anyone’s guess how things will proceed and how long the venue will be able to survive without any revenue.

"I don’t know… that’s the most honest answer; I really don’t know. A few months for sure, but after that we’ll have to figure something out," Hooper says.

"I think right now (being a not-for-profit) is a bonus for sure. The timing for this, oddly, is not the worst for us; we will be receiving some of our annual operating grant funds sometime in the next couple of months, so that will probably get us through the summer, so that puts us in a pretty good position compared to if we were a for-profit venue."

Erin Lebar


Local museums and galleries are feeling the impact of closures, although for many organizations, it is too soon to tell exactly what that impact will be.

Jody Tresoor, communications specialist at the Manitoba Museum, which closed to the public March 14, says that "as this situation is very fluid, the making of decisions, the development of plans, and the assessment of impacts is ever-changing. We will be issuing media releases when appropriate and we cannot comment more at this time."

The Manitoba Museum has been closed to the public since March 14. (Mikaela MacKenzie / Winnipeg Free Press)

The Manitoba Museum has been closed to the public since March 14. (Mikaela MacKenzie / Winnipeg Free Press)

Meanwhile, organizations including the Winnipeg Art Gallery and the Canadian Museum for Human Rights are both building up their online presence to ensure people stay engaged, inspired and connected.

"We’re really working hard right now to enhance what we’ve got online on our website and social media," says Maureen Fitzhenry, CMHR’s media relations manager.

The museum, which has been closed to the public since March 14, recently had videographers in to create a virtual tour of the galleries, which is currently live at humanrights.ca. By the end of the week, the museum also hopes to launch an online version of the Share Your Story booth situated in the museum.

"People can upload videos about their own personal stories related to human rights," says Fitzhenry, "and we’re prompting at the beginning for people to talk about this particular situation with COVID-19: what personal experiences they might have had, and things related to the human-rights impact, both positive in terms of community coming together and maybe somewhat more troubling things related to the role of fear, discrimination, othering and pointing fingers at others."

Fitzhenry says the CMHR is unable to estimate financial impact of the closure, or how it will impact plans and operations going forward.

"We do know that our general visitation numbers are for sure going to be impacted during the period of closure and beyond," she says. "That also affects our boutique and our bistro. There’s great uncertainty about how this all affects spring and summer tourism, when we traditionally have the biggest numbers of visitors.

All school programs and facility rentals have been cancelled or postponed indefinitely at the CMHR. The development of future exhibitions has not yet been directly impacted, though Fitzhenry notes that every day of closure disrupts the projected timeline of future projects.

The CMHR’s Manitoba 150 exhibit, Articulate Our Rights, which is an exhibition of art by Manitoba youth and their vision for the future of human rights, was set to launch in early June and will likely be postponed.

The CMHR is hopeful that its efforts towards online engagement will create a sense of community in a time of isolation.

"Let’s all make human rights a priority during this difficult time," Fitzhenry says. "Let’s think about how we can help others. Let’s think about how we can uphold human rights."

The Winnipeg Art Gallery has also been closed since March 14, along with its satellite locations at The Forks and Assiniboine Park.

The CMHR hopes its online engagement efforts will create a sense of community in a time of isolation. (Mike Deal / Winnipeg Free Press)

The CMHR hopes its online engagement efforts will create a sense of community in a time of isolation. (Mike Deal / Winnipeg Free Press)

"The majority of our staff are now working remotely," says Stephen Borys, director and CEO of the WAG. "All of our on-site and off-site programming is suspended; however, we’ve initiated a number of online remote ways that we can connect with, support and inspire our audiences and people around the community."

The entire WAG collection is available online at wag.ca and Borys has begun a daily art post where he shares a piece from the collection.

Both the spring opening of Into the Light, a survey of Manitoba modernist and Group of Seven member Lionel LeMoine FitzGerald, and the May 30 opening of Kwaata-nihtaawakihkA Hard Birth, an exhibit that celebrates the role of the Métis nation in the creation of Manitoba, will likely be postponed.

Borys, who also sits on the board of the Canadian Museums Association, notes that the organization is committed to supporting the museums and galleries in a safe and health way. The CMA is in direct contact with the Canadian Minister of Heritage as they plan for next steps and long-term goals.

"In these very difficult and uncertain times, we often look to things in our community that connect us, inspire us and help us," Borys says. "Art has always been a vehicle to inform, inspire, connect and heal. Museums and galleries have always been there as places where people can gather for healing.

"We’re looking for ways that we can still connect people and art in remote and online ways, because we believe art is a powerful way to help and uplift people in difficult times."

Frances Koncan

Erin Lebar

Erin Lebar
Multimedia producer

Erin Lebar is a multimedia producer who spends most of her time writing music- and culture-related stories for the Arts & Life section. She also co-hosts the Winnipeg Free Press's weekly pop-culture podcast, Bury the Lede.

Read full biography

Jen Zoratti

Jen Zoratti
Columnist

Jen Zoratti is a Winnipeg Free Press columnist and co-host of the paper's local culture podcast, Bury the Lede.

Read full biography

Randall King

Randall King
Reporter

In a way, Randall King was born into the entertainment beat.

Read full biography

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