Many of our large public spaces remain dark these days to limit the spread of COVID-19, but that doesn’t mean all is quiet in the city’s performing arts venues, halls and other places we gather. Accompanied by photographer Mikaela MacKenzie, Brenda Suderman explored the public and not-so-public corners of the Centennial Concert Hall at 555 Main St. to see improvements and upgrades made during lockdown and get a birds-eye perspective from high above the stage in the 53-year-old performing arts venue, the home stage for the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra, Manitoba Opera, and Royal Winnipeg Ballet.
When the doors of the province’s largest multipurpose performing arts hall reopen to the public, prepare to kick up your heels.
Not just the resumption of ballet, opera and live music at the Centennial Concert Hall will be worth celebrating, but because upcoming renovations will uncover a large section of wood flooring on the Piano Nobile level, said Robert Olson, CEO of Manitoba Centennial Centre Corp., which operates the hall.
"We are re-establishing the original design elements on Piano Nobile that include re-furbishing the hardwood floor that was covered up 30-plus years ago with carpeting," he said.
"Having a hardwood floor option will increase potential uses for this space."
Without the carpet, the space can be more easily used for banquets, wedding receptions, and even a little dancing, explained general manager Martin Kull.
"We’re good for 497 people," he said of the capacity of the Piano Nobile area, which measures about 4,850 sq. ft., with a third of that covered in hardwood.
"That’s a party."
In addition to the restored hardwood flooring, concert hall patrons can expect to walk on 50,000 sq. ft. of freshly laid carpets on the staircases and hallways. Scheduled to be installed by the end of March, the new flooring replaces the red patterned wool carpeting trampled on by untold numbers of shoes and boots over the last three decades.
Pre-pandemic, the 2,305-seat venue owned and operated by the provincial Crown corporation hosted more than 200 concerts, opera performances and dance shows annually, along with community recitals, concerts, and convocations. For the last 10 months, the lights have been dark at the 250,000 sq.-ft.-hall, with the exception of a few physically-distanced concerts by the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra last fall and a bodybuilding exhibition.
"We have the capacity to open up to 500 people," said Olson, of how many people could be seated safely before code red closed down public gatherings again last fall. Now the WSO performs via livestream, with performers spreading out on the 17-metre wide stage as they play to the empty hall of red upholstered seats.
During the few events held last fall, the venue implemented new protocols that will remain in effect in a post-COVID-19 era, said Kull, including the colour-coded entrance doors (red, blue and yellow) designed to move people in and out more efficiently, portable backpack foggers so staff can disinfect public spaces before events and during intermissions, and new washroom fixtures.
All washrooms will be outfitted with hands-free faucets, minimizing people touching common surfaces and maybe even speeding up the handwashing process just a bit.
"It saves water and it saves touching (the taps) for the patrons," said Kull.
The changes extend to a special second-floor room fit for a queen off the north second-floor hallway, accessible through a private door just past the entrances to the loges. Designed for VIP guests, the design of the wood-panelled lounge — dubbed the Red Room — is largely untouched since the concert hall opened. The 1968-era hot and cold faucets in the adjacent private washroom will be also be updated, ready once again for special visitors, such as the Queen, who toured the hall early on, but never attended a performance, Kull said.
"She was here on July 15, 1970. It was for an official visit."
Unlike private boxes at sports facilities, dignitaries sit among the regular concert patrons occupying the first row of the north loge. Other than the four dozen other people seated in the loge, members of the audience wouldn’t be aware of the presence of dignitaries unless they are announced, Kull said.
"They often come in the back if they park in the back loop, or we bring them in the front (doors) before the patrons come in," he said.
Inside the hall, sharp-eyed patrons may notice some new railings in the auditorium, matching the existing brass and metal features. They probably won’t notice another significant improvement off the back entrances, where maintenance staff recently installed 180 metres of black plastic bumper strips along the hallways. Attached to the walls at ankle height and about a metre off the floor, the strips protect the walls from scratches and gouges caused by tour cases being moved to the stage from the Lily Street loading dock.
Concertgoers should also see improved lighting on the parking lots at Market and Rupert avenues, said Vince Paulich, supervisor of facility services, and maybe some repairs to the exterior concrete work.
"We’re trying to do much more in house," he said, referring to using the shutdown period to repair and improve the modern style building, constructed in 1968 at a cost of $6 million.
When the curtain rises again for public performances, the staff will be ready with improved cleaning protocols and an enthusiastic ‘hello,’ said Kull. What’s less certain is how audience members will feel about coming back after many months of staying far apart.
He expects the building will be busy with pent-up demand for concerts and other events but remains less sure that shows will be sold out, as people may be reluctant to sit in a crowded room for several hours after months of avoiding close contacts.
"Do we buy a show and risk the fact people are not coming out?" he said. Break-even requires selling two-thirds of the house.
"We need to literally put them shoulder-to-shoulder."
Despite that reservation, Kull looks forward to resumed live performances, where audiences can connect with the energy of the musicians and dancers on stage. After many years as the stage manager, his current role doesn’t require him to attend every show, but he can’t stay away, and he hopes audiences feel the same way.
"I made a point of standing at the front door for every performance of Mamma Mia!," Kull recalled of the 2012 touring production.
"People were literally dancing out the door."
And now he’s hoping patrons dance back in, as soon as possible.
Brenda Suderman has been a columnist in the Saturday paper since 2000, first writing about family entertainment, and about faith and religion since 2006.