The doors of Massey Theatre are set to open again – but the new normal is going to look very different than the old one.
Since the COVID-19 pandemic brought live performances and large gatherings to a halt in March, the theatre team has been working to figure out its approach for the future. Now it’s taking its first cautious steps towards welcoming the public back inside.
“You can’t just go from zero to 60; you have to figure it out,” said executive director Jessica Schneider. “At the same time, we can’t just wait until everything’s normal again. We can’t go without culture for that long. We can’t go without the arts.”
Schneider is quick to note that doesn’t mean the theatre will simply throw open its doors and host large shows again. With public health directives around physical distancing top of mind, the theatre team is going out of its way to keep people apart while bringing them together.
For the first stage of its reopening, the theatre will open just the Plaskett Gallery and lobby area. The area will be divided into three zones, and visitors will be allowed to book times to attend with a small group from their “bubble.” The small groups will be able to take in an artist’s talk, look at the work and then leave.
The gallery then plans to add a performance portion to the visit. The gallery is recruiting local performers of all kinds – musicians, magicians, comedians, spoken word artists and more – so that visitors can enjoy a show on their way through.
No, it won’t be like sitting down for a full-scale show in the theatre – but it’s a start.
“Any amount of time that you get a performance and some beautiful art is better than nothing,” Schneider said.
Those performers aren’t all programmed yet, but Schneider noted the theatre wants to focus on New Westminster artists in an attempt to provide opportunities for artists and economic recovery for the local cultural sector.
As the month unfolds, Schneider and her team also have their sights set on “date night” events – which are planned to give couples a chance to enjoy a glass of wine, take in a reserved dinner at a local restaurant and do some kind of neighbourhood walking tour along with their night at the gallery. Similar family adventures will be set up that include some sort of virtual “scavenger hunt” for the kids.
Schneider noted the theatre team wants to help people increase their sense of trust in the idea of going out – not just to the theatre itself, but around the community and into local businesses.
“It’s just getting people out, moving around. It’s like that escape. It’s like a vacation – you’re not just doing your errands and going home and locking your doors again,” Schneider said.
She hopes events like the date nights and family scavenger hunts can help to add some vibrancy to the community and help the business community build some momentum again.
“We’re looking at really heavy hits on the business community,” she said. “We can’t do their street festivals and everything this year, but we can sort of replace it.”
As they start up the first programming in June, Schneider and her team are also looking at how they’ll be able to use both the Massey Theatre and the Anvil Centre Theatre over the longer term.
Like the rest of the province, the theatre sector is guided by public health directives – and so far, those are still limiting gatherings to an upper limit of 50 people.
Schneider says the Massey Theatre, with more than 1,200 seats, is perfectly positioned to take on some physically distanced performances because it has more than enough room to keep people apart – even when that 50-person limit is raised to a higher number at some future point.
Schneider pointed out that many smaller venues can’t operate right now because they don’t have enough space to keep their audiences physically distanced, so it’s going to be up to large venues like the Massey to pick up a lot of smaller-scale performances – theatre, dance, musical theatre and more.
With national and international touring shows out of the picture for the indefinite future, Schneider’s focus is on B.C. artists. She foresees the Massey being able to work with many artists and arts groups that it might not typically have worked with in the past.
“I think we’ll be really fortunate in New Westminster,” she said. “We’ll have a huge variety of things you used to have to travel downtown for.”
Schneider is confident the theatre will be able to find audiences for shows again, noting there are a large number of people who’ve been missing their chance to get out and connect with live performances.
For Schneider, nothing can replace the emotions that come along with the shared experience of theatre.
“The feelings you have when you’re watching a show are personal, but they’re shared. It’s not just your feelings you’re feeling; it’s the human condition you’re feeling,” she said.
And having artists to give voice to the human experience in the midst of, and emerging from, the COVID-19 pandemic? That, too, is something Schneider can’t wait to share.
“There’ll be some beauty and some joy, and some chance to reflect what we’ve all been going through,” she said. “I can’t wait to see what artists will bring.”