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Arts and culture: A cascade of cancellations

Arts and culture event calendars in Victoria have been decimated by COVID-19, with hundreds of cancellations during the past 48 hours. Practically every venue in town has released an updated schedule affected by the pandemic.
Farquhar Auditorium at University of Victoria photo
Farquhar Auditorium at University of Victoria

Arts and culture event calendars in Victoria have been decimated by COVID-19, with hundreds of cancellations during the past 48 hours.

Practically every venue in town has released an updated schedule affected by the pandemic. Few are committing to shows months down the road, preferring to take a wait-and-see approach with events scheduled for the summer.

“We’re trying to get a feeling for how this thing is going to roll over,” said Franz Lehrbass, executive director of the Royal & McPherson Theatres Society, which operates the Royal Theatre and McPherson Playhouse.

“We’re trying to be very open and receptive and collaborative with local presenters, and reason through things with them.”

While it’s unclear when the rash of postponements — which has affected everything from nightclubs and theatres to festivals and film shoots — will end, some in the arts community are staying positive.

Victoria singer-songwriter Stephen Fearing cancelled his concert with Shari Ulrich set for the Dave Dunnet Theatre on March 21, and has no chance of re-scheduling it due to commitments to other projects.

Though he will not be celebrating the release of his 13th solo album, The Unconquerable Past, with a hometown concert, the multiple Juno Award winner is optimistic about his ability to recover from the loss.

He expects some of his peers will have a harder time, however. “There never really is a good time for this to happen,” Fearing said. “Musicians like myself, who are pushing 60, there’s not a lot of money left over that we can stash away for a rainy day.”

Ian Case, director of the 1,228-seat Farquhar Auditorium at the University of Victoria, said the COVID-19 crisis is uncharted territory. Case has suspended the majority of events at UVic, following the direction of health authorities to cancel gatherings of more than 250 people, but said he will continue to pay his union staff, which was one of his top priorities.

“From what I’m seeing and what I’m hearing, the arts community wants to do the right thing. Even if we are putting on shows with less than 250 people, we are taking the health of our patrons and artists and staff very seriously, and will take whatever steps we need to.”

COVID-19 is having an effect on all facets of the culture spectrum, Case said. But he expects many of the smaller arts organizations that operate without the aid of government grants “will find a way to scrape by” in the face of financial hardship. “They are doing this not because it’s a gold mine; they are doing it because it’s a calling to do the work, and they will continue to do that work.”

Large-scale events appear to be the most at risk — the bigger the room, the bigger the costs of mounting a production. Top nightclubs such as Distrikt, which has a legal capacity of 572, and Upstairs Cabaret, which can accommodate 500, both opened Friday night with reduced capacities of 250 people.

Could the 1,416-seat Royal Theatre have left some of its less-prominent bookings on the calendar? Yes, according to Lehrbass. But the 250-person gathering limit suggested by the provincial government “is not a number we want to play with,” he said. “We want to be safe and responsible, and understand that the goal here is to reduce the risk of transmission through public assembly.”

Film commissioner Kathleen Gilbert of the Vancouver Island South Film & Media Commission was fielding a stream of calls Friday from both media outlets and prospective producers. It was an odd mixture, she said, especially when Vancouver’s Front Street Pictures — one of two production companies currently shooting in Victoria — had just suspended work on its Martha Vineyard Mysteries series for two weeks.

“I guess it all depends on what happens next,” she said. “If we’ve got it under control in any way in the next month, I think we’re going to be all right. But if this is one of those where it’s six months before we start to see it get better, then we’re in trouble.”

The turbulence comes at an inopportune time for the local film industry, which has enjoyed a busy few weeks in terms of generating interest in the area. “It’s probably the busiest we’ve ever been,” Gilbert said. “We have three Netflix series that we are working very closely with right now. One would be filming in June, and we have a couple more that are set for later in the summer and into the fall.”

Those who work behind the scenes are also affected. George Scott, president of the Vancouver Island chapter of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE), represents a workforce of 300 employed through eight venues on the Island. His members include technical and administrative staff at venues such as the Royal Theatre, McPherson Playhouse and Save-on-Foods Memorial Centre — venues that are dark for the foreseeable future.

IATSE pre-production workers often work seasonally, depending on the production. Pacific Opera’s Carmen (April 14-26 at the Royal Theatre) and Cirque du Soleil’s Axel (May 28-31 at Save-on-Foods Memorial Centre) have been either postponed or cancelled, which means weeks of lost wages for some union members.

Some might not receive a paycheque before the crisis ends, Scott said. “They may go back to work in six weeks. But in this case, there is no end to the window, as it were.”

Organizations are doing what they can — the Victoria Symphony is allowing ticketholders for cancelled events to give their tickets to the symphony, in return for a charitable tax receipt, among other options.

But Fearing is concerned that aftershocks will reverberate for many months to come.

“After it’s safe to come out from hiding, is anyone going to have any money to go to shows anymore?”

mdevlin@timescolonist.com