Skip to content
Join our Newsletter

Stage Left: As virus fears close productions, keep calm and support the arts

They say if you stay in the news business long enough, you’ll see everything. Perhaps that’s true. I’ve covered the arts in Victoria since 1988. That’s 32 years, a long time. But never have I seen anything affect the local scene like COVID-19.
Evelyn (Ashley Richter) takes a snip of Rosalie's hair (Jane Rees) in UVic's Phoenix Theatre's production of the pre-Second World War drama The Children's Hour. The show was set to run until March 21, but has now been cancelled, after health authorities recommended against gatherings of 250 people or more.

They say if you stay in the news business long enough, you’ll see everything. Perhaps that’s true.

I’ve covered the arts in Victoria since 1988. That’s 32 years, a long time. But never have I seen anything affect the local scene like COVID-19.

Early this week, there was a flutter of consternation within the arts community over COVID-19, the virus that’s now reached pandemic proportions. By Thursday night, announcements of show cancellations — some of them last-minute — had swelled from a trickle to a fast-flowing river.

I first heard of this Thursday. That night, I was set to attend a performance of Lillian Hellman’s The Children’s Hour staged by University of Victoria’s Phoenix Theatre. Then Adrienne Holierhoek, the theatre’s publicist, emailed me with sobering news: the performance was cancelled.

“We’re not going ahead with a public performance, as we’re on the verge of the 250 limit,” she said. Holierhoek would now spend a busy night doing damage control.

She added wryly: “Let’s just say I’m having granola bars for dinner.”

As is the case with many performing arts companies in Victoria and throughout the province, the cancellation was in deference to a recommendation by B.C. health officer Bonnie Henry. On Thursday she suggested cancelling events expected to draw crowds of 250 or more to help contain the highly contagious virus.

That night, the list of cancellations continued to grow. Pacific Opera Victoria’s production of Flight of the Hummingbird, set to run Friday to March 22, is postponed indefinitely. The Victoria Symphony has discontinued its concerts. Dance Victoria says this weekend’s performances of Romeo + Juliet by Ballet B.C. are cancelled.

The Royal and McPherson theatres are closed until further notice.

Yesterday morning, I sat down to write a review of Busted Up: A Yukon Story, which played the Belfry Theatre’s Spark Festival. It’s a first-rate show and was to conclude its run tonight.

Later that morning, the Belfry’s communications director, Mark Dusseault, told me his company had made the difficult decision to cancel further Spark Festival performances. This festival, a showcase of new theatre, was originally to continue to March 22.

“It’s heartbreaking,” said Dusseault.

A decision had to be made quickly. One company was preparing to fly to Victoria from its home province of Newfoundland for Spark shows. The Belfry didn’t want them to invest effort, time and expense, only to learn their run was canceled.

Langham Court Theatre has cancelled today’s final performances of I and You.

Manager Michelle Buck said Langham Court originally considered capping the audience at 75 (the theatre’s capacity is 175) to allow for “social distancing” — that is, leaving physical spaces between attendees.

But in the end, the company — regretfully — decided to play it safe.

“It’s such a good little show,” Buck said. “It’s sad to pull it from underneath them.”

Dusseault, who has worked in theatre for 30 years, cannot remember a situation like this ever occurring before in Victoria. Yes, there have been other calamities: 9/11, the Gulf War, the global SARS outbreak of 2003. But nothing ever shut down the arts scene like COVID-19 has.

Not every theatre company has closed its doors. Blue Bridge Repertory Theatre says no upcoming events at its Roxy Theatre have been cancelled. The Roxy will host a musical tribute to the Beatles March 26 to 29.

It is, of course, disappointing for audiences when performances are cancelled. You not only miss out on the show, there’s the task of getting a refund. Yet for arts organizations, the fallout from this situation is much more profound.

Many companies scrape by to survive. Over the past 30 years, government funding has eroded. Audiences for opera, classical music and theatre are getting older. And in general, the battle for audiences is becoming much more intense.

For example, years ago, direct-to-consumer services such as Netflix didn’t even exist.

A new meme now making the social-media rounds suggests people holding tickets to cancelled shows should consider opting out of a refund. By doing so, you make a donation to the company in question.

It’s a noble notion worth considering. One potential legacy of COVID-19 is that it will shut down some arts organizations permanently. And once they go under, it’s difficult — if not impossible — to resurrect them.

Ours is a culturally rich city. During this difficult time, let us be aware of that, of the fragility and importance of the arts in Victoria.