Ghost lights, cameras and acting

Performance art in pandemic times

A scene from Prairie Theatre Exchange’s production of Hanna Moscovitch’s Post-Democracy, which will run virtually throughout April.

Leif Norman (supplied)

Winnipeg’s theatre ghosts have had a lonely year. In the before times, theatres around the city would be filled with audience members sitting close while watching productions put together by teams of actors, directors, designers and technicians working in enclosed spaces. At the end of the night, a “ghost light” would be left onstage at the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre (RMTC), but now it is left on all the time. It seems the ghosts are self-isolating too.

Theatres that would have been full more days of the year than not have sat empty. Even theatre productions like The Mountaintop, Post-Democracy and Plé have only run their performances a few times for the cameras and empty audiences.

In a year of constant change, it’s been difficult to predict when, where and how people will be able to gather. Winnipeg’s performing-arts companies had to scrap many plans over the past year. They created new programs, sometimes with no guarantee they will be able to go forward, as they are subject to governments’ shifting pandemic health orders. Performing-arts organizations have had to reconsider the definitions of theatre and art when audiences and sometimes artists can’t gather in person. 

At the same time, following the death of George Floyd and the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement, IBPOC artists and allies have demanded performing-arts organizations perform a deep, introspective assessment of their own racist structures and behaviours and to demonstrate a commitment to change. 

In the fall, the RMTC embarked on a season of microprogramming, starting with Tiny Plays, Big Ideas. The plan was to run several short plays written by a diverse group of artists to be staged for small audiences at the Canadian Museum of Human Rights in small, socially distanced groups. They will now be digitally streamed from May 7 to 23 online.

At the time, Kelly Thornton, artistic director of RMTC, said they were announcing programming as shortly as six weeks out from the events, as health conditions and the comfort level of audiences could change quickly. 

Tiny Plays “is our first toe in the water, to see whether audiences are willing to come back, and they are actually willing to come back,” Thornton said in November. The shows sold out in minutes, but, days before the show was to open, Manitoba went into Code Red, and the shows were cancelled. 

Programming decisions this year have been made more rapidly than in living memory. Theatres and other performing arts organizations like Young Lungs Dance Exchange, a dance organization that supports development, creation and presentation of contemporary dance, have also had to quickly learn how to provide workshops and training online. Young Lungs is running an upcoming workshop with Sick + Twisted Theatre for Deaf and disabled artists, as well as other artists who want to work with them. 

While it is difficult for Young Lungs to adapt a physical medium to a digital space, especially with certain workshops that required working with a partner, managing artistic director  Zorya Arrow says it has been beneficial to them as artists, but also made financially easier without the costs of a permanent venue.

Adaptation “is like stretching that muscle,” she says. “The whole pandemic has really opened a lot of doors for a lot of different accessibility needs, and (we are) breaking a lot of new ground.”

This season has forced performing-arts organizations to consider how to make their programming safe and accessible for everyone, including both the artistic teams and audience members. 

“Everyone is reading their space,” Thomas Morgan Jones, artistic director of Prairie Theatre Exchange (PTE), says. “The project, the amount of people, (how long) they’re presenting in real time, to figure out what’s responsible. Every company and all the humans that make up those companies are dealing with balancing rules with context-based ethics. 

“The question is: what makes a theatre relevant? What is the purpose of a theater? (How are we) serving all the communities right now?”

Many performing-arts organizations, including PTE, Young Lungs and Theatre Projects Manitoba, have found a comfortable virtual space by offering different online workshops, which is a function of theatres more easily translatable to the digital medium. But there are serious philosophical questions around the definition of art and theatre online or in person. 

“For some people, it’s about gathering, and that gathering doesn’t have to be live. And for some people, it is absolutely about sharing time and space, physically,” Jones says. “The magic (of live, in-person theatre) for me is not greater or lesser than (filmed theatre). It’s different than the magic of what can happen in terms of receiving things through the screen.”

In November, PTE presented Katharsis by Yvette Nolan. The performance, which starred Tracey Nepinak, ran at a tidy 20 minutes and was set in the reality of an empty theatre. Jones commissioned Nolan to “write a love letter to the theater, and then what she wrote was something that was immediately speech, in the immediate present.” 

However, after filming was finished, both on Katharsis and the upcoming Post-Democracy by Hannah Moscovitch, “there was a real sense of a lack of completion or fulfillment, on the part of all the artists and production team, because the next stage of creating a play, it’s like, now it’s ready for us to have a communion with the audience,” Jones says. “That feeling of displacement from that experience is really resonant right now.”

The road ahead is unclear, but, at least in PTE’s case, they are coming through financially with the help of the wage subsidy, government support and subscribers. However, performing-arts organizations will have to continue this kind of flexibility in programming until the pandemic is declared over and beyond, depending on their financial status post-pandemic. 

As for now, companies continue to take calculated risks in planning far ahead.

The Winnipeg Fringe Festival has just announced they will not have indoor venues this year. However, there are other hopeful plans ahead. Shakespeare in the Ruins and Théâtre Cercle Molière are attempting to mount their bilingual production of The Winter’s Tale, which they originally programmed for the summer of 2020. 

Jones hopes to have both an in-person and digital run of Ismaila Alfa’s Voice at PTE, and RMTC opens The (Post)Mistress, a new musical by Tomson Highway, on April 8. 

There’s no way to know if all these plans will work out or when the theatres will be full again, but at RMTC, the ghost light stays on, and the ghosts wait for us to join them.

Post-Democracy runs virtually at PTE from April 8 to 25. To stay up to date on their evolving season, find them at RMTC’s The (Post)Mistress runs April 8 to 25 at

Published in Volume 75, Number 24 of The Uniter (May 1, 2021)

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