January 23rd, 2021

Local theatre facing dark times with COVID-19

By Beeber, Al on March 24, 2020.

New West Theatre artistic director Kelly Reay, left along with Theatre Outré artistic director Jay Whitehead and manager David Gabert discuss the impact of the COVID-19 crisis on local theatre. Herald photo by Al Beeber

Al Beeber

Lethbridge Herald


With its upcoming production now postponed due to the COVID-19 crisis, Theatre OutrŽ is worried about the future of the performing arts.

Originally planned to run at Didi’s Playhaus downtown, “The Sissy Duckling” is on hiatus until further notice. However, cast will still be staging rehearsals of the show, a family production based on a children’s book by Harvey Fierstein which was adapted for stage by Nicola Elson.

Artistic director Jay Whitehead said Wednesday that rehearsals will be recorded for the theatre’s archives so “we will have footage in the bag” when the show can be remounted. With that footage, cast will be able to get back up to speed on the show, which was originally scheduled to run March 26-29.

How long the show remains on hold remains to be seen, a situation that is also facing New West Theatre’s artistic director Kelly Reay who replaced Sharon Peat last year. New West’s future is also on hold now that its fundraiser “The Dream Quest Gala – Cirque du L.A.” has been postponed.

“We’ve been working really hard on it,” said Whitehead of Theatre OutrŽ’s show.

“The cast is still rehearsing but we’re going to shut it down fairly quickly,” said Whitehead, who is also chair of the Department of Drama at the University of Lethbridge.

With public gatherings essentially being shuttered in Alberta as a response to the pandemic, Theatre OutrŽ is facing an uncertain financial situation.

“We rely on weekend events at Didi to pay the rent,” said Whitehead of the theatre which operates in the McFarland Building on 4 Avenue South.

The theatre plans to stream performances on Facebook in return for donations in hopes it can raise some funds.

But he acknowledged “theatre doesn’t have the same impact as video” on audiences.

Reay is also concerned about the future.

“It’s hard times for us like anyone else,” said Reay, a new resident of Lethbridge, who has worked for numerous theatres in Alberta including One Yellow Rabbit in Calgary. He is also on the board of directors of Theatre Alberta.

“The big thing stressing us out is how long will this last?,” he pondered.

“We’re not even sure we’ll operate in the summer. We were set for our season launch in a few weeks but we’ve put that on hold.”

With theatres like these relying on freelance performers, keeping cast could be an issue down the road.

“We’re putting people in a really tricky predicament,” he said.

Adding to that situation, said Whitehead, is the fact many people in theatre also work in the hospitality industry which is also affected by the crisis.

David Gabert, Theatre OutrŽ’s manager who is known for his city company Drama Nutz, said when the situation returns to normal, theatres will have to try reconnecting with audiences and convince them to return to live productions, a point reiterated by Whitehead:

“Theatre and the arts rely on people to gather. What does this mean for our industry?”

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