Theatre companies have been hit hard by the pandemic – harder still by the restrictions and shutdowns our local and provincial governments have mandated in their efforts to control the spread of the virus. While theatre companies are only one piece of the economic puzzle in Windsor-Essex, they’re a larger and more diverse piece than many people recognize.
The theatre industry in our region is composed of more than two dozen organizations and innumerable solo performers. They range from community theatre groups (non-profits whose casts and crews are mostly volunteers) to semi-professional companies (“semi” because, although they pay their casts and crews, the local economy can’t yet support union rates of pay) to solo performance artists. The range of entertainment options they provide is vast and diverse – big Broadway-style musicals, plays (typically dramas and comedies), dance performances, drag shows, variety shows and cabaret-style vocal showcases, and everything in between. There’s something for everyone, from small children to seniors, catering to diverse tastes and preferences. On a typical weekend in any year other than 2020, there are so many options that no one person can see them all. Many thousands of people pay to enjoy the hard work of our region’s theatre industry every year.
Aside from entertainment, many theatre companies (and venues) also offer educational programs – from summer camps to workshops and even courses – to help local artists broaden and develop their skills, organize charity events, and provide opportunities for local playwrights to get their work produced.
Obviously people can’t pay for either the entertainment or educational programs provided by local theatre companies when performing arts venues are shut down and public gatherings are forbidden. On top of that, many people are won’t see a live show these days even when venues are open and taking every possible precaution to protect the health of their patrons, because they’re afraid of catching the virus, of falling ill, of passing it to others. Who can blame them? The COVID pandemic is objectively frightening.
Shortly before the pandemic struck, members representing most of our region’s theatre companies met to discuss how they could work together to move the local theatre industry forward. Plans were made for organized, cooperative efforts as a new organization – the Windsor-Essex Theatre Alliance (WETA). In general, WETA is intended to help local residents and tourists find and enjoy the variety of live entertainment options our region has to offer, share resources, and communicate to our local and provincial governments what an economic engine the theatre industry could be if adequately funded and supported. After all, nearly every other industry in our region benefits from governmental support and funding (often in the dorm of subsidies and tax incentive), a fact that became more obvious in 2020, when many theatre companies and venues discovered they were ineligible for government help offered to other forms of business
All of the industries in our region are interconnected. They depend on each other in ways that are often invisible at first glance.
Consider the following. A typical production (let’s say a play) will spend money on: materials to build, paint, and decorate a set; light and sound equipment rentals, fabrics for costumes; second-hand clothing for more contemporary costumes; make-up and hairdressing services; venue rentals (if they don’t have their own venue). At minimum, this is typical. With performing arts shut down, that money isn’t being spent at other local businesses.
Guess what? Audiences tend to go out for dinner and drinks before or after they attend a live performance, driving business to local bars and restaurants. When the performing arts are shut down, those bars and restaurants aren’t getting that business.
Of course, this is just an obvious and partial list of how the theatre business supports other local businesses. But you get the idea.
The longer these shutdowns and partial shutdowns continue, the likelier it is that Windsor-Essex’s once thriving and vibrant theatre industry will collapse. Already several companies have been shuttered – hopefully only temporarily.
Aside from government intervention focused on helping theatre companies (and the performing arts more generally) stay afloat until the pandemic runs its course, as has been done for other industries, there is no solution. What we *can* do is follow the advice provided by health experts all over the world to prevent these shutdowns from becoming long and more frequent: wear masks, socially distance, isolate when ill.
And when all of this is over, treat yourself to a show.