Theatre companies are all about live performance. So when the Covid-19 pandemic suddenly shut down live theatre in March 2020, these companies lost their ability to function without warning. Yet, while much of the theatre industry found itself in a state of suspended animation, some companies in Windsor-Essex tried to adapt in a variety of ways to the new (hopefully temporary) reality.
Korda Artistic Productions wasted no time, marshalling its youth program to create an online version of their popular Hansel and Gretel panto in the summer of 2020. That production was swiftly followed by CHAOS (Children’s Arts Organization Showcase), a virtual arts festival of workshops and performances for kids, which saw Korda Kids partnering with other youth-focused groups, including Little Tomatoes, Music Moves Kids, and Black Kids in Action – as well as collaborating with a who’s-who of local artists like Vanessa Shields, Robert Franz, Kate Reynolds, Joey Wright, Hope Forman, Noah Beemer, Caulin Moore, and Erin Armstrong. The festival, partially funded by an ACHF grant, was a huge success, providing opportunities for kids to learn and stay busy while they coped with their first Covid summer. This was followed by a virtual film fest hosted by Gemma Cunial, which featured a discussion about youth, activism, and the arts hosted by Chris Boyd.
That fall, University Players faced a difficult challenge: they would not be able to produce their usual season of six live productions, which are an essential learning experience for students in the University of Windsor’s School of Dramatic Arts. A new approach was needed. So, in November 2020 the company presented The Stream You Step In, a partnership with Toronto-based company Outside the March, which featured new plays commissioned from Canadian playwrights David Yee, Marcus Youssef, Karen Hines, and Elena Eli Belyea designed for performance via Zoom. As Kristen Siapas, UP’s Marketing and Public Relations Coordinator explains, “The result was four new 30-minute pieces that reflected the uniqueness of 2020 – covering topics from the Black Lives Matter movement to relationships over Zoom and the student experience”.
Around the same time, Korda presented a second online panto, Cinderella. According to Korda’s Executive Producer Tracey Atin, who co-directed it with Carly Morrison-Hart and Toni Bruner, this production was created “with a large, socially distanced cast as a way to stay engaged creatively and socially. We laughed a lot, got to make music together with Bob Godden and some excellent musicians, dressed up in silly costumes, and played”.
It was Korda’s production of Cinderella that convinced Post Productions that it was possible to create an engaging online version of Negatunity, a new play by Windsor-based playwright Matthew St. Amand that had been in rehearsal since April of 2020 and had already been rescheduled three times when a new provincial lockdown scrapped plans to present it live in April 2021. The online version, which was available to stream for a five-week period, was a collaboration with local filmmaker Mitchell Branget.
As Post Productions unveiled Negatunity, University Players rolled out its second innovative project: The StartUP Festival. The festival was an attempt to provide graduating students with an experience akin to what they might have had in a non-Covid year. “Graduating students regularly create 20-minute one-act plays as a capstone course of their degree program,” Siapas explains, “and this year they were presented digitally with the support of professional designers, directors, and the University Players staff”. Patrons could pay to watch the new plays each night of the festival – and anyone could watch them afterwards on UP’s YouTube channel for free throughout the month of May.
Meanwhile, Tall Tale Theatre Collective was well-situated from the beginning of the pandemic, having already committed to producing a series of podcasts that, according to Artistic Director Eric Branget, “range from a call back to the horror-radios plays of old to high fantasy that brings audiences on a globe-trotting adventure”. Tall Tale has regularly offered new episodes of two series throughout the pandemic: Night Terrors and Fantasy Fantasia. Night Terrors, which Branget describes as “a horror-anthology podcast that features original, Canadian, radio plays performed by voice actors from across the province” received an ACHF grant for its most recent episode, a collaboration with Post Productions.
Fantasy Fantasia features local actors playing tabletop role-playing games like Dungeons & Dragons and Monsterhearts. In this series, players improvise and add to the story as it unfolds, creating surprising, dramatic, and often hilarious moments along the way. As Tall Tale’s Administrative Director, Averey Meloche, recalls, Fantasy Fantasia started as a “what if?” “We’re a bunch of theatre performers. We’re all looking for new opportunities to perform in a COVID-19 world. Tabletop role-playing games involve improv, storytelling, conflict, and are a lot of fun! It then turned into a ‘we could.’ We could create a new platform to perform. We could get funding for this idea. One thing led to another, and here we are, coming up soon on our one-year anniversary.” Forty-plus episodes of Fantasy Fantasia are already available online. Future episodes involve collaborations with local radio host Dan McDonald and MacFlash Entertainment.
Behind the scenes, David Burrows, of 401 Entertainment, created ScriptEd, a monthly gathering at which actors could collaborate on script readings via Zoom. Supported by SHO Arts Studios, these readings soon became so popular that they’re now held biweekly. The readings have also become a support group of sorts, bringing together actors from Windsor-Essex and Michigan who miss performing –and who are happy to revisit classic scripts, discover new gems, and work with colleagues they might not have met before Covid. More than 60 actors have taken part in the readings since October 2020. “It’s really just a chance for people to get together, discover some new scripts, and share a few laughs or tears,” Burrows says, though he notes it’s also been a great way for artists to discover new stories together – stories that may hit local stages when theatres re-open.
Feedback from audiences who have viewed all of these online experiments has been generally positive, and those offered free of charge, such as Korda’s Cinderella and Tall Tale’s podcasts, have attracted impressively large audiences. Yet there have been obstacles. Both University Players and Post Productions discovered that most of the Windsor-Essex audience isn’t interested in paying for locally-produced online theatre. On the other hand, both companies discovered previously-untapped audiences beyond our region – in fact, from around the world.
The challenge of engaging local audiences is complicated by a problem facing most of the world: internet fatigue or, as Atin puts it, “ennui and inertia”. Considering how much of our waking life is spent online while we’re trapped indoors, it’s hardly surprising. “People are weary of watching work online, artists are tired of the constant struggle to stay relevant and to work within the Covid constraints”, Atin says. To survive, “we constantly must remind ourselves that we must be doing this work out of a sense of internal need and love. Either that, or we are just hopeless – or is it hopeful? – masochists”.
Although all theatre companies – locally and worldwide – are eager to return to live, in-person performances, the effects of these online experiments will linger. “In some ways, the restrictions that closed theatres during the pandemic were a blessing in disguise”, Siapas says, as both projects undertaken by University Players had been considered prior to the pandemic, but the time and resources to pursue them were unavailable, given the demands of UP’s typical schedule. “The pandemic forced us to pivot to digital, and also opened up an opportunity for us to try new things!” Branget and Meloche agree, confirming that post-Covid, Tall Tale will continue both of its podcast series, bringing on new collaborators from Windsor and Toronto, in addition to staging live theatre.
Every company involved in these experiments agrees that they’ve been tremendous learning experiences, requiring those involved to learn a lot of new skills in short order. Meloche rattles off a long list of skills that had to be learned to produce Tall Tale’s podcasts (sometimes the hard way), from setup to recording to post effects, then adds: “This has been a learning process for everyone, but one we are proud to say everyone took on enthusiastically”. Siapas values all that the University Players team learned about “how to use various platforms and weave them into the Zoom performances” – even the intricacies of creating social media profiles for fictional characters.
Above all else, each company is emerging from the pandemic with a renewed appreciation for collaboration, and gratitude for the opportunities the pandemic has provided to meet, learn from, and create with new collaborators.
According to Atin, Korda’s goals during the pandemic “have been to discover new ways (for us at least) to engage audiences, keep our creative juices flowing (and our sanity relatively intact) and continue to foster our artistic relationships with our younger artists”, which have been achieved. “It would be great to preserve some of the great things we learned through this experience,” Siapas says, such as “partnering with great companies, connecting with playwrights, creating new works, and being able to share our shows with audiences across Canada” – and the wider world.