Victoria theatres struggle to stay afloat amid COVID-19 closures

The show must go on. 

The old adage is a common mantra in the artistic world when productions have fallen on hard times, but that was before the COVID-19 pandemic shut down everything deemed non-essential, including local theatres that rely on audience revenues.

Blue Bridge Theatre in Victoria has posted a video on its website called “Keep the lights on” to encourage supporters to contribute as the organization largely relies on private donations.

“We wanted to create a message to our audience members to keep the faith that we’re going to come back,” said artistic director Brian Richmond on CBC’s On The Island.

As of this week, Richmond says they had already received close to $35,000.

Current seasons cancelled

The Belfry Theatre, another Victoria-based group, also relies on audiences for support. Since pandemic restrictions came into play, it’s had to cancel the remainder of the season but has remained committed to paying artists for the cancelled shows.

“We incurred those expenses and we continue [to incur] expenses with maintaining our staff and keeping as many artists and staff as we can,” said executive director Ivan Habel. “We live in the uncertainty of the times and the uncertainty of public gatherings.”

According to Habel, approximately 70 to 75 per cent of the Belfry’s ticket buyers have offered the value of their remaining tickets as donations rather than asking for refunds. The theatre company is also in the process of applying for financial assistance from the government, so that it can keep paying employees.

“We kept everybody on until the end of April,” Habel said. “We unfortunately had to write off some of the more temporary hourly workers, but we’ve kept full time staff on and we will continue to do that as long as possible.”

Blue Bridge Theatre in Victoria is creating a new video to tell the history of the company’s own Roxy Theatre, while it’s closed due to COVID-19 restrictions. (Blue Bridge Repertory Theatre/Facebook)

Both companies are keeping busy with creative projects in anticipation of being able to reopen as soon as this fall.

“Like all performing arts organizations we’re in a wait-and-see mode at the moment,” said Richmond. 

Those projects include creating a new video to tell the history of the company’s own Roxy Theatre and the development of the musical to be produced later this year. 

“So in a sense, we’re using this time period to broaden and deepen our infrastructure and to develop projects for the future,” said Richmond.

Loss of creative spaces

Still, while theatre companies stand by the old adage of putting on the show, Habel says the current challenges are unlike anything the industry has experienced.

“I think the theatre has always faced significant challenges in terms of getting the show on, but those are kind of everyday creative challenges and funding challenges that people become used to dealing with.”

Habel says everyone in the art community is struggling with the loss of shared spaces to create new projects.

“Getting to experience a view of the world from someone else’s experience in a collective manner is really the heart and soul of the theatre.”

Richmond worries that even when theatres reopen, there will be challenges getting audience members back in their seats, especially with limits on capacity that are likely to be in place.

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