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"Lantern Slide - Man in Empty Theatre, circa 1930s" is marked with CC PDM 1.0

The Showstopper: How COVID-19 has Affected Local Performing Arts Organizations

Written by
Elizabeth Mitton
February 3, 2021

The COVID-19 pandemic has undeniably affected every type of business, but perhaps none more than the performing arts. Often performed in venues which require close proximity, centres for the performing arts and non-venue specific organizations were some of the first to close in March 2020’s initial shutdown, and will likely be the last to reopen fully. At a time when human connection is valued more than ever, the absence of performing arts has not only negatively affected the public, but the performers and members of these organizations as well. Many such organizations exist in the Peterborough-Nogojiwanong area, thirteen of which have banded together to form the Peterborough Arts Recovery Alliance. Arthur Newspaper had the opportunity to sit down with four representatives of some of these organizations to discuss the various effects that the COVID-19 pandemic has had on arts and culture in this community.  

The Showstopper: How COVID-19 has Affected Local Performing Arts Organizations
"Lantern Slide - Man in Empty Theatre, circa 1930s" is marked with CC PDM 1.0

Speaking on a Zoom meeting from their homes, Arthur sat down with Kate Story of The Theatre on King, Emily Martin of Showplace Performance Centre, Justin Sutton of Peterborough Musicfest, and Mark Wallace of New Stages Theatre Company to discuss how this group came to be and its goals. The alliance began with an olive branch from Showplace Performance Centre’s general manager Emily Martin and chair Pat Hooper, who were eager to see how their fellow performance centres and organizations were coping with the COVID-19 pandemic. The alliance became a support group where members could navigate the challenges together and support one another. Discussions of challenges quickly evolved into discussions of action; members began sharing knowledge, resources, fundraising ideas, and ultimately, as Kate Story explained, “[it] turned into a group that had a mission to reach out to all levels of government -  municipal, provincial, and federal - and make our needs known, and raise the profile of performing arts and our needs during the pandemic.”  

While each organization’s situation is unique, they all share a need for financial support.  At The Theatre on King, Kate Story and the team pride themselves on being affordable in order to support new artistic ideas. While they were used to hosting artists almost every week, the COVID-19 pandemic caused shows to come to an abrupt halt. As Kate Story explained, this has left the theatre “in the position of having rent and other ongoing expenses and literally nothing coming in.” Showplace Performance Centre has had a similar experience, and has consequently had to lay off their entire staff. Still, they were able to host a small event for story and song duo Megan Murphy and Kate Suhr of The Verandah Cafe this past December. However, as Emily Martin explained, this performance came with strict rules “[Megan Murphy and Kate Suhr] had to take it on completely themselves, like cleaning and everything else.” While this event was certainly scaled back, the Showplace Performance Centre, who are used to hosting other arts performances and dance competitions, consider themselves fortunate to have hosted this event, as many other organizations have been unable to open to the public at all. 

"File:Crowd for Serena Ryder at Peterborough Musicfest, 2016.jpg" by Ptbomusicfest is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0

Of course, it is not only those who have a permanent venue who have been negatively impacted by the pandemic. Peterborough Musicfest, a free music festival which offers concerts throughout the summer on Wednesdays and Saturdays, rents its venue, Del Crary Park stage, from the City of Peterborough. While they no longer have the rental expense, Justin Sutton explained that finances are still limited; “we’ve lost most of our sponsor dollars...we are sponsored by dozens of small businesses in Peterborough...we don’t know how many of those folks are going to come back...people are very focused on supporting the arts and small businesses in this town, but if folks haven’t made any money, they don’t have money to spend...Our government funding has been cut back, but we do have a core base of funding that is sustaining us at the moment.” This core base of funding is allowing Musicfest to host a live stream at the end of March, but the future of the festival for the summer of 2021 remains  uncertain. This uncertainty is also shared by New Stages Theatre Company, who put on five  plays or stage readings annually, and also have no set venue. Artistic director Mark Wallace  acknowledged that his company is “not suffering in the same way that The Theatre on King, Showplace, or Market Hall are, but we also don’t have a huge payroll, apart from contract staff.” The solution for all of these organizations was to band together as one voice to collectively  address government funding opportunities, and in the meantime, take matters into their own hands by organizing community fundraisers.  

Fundraising opportunities can take many forms. For The Theatre on King, this took the form of a bottle drive, which raised $3000 before being shut down due to COVID-19 restrictions. Acknowledging that their organization has “almost no online capacity”, Story explained how online outreach and engagement has been a priority, and successful, with the help of their partner, Public Energy; “they have a charitable number and they have let us do fundraising.” Another fundraising effort which took place in December was a joint collaboration spearheaded by New Stages’ Mark Wallace and supported by the Peterborough Foundation, who  organized a ‘Golden Ticket’ fundraising campaign to provide immediate financial relief to up to  20 local performance arts organizations. Wallace explained this campaign as a “pay it forward”  premise; “what we did is we said ‘give us a donation and for every $25 you give, we will give,  on your behalf, a ticket to one of these arts groups to someone who otherwise wouldn’t be able to  afford it.’” The innovative idea proved extremely successful, with the Peterborough Foundation  providing $8000, and a goal of raising an additional $2500, which ended up doubling to over  $5500 within two weeks. Wallace described this as a win-win, offering financial support for multiple local organizations, and bringing in a new audience who may not have been able to see a performance otherwise.  

Photo by Julie Gagne: TTOK Volunteers sorting empties. From left to right, Sarah McNeilly, Shannon McKenzie, Ryan Kerr, Kate Story, and Eryn Lidster.

While this was a wonderful start, the organizations agree that additional financial support is required. When asked to describe the process of securing funding on the municipal, provincial, and federal level, Emily Martin described the experience:  

We’ve been very impressed with the support that we’ve received [from the municipality], considering all the things that are coming at them all at once, because this has been a really tough time for a lot of industries. Federally, they are doing what they can. We’ve had a couple of meetings with [MP for Peterborough-Kawartha] Maryam  Monsef in her office. That’s been helpful, just to keep that dialogue alive of the struggles that we’re facing, and then I sat in on a meeting [three weeks ago]...with [MPP for Peterborough-Kawartha] Dave Smith’s office, and there hasn’t been a lot of financial support from the province but it was good to be able to discuss the fact that they need to be able to understand that this is going to be a very long term recovery for the performing arts industry. 

Other members of the alliance, notably Kate Story and Mark Wallace, echo Martin’s sentiments. The three members all praise the municipal response, with one organization in particular garnering plenty of appreciation - the Electric City Culture Council (EC3). EC3 defines itself as “a not-for-profit arts, culture and heritage (ACH) organization providing advocacy, programs, and services that support the ACH sector in Peterborough, Ontario and the surrounding region." EC3 has proven to be a major source of support for performance arts organizations throughout the pandemic. The council, along with the Community Foundation for Greater Peterborough, co-administers the Peterborough Arts Alive fund; “a fundraising effort for strategic recovery grants for local arts  organizations," which has raised over $43,000 for local arts performance organizations  - a sizeable contribution which was matched by the City of Peterborough.  

However, members remain skeptical as to whether funds will materialize from the provincial and federal government. Kate Story pondered whether the meetings with the representatives would be effective in terms of securing funding, noting that “not a single arts applicant in the Peterborough region got funding [from the Trillium Foundation] this round.” The  possibility of not securing additional provincial and federal funding is a massive worry for the  alliance, who argue that the process of rebuilding the performing arts community is much more  complex than some may think. As Story explained, “if an organization closes down, it  actually takes years, and years, and years to rebuild what that...performing arts organization built  up. So when we talk about years of recovery, that’s why we’re harping on about funding because if any of us go down, any one of these organizations represented in this group, it’s going to be a  generation before that niche is even possibly filled again.”  

So, what will those potential funds be used for? Sustaining the organizations for as long  as possible. While many aspects of life have transitioned to an online format, performing arts  organizations remain one niche that has, for the vast majority, not followed suit. New Stages’  Mark Wallace explained:  

We applaud all efforts for people to pivot right now, and if you can do something online  to make some revenue, that’s great. I think we can all agree that we got into the  performing arts because it’s a live event and there is no comparison between the live  events of sharing a space and creating, and being in the room with someone or  outdoors...It’s just something we are not interested in doing. We think the work itself will suffer, [with] the kind of work that we do. Now, talk to us in a year, maybe if we are still  in this situation we may be the biggest online proponents, but we support all people who  are doing online things. I think a lot of the people who are not in the industry look at us  and just [ask] “Why not just switch to online? You could begin investing in more  cameras, and more recording equipment” but there is a fundamental disconnect of what  makes live performing arts special. 

All alliance members nodded their heads in agreement with this sentiment of not wanting to sacrifice the connection that an in-person experience provides. Consequently, all of these  organizations have (thus far) refrained from transitioning to provide virtual performances, with  the exception of Peterborough Musicfest, which hosting a free virtual live stream at the end of  March. Justin Sutton, Musicfest’s Marketing and Communications Specialist, explained the thinking behind the organization’s decision to transition virtually: 

We are going towards a live stream concert, but it’s taken us a long time to get  there...We believe music should be experienced live and in-person, but we have been  watching and seeing what other people have been doing and we think we have found an  interesting way to do it...Dan Manga is a singer-songwriter in Canada who has a platform  called Side Door. It’s a two-way experience. It’s a Zoom experience and you can sell or  offer tickets to fans so you can have fans on screen and you can have an artist  communicate with the audience. That, for us, is what is helping us kind of push towards  trying to explore this area because we think it obviously still doesn’t replace being in person with an artist and experiencing that as a community, but we are going to give it a  shot. Importantly, we are going to give it a shot because we want to pay people. We want  to pay artists, we want to pay our staff and crew members, we want to get them working  and we have the means at the moment, so that’s why we are doing this.

The hope is that the livestream has many participants, and is able to maintain that element of  connectivity between performer and audience. However, Sutton remains hopeful that the in person concerts in the summer of 2021 will be able to go forward as planned. Emphasizing the  passion of all employees, Sutton reiterates that Musicfest remains free to its audience:  

The reason for that is not because we don’t want to make money, but [because] everyone  who is involved in it from a board level all the way down, are passionate about giving  that experience to people who can’t afford it, who need it. We see that at the park. We see  people just get outside themselves and have the best time imaginable. So it’s very  important and we cannot wait to get back to the park. We are all desperate to get back this  summer and we are so hopeful...we are trying to pivot, we are trying to come up with  plan Bs, and hopefully some of those are cool and fun, but nothing replaces being  together in one space listening to music.

Showplace Performance Centre’s Emily Martin points to Joe Biden’s inauguration poet Amanda Gorman, to highlight the power of artistic performance. “If you watched Amanda Gorman, she was outstanding, and if you went on Twitter, it was all everybody was talking  about...I saw one of the tweets...who just expressed that if you had any question before on how  important the arts are in your life, how did that make you feel? It was a perfect real-world, right now example. It was such a jarring example of how much we all miss the arts because everyone went crazy over this poet. It was amazing." 

The passion these organizations have, for the arts and for sustaining one another is admirable. Throughout the interview, members made reference to the support system they have  fostered. Emily Martin described the relationship between alliance members and organizations as being one which, 

[wants] each other to succeed. I think the big thing to note is that we aren’t a normal  industry, like in other industries like banks or cars, where you’re in competition with  another [business] down the street...we all rely on each other...It’s amazing that we have  always kind of worked together, but this has kind of just cemented and just shows it on a  bigger level how important it is for everyone to just work together. So it’s a really unique  industry in that way, it’s amazing to work with everybody...6 to 8 months ago I would’ve  been like “Oh well, I better I apply to another job somewhere,” but now I feel the drive to  keep when we are talking about the alliance...there are so many benefits around  advocacy and sharing information, but that [level of support] has been so enormous and I  cannot express it enough to this group, how much its meant to be able to meet and talk through things.

The positivity and enthusiasm the alliance holds for artistic performance is infectious. When  asked how the alliance and its individual organizations have been preparing for 2021 and the  possibility of re-opening, all were optimistic - if not that they could reopen for 2021, then at least  they would be prepared for when the time comes. Part of this preparation, aside from fundraising  campaigns, included the development of guidelines detailing reopening recommendations. As  Mark Wallace explained “it’s a very comprehensive document including the kind of P.P.E.  [personal protective equipment] that we need and really helpful guidelines that just weren’t there,  that weren’t otherwise present.”  

A sold out show at Showplace Performance Centre in 2017. (Photo: Emily Martin)

When asked for their current sentiments regarding reopening, drawing audiences back in, and  their hopes for the new year, each organization had the following to say. Showplace Performance Centre’s Emily Martin explained how they have begun booking theatre rentals in the spring, have  tentative out-of-town performers booked for the summer, and are already looking ahead to fall  and winter of this year, and 2022. One of the main issues for Showplace is the lack of funding  which they normally would have received from hosting out-of-town dance competitions and  teams - something that is impossible during the pandemic. In the meantime, Martin is still  working to maintain the centre and planning for reopening; “there is still so much work going on  in the background...but we don’t know [about reopening] right now and that’s the hardest part. I  mean, we are just creatures of habit and we have plans and we have goals for our lives and our careers and right now that is the hardest thing...having this big unknown question mark about when we can do things again.”  

Mark Wallace, speaking for New Stages Theatre Company, expressed also being in limbo for the  time being, acknowledging that “New Stages isn’t quite there yet [in terms of reopening plans],  but we will use [the reopening guidelines the alliance designed] when the time comes.” 

The Theatre on King’s Kate Story remains optimistic that due to their size and versatility, The  Theatre on King will be able to reopen fairly quickly when permitted to do so. There are  currently plans in the works, many of which include reaching out to other small businesses in the  Peterborough-Nogojiwanong area to say “We really hope your 2021 and 2022 plans include a  show at The Theatre on King - no pressure though I’ll remind you.” What Story is really hoping  for though? “What I really, really want is a sweaty dance party. I want that with every fibre of my  being so as soon as we can pull that off, that is what we are going to be doing at The Theatre on  King.” 

Peterborough Musicfest’s Justin Sutton echoes Emily Martin’s feelings of uncertainty looking at this upcoming year. With constant restrictions and restricted areas changing regularly, it is too  soon to plan or confirm anything; “even when we are writing grants and talking to the city and  Public Health, we need to answer certain questions for funders, but we can’t actually answer  those questions because the city and Peterborough Public Health doesn’t have those answers.” In  the meantime, Sutton encourages everyone to stay tuned for more information on Musicfest’s upcoming live stream in March 2021.  

As a final note to Arthur readers, Mark Wallace and the Peterborough Arts Recovery Alliance  had this optimistic, encouraging message; “we will get back to theatre. We will get back to live  concerts. We are determined to help each other get there, and whether you’re students of  Peterborough or other communities, [you] will have a lifetime of mind-blowing artistic events  ahead of [you]. I feel for the students who can’t get out and have this formative time in their life, but we will be back.” 

If you would like to stay up-to-date and learn more about these venues, more information can be found here: 

Peterborough Musicfest

New Stages Theatre Company

Showplace Performance Centre

The Theatre on King

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