Playhouse to return this summer, but with changes

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The Thousand Islands Playhouse is going ahead with its season this summer, but it will feature limited seating, fewer plays and a livestreaming option, it announced Wednesday.

The Gananoque-based theatre company, which cancelled its season last summer because of the pandemic, will offer four plays (two of which were on last summer’s schedule), starting in July and running through October, in the Firehall Theatre, the smaller of its two theatres. The company will also offer four livestreams of each play for those who don’t feel comfortable returning indoors.

For those who do, attendance will be capped at 50 people for each performance. The theatre typically holds up to 130 patrons.

Each play will run without an intermission and be up to an hour and a half in length. The seats, paired together, will surround three sides of the stage — what’s known as a “thrust” configuration — and be spaced two metres apart.

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When they arrive, ticket-holders will enter a tent set up outside the Firehall Theatre and check in at the box office (there won’t be physical tickets, though). They will then be assigned a table inside the tent, at which they can sit until they’re ushered into their seats, similar to how an airplane boards its passengers, and do the same when it empties.

Brett Christopher, the managing artistic director of Thousand Islands Playhouse, said he and his staff, whom he managed to keep employed throughout the year, have kept a close eye on COVID-19 developments.

“A few months ago, I said, ‘I feel like in terms of the arc of vaccination, in terms of the trajectory of the virus-vaccine trajectory, that we might actually be able to do this safely in our theatre rather than creating outdoor theatre or taking another year off,’” he recalled over the phone. “So we started making plans.”

Staff looked at everything from putting on pop-up plays to building a stage in the parking lot beside the lakeside Springer Theatre.

“The more I went over it, that’s when I went back to my team and said, ‘Is there some way that we can realistically offer a safe experience indoors? Because then we get the sound, we get lighting, we get to build full sets, all of the pieces. It’s not just about the performers; it’s all of the pieces that are the experience. Outdoor theatre is a thing, it’s just not what we do,” he said.

“So we could have done that, but then it’s a temporary pivot, for lack of a better term, away from what we traditionally do as opposed to what we’re calling a kind of evolution in terms of our process from the past.”

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Part of that evolution is the offer of streaming performances that can be viewed online. Those performances will not have an audience in the seats, and the actors will address the cameras as they would members of the audience. The theatre has been upgraded with $20,000 worth of equipment, he said.

“You’re going to click the link at 7:30 and watch the show as if you were literally coming to the play,” Christopher promised.

Since public health measures are ever-changing, and because they don’t want people who are feeling unwell inside the theatre, TIP has made it easier to cancel tickets.

“We want to at least give people some assurance that they can book now — especially since seating is so limited — but that refunds are very present, that they can receive a credit if they’re just hours from a performance, that they’re not stuck with these tickets,” Christopher said.

While other theatre companies have postponed their summer seasons again or moved them outdoors, he believes it’s important that the theatre company take a leading role.

“I feel like we had a year when we did a bunch of projects on the side, but there’s one major thing that we do as a company is to make theatre, is to bring artists from around the country to Gananoque to make theatre for the community and for the region,” believes Christopher, who’s thankful for being in a community with a low case count.

“That’s a major component of what we are meant to do, what we are here for, that is missing.”

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Still, the Playhouse is going to take a substantial financial hit this season, he said. Instead of having 60,000 tickets to sell, they’ll have 5,900. Ticket sales typically comprise 60 per cent of TIP’s revenue, with the remaining 40 per cent coming from corporate sponsorship and private donations, and government grants.

This season’s budget projects a loss of $188,000 on the season, Christopher said.

“So it’s a significant financial hit that the board unanimously agreed to,” he offered. “We just want to present. To give hope to our community, to give hope to our artists, to the theatre sector that there is a way back, that we are not far from doing those big musicals, those big shows to full theatres.”

Christopher, who said that Wednesday morning’s announcement had already generated a great deal of excitement and a number of phone calls, believes the upcoming TIP season may be viewed as a bellwether by other theatre companies.

“I think there’ll probably be a lot of eyes on this, there’ll be a lot of eyes on the audience reaction to announcing that we’re going back into the venue, a lot of eyes on the safety measures,” he said.

“I would say yes, there will be a lot more attention on this theatre than we would normally have in a regular season. And that’s a good thing. I’d love to be able to give hope to other theatres and other arts organizations that this is possible.”


This year’s productions are “Miss Caledonia” (July 8-31), “Sexy Laundry” (Aug. 5-29), “Back in ’59” (Sept. 9-Oct. 2), and “Serving Elizabeth” (Oct. 7-31). Season subscriptions go on sale April 6; single tickets April 27. For more information about the shows and to buy subscriptions/tickets, go to www.1000islandsplayhouse.com.

phendra@postmedia.com

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