Concert venues weighing reopening options

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The introduction of the third stage of the province’s reopening strategy on Friday saw diners, gym members, movie-goers, and others allowed indoors again, provided it’s only 50 people at a time and physical distancing measures are followed.

While that allowed some businesses to get back to somewhat normal, the city’s concert venues remain dark, and could be for awhile, since only 50 ticket-buyers (performers and crew are not included in that figure) are allowed in a venue.

When it comes to a place like the Grand Theatre, which can seat 775 people in the Regina Rosen Auditorium, that means only 6.5% of its capacity is available to use. Those economics make it hard to reopen just yet.

“We were all ready to go with our 2020-21 season, and all that’s been put on hold for now,” explained Colin Wiginton, the city’s culture director, noting that some performers have postponed their tours as well. “(There are) lots of issues that we’re tracking, such as artists’ ability to travel as well as the health and safety precautions. So a lot of rentals that were coming in in the fall have all rescheduled into the new year.


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“Our own planning, a lot of our shows have been moved a full year. So now we’re looking at how we can present in the new year, as well as establish a full program for the 2021-22 season. It’s so fluid right now, staying on top of things, so obviously 50 people, is not financially effective for us, but there’s also the provincial regulations, making sure people are safe.”

One of those regulations is the installation of Plexiglass shields between the performers and the audience (shields are now even being used for outdoor performances at Market Square). The performers are allowed to mingle onstage when the performance requires it, as would be the case with a dance recital.

The need to stay two metres apart also hampers the reopening of the smaller Baby Grand theatre, Wiginton said.

“Even 50 people is maybe a typical audience size for the Baby Grand, but in terms of physical distancing, that’s not going to work,” he said, adding that he and staff have been busy mapping out different scenarios.

Of course, another concern is whether people will want to sit beside each other even when they’re allowed to do so.

“Are people even willing to come back to those kinds of spaces anytime soon? So really, at this point, we’re just looking at different options, and hoping that we can stay connected with our audience and our subscribers particularly, and figure out what’s going to be possible on a limited basis,” Wiginton continued.

That’s one of the concerns of Al Rankin, whose long-running Live Wire Music Series starts in the fall and ends in the spring.


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“We could book something and nobody’s going to show up,” Rankin said. “That’s the other thing. I think people are still a little bit hesitant to go to a theatre, for sure. It’s one thing to go to an outdoor patio — it seems pretty safe — but it’s another thing to go to an indoor theatre.”

He usually holds his shows in the Octave Theatre on Dalton Avenue, which remains closed, too. When the 250-seater reopens, it can only accommodate 40 people safely, he said, “so it’s not very feasible to do stuff there,” he said. He is considering holding some concerts in churches instead.

While Rankin said the concert season is in a “holding pattern,” Live Wire has tried something different in the meantime.

“We’re doing a few little things, supporting live music where we can, and doing the Saturday ‘Neighbours at Noon’ pop-up shows,” he said. He has done eight of the non-advertised gigs so far.

The Isabel Bader Centre for Performing Arts is exploring the ideal of holding hybrid concerts, which would combine live performances with online streaming. Ian MacAlpine /The Kingston Whig-Standard/Postmedia Network

Like Rankin, Tricia Baldwin, artistic director of the Isabel Bader Centre for the Performing Arts, has used the pandemic to try something new.

Earlier this summer, the artistic director and her team set up the Isabel Digital Concert Hall, through which musicians played onstage to an empty performance hall at the King Street venue. They also went digital to present its inaugural Bader & Overton Canadian Cello Competition, which was streamed online by CBC Music.

Even if things return to how they once were, Baldwin figures digital will remain a part of the long-term picture. And she certainly sees it as part of the short-term one.


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She has been exploring the idea of creating a hybrid model, with 50 paying patrons in attendance while others stream the concert at home. One of the sticking points, she said, is monetizing the digital side of things.

“We do need at least the combination of live and online to make sure that artists are being paid,” she said.

“I never thought I’d talk like an economist, but I’m really focused on employment for artists and arts workers, so how do we configure that? So it does need more than 50 people to make the business model somewhat work to pay decent fees.”

Baldwin, who has only postponed the fall portion of the Isabel’s season to this point, said that if they were to charge 50 people $30 apiece to sit in the 566-seat performance hall, that would only cover the costs of front-of-house staff and crew, not the fees of the performers.

“Whether it’s the arts or sports or restaurants or the accommodation industry, (it) is based on the ‘crowd model.’ So that 50-person model is a difficult one because we want to ensure that artists are fairly paid,” she said.

Baldwin and her staff initially drew up a seating plan for 30 per cent capacity — which is what churches are allowed — and is now doing one for 50 people. There are other rules to consider, such as traffic flow in and out of the theatre to minimize contact. They have installed glass barriers at the ticket office and coat check as well.

As Baldwin and her staff await to see what the future holds for concerts — many experts have been reported as saying that they won’t be back to normal until 2021 or even ’22, or until a vaccine is developed — they will continue to experiment with the concert experience.

“We’re just really working on doing some interesting projects that are meaningful, and that have impact,” Baldwin said.

“I think this could be, in retrospect, the greatest opportunity for the arts to actually explore new ground. Throughout history, some of the hardest times have been the most creative times.”