Across Hamilton, Canada and the world, artists have been forced to react and adapt to the postponement or cancellation of shows and the closing of venues. Many artists and organizations are rising to meet the complex challenges of COVID-19 even as the pandemic creates waves of news or information that can feel frightening or confusing. Through online platforms, new communities and connections are being forged and art is continuing to be shared with fellow creators and enthusiastic, and grateful audiences.

Beyond Covid-19 brings together writers from Beyond James with members of the Hamilton Arts Community to discuss broad, arts-related topics through digital conversations. A timer is set, and no answers are sought- rather, it’s an exchange of ideas and dialogues, which is then presented and shared through Beyond James.

In our first Beyond Covid-19, Beyond James’ Dawn Cattapan sat down with Rook’s Theatre‘s Artistic Director, Stephanie Hope Lawlor to discuss how the behaviours of audiences may change both during and after COVID-19.

Dawn: Are you binging anything, or making sourdough? How are you coping?

Stephanie: I’m not baking sourdough, but I am baking. This morning, Rick Roberts and I did a little tradeoff of baked goods for sourdough, because he bakes sourdough! I anxiety bake, so when I’m stressed or anxious, I bake. I’ve also only been watching comedies right now, so I’m rewatching Community, and I watched a great series on Disney+ that’s all about the Imagineers. I’m not a Disney person, but it was neat to see the effort and excitement behind everything.

Dawn: I’m a horrible baker, so I have not made anything. But I have started renovating my backyard in a big way. I’ve started gardening- so rather than baking, I have a bunch of bean plants in cake pans- and hopefully, they’ll sprout. Have you done or watched any of the live streaming shows that have been available?

Stephanie: I haven’t participated in any, but I did watch a few of the videos from the Hamilton Arts Council; the Social Distancing Festival; Toronto Musical Concerts is doing a daily show called BIG GIRL & Friends so I watched a couple of those. I haven’t checked out Soulpepper’s online offerings yet, but it looks pretty neat. Every week, I’ve been hosting an online play reading. We pick a play and grab the script and sit and read through it. It’s crazy how quickly we’ve been able to react and adapt in one form or another.

Dawn: Do you have people watch the play reading, or just the participants?

Stephanie: We’ve had a few people watch, but it’s mainly just an excuse for theater people to get together and stretch our muscles. But I find it’s happening more now that we’re doing it from home.

Dawn: Do you think that type of availability and willingness will carry on afterwards when we all have obligations and jobs and errands to do? Or do you think that now that we’ve found this new time, that things will remain?

Stephanie: I’m not sure. I think things will certainly change. This isn’t the ideal way to consume theatre. It’s theatre in it’s own medium, but it’s not live theatre and I think audiences are going to be hungry for that, and for me, I’m going to prioritize that over sitting on Zoom, reading a play. I would much rather be in a room with people reading a play, or in an audience watching a play, then see the freeze, stop, start, mute and unmute of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Dawn: Do you think audiences are going to be eager to come back, or do you think there will be hesitancy because we’ve been told to physically distance?

Stephanie: I think it’s going to be a long road back to where we can just go and see a show. I know I’m going to be hesitant- and I want nothing more than to go back, and put up the show that we postponed and see what my friends are working on. But I know for me, I’m going to be hesitant about getting back into it. But who knows, as these restrictions start to lift and we start to be able to return to their lives, when will this even be allowed? It’s going to be a long road ahead before we’re rushing back to a theatre, no matter how much we want it.

Dawn: I’ve heard two mindsets on this. The first is that because we’ve been starved for live content and the communal experience, that everything will be full immediately as we rush back. But on the other end, it’s the opposite. There’s so much uncertainty and we don’t know how long we’ll be in this situation, and no comfort in how to proceed. But there’s been no discussion about a middle ground, and I’m not sure if one even exists.

Stephanie: Who knows. It’s so hard to tell. I’m starting to hate the phrase “in these unprecedented times,” but it’s true. This is so unprecedented! We have no clue what’s going to happen. Theatre has survived for so long, and I have no doubt that it will survive and thrive again, but the ramp up getting back to it is going to be a challenge and journey. Especially when you get into theatres that hold five hundred or a thousand people in the audience. That’s a whole other can of worms.

Dawn: Before this all started, you [through Rook’s Theatre] had planned to do Every Brilliant Thing. And that’s a show that relies on audiences and audience participation and being in close quarters. But it’s also a show that was going to take place in a space with a capacity of fifty people. If you start to think about social distancing in that kind of space, what does the audience start to look like? Could you even do a show like Every Brilliant Thing if this kind of restriction and social distancing were to continue?

Stephanie: That was a thought as we were selling tickets and rehearsing- what is the minimum number of people that you can do the show with. Each audience member is involved in that show somehow, whether they are actively participating or not. It would be a really challenging piece to do with a small audience, and I don’t know if it would be possible with these types of restrictions. I’m not sure. But we postponed the show, which was the right choice- but it was tough to see it go by. And knowing that it’s such an intimate show, the question about when it can come back is difficult. Because it’s not just about sitting in an audience and the actor being removed and providing spaces for each audience member; the show was completely different and provided different challenges than that.

Dawn: It’s a funny predicament, especially when I think about many of the venues in Hamilton. There are many venues in Hamilton that seat seventy-five or less audience members, but as we get to two hundred or a little more, there’s a real lack of space. I wonder how audiences are going to be able to come back when we have these very small venues that automatically- by virtue of the venue- put people in close quarters- and then these very big ones that might not be accessible for many of the independent artists in the city?

Stephanie: I wish I knew. It’s kinda scary, especially when it’s your livelihood and a big part of your life, and something that you are so passionate about. It’s hard to fathom being without these spaces for an extended period of time.

Dawn: Do you think that all of the streaming that has been done has been playing a role in developing audiences? Should we even be thinking about developing audiences right now?

Stephanie: I can’t even think about it. I’m in fight or flight mode. I’m watching Community and baking banana loaf. So the idea of forming an audience or reaching out to an audience is beyond my realm of thinking. But I think these streaming events are really beautiful because they’re providing community for us and for other theatre people. I don’t know about the logistics of them and whether or not they are reaching a wider audience, or even who is watching them, but it certainly is helping to bring the community together. Especially when you’re seeing storytelling or dance and watching people create their art, which isn’t the same when you’re just watching a movie. But that’s why it’s theatre.

Dawn: What do you think happens next?

Stephanie: I just hope that in this time, as we explore the online realm and zoom rehearsals and everything else, that we’ll come out of this reinvigorated and maybe we’ll get to innovate a little bit of what theatre means. Because yes, we know it’s live and we know it’s in person, but maybe there’s this whole new realm that we haven’t explored yet.

Dawn: I’ve heard a lot about what the options are about how we should be engaging audiences right now. Some think about social distancing in really large venues, but others are rethinking about what a subscriber means. Maybe it isn’t coming to their space and being their live. Maybe it’s about watching it in their space, at their convenience, and all of a sudden, artists and organizations are able to engage people that couldn’t previously be a part of that community because of barriers. So maybe we need to shift the conversation to what kind of opportunity are we being provided (by necessity). And maybe that’s what theatre and the arts actually need in order to evolve. And then, from that, how do we evolve to meet the needs of others in our community?

Stephanie: It’s going to be really fascinating to see all of this unravel. Again, it’s a phrase I’m learning to hate, but how this becomes the new normal. And what that new normal is going to look like. Is it going to be some combination of live theatre and online streaming? Are there going to be new uses for theatre services while they’re dark? Or are we going to create a whole new medium- a new outlet that isn’t quite theatre and isn’t quite film? Or a whole new platform that we get to create? Who knows.

Dawn: I know you hate the phrase, but it’s unprecedented. We’re in this weird mix of calamity and opportunity. And we get to figure out how this all gets manifested and channeled creatively.

Stephanie: And it has been a really beautiful example of the way people come together. If nothing else, the good that has come from this is seeing the power of community and the goodness in humans. And some shitty parts. But ultimately, we’re seeing a lot of goodness, which is so heartening. And that’s theatre.

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