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 this edition of Beyond Covid-19, Beyond James’ Rebekka Gondosch sat down with 9M Theatre’s Liz Buchanan to discuss what growth for an emerging theatre company like hers may look like amidst the closure of many traditional performance venues in Hamilton. Please note that this conversation has been edited for length and includes information obtained through additional post-interview dialogue.
Rebekka: What does growth for 9M Theatre look like as “traditional” venues are closing? What are your hopes?
Liz: I took a hiatus, as you may or may not know, just a little bit before this started. I was already planning on having a theatre break, so the fact that the pandemic happened didn’t actually change much for 9M in that I already wanted to take some time off to talk about growth for myself artistically and sort of like what directions I wanted to take the company. The pandemic obviously extended that vacation a little bit further than I thought it would; but I think the other thing that changes a lot about it, in terms of growth and the company growing, I would like to start focusing on sort of smaller projects involving fewer artists but a greater quantity of projects maybe. Rather than having. . .a big, you know, 14 person Shakespearean production every year or every six months, having like a couple of things with, you know, six or eight actors maybe, again, a couple of times a year. What that does I think benefit, with traditional venues closing, is maybe being able to make use of some smaller venues and some smaller or unconventional spaces. Recently I got a chance to see, since Artbar closed but ArtWord Theatre’s still operating, they did a production of Walter with Sean Emberly in. . .St. Paul. . .now the tricky thing is it’s a much smaller space. I think Claud Spadafora used the space for the Frost Bites with like two or three actors; that sort of stage space. So I think it might be a thing about sort of scaling down productions and making them a little bit sort of smaller and more intimate and less kinda like make a big production, which is more realistic of independent theatre anyways in some ways.
Rebekka: You bring up a good point too Liz. . .I’m thinking of infrastructure and what’s needed; the idea of utilizing other community spaces, such as the church [from Frost Bites] that has a connection with the theatre already, or perhaps there’s other places that could help support artists during this time.
Liz: Yeah well I mean the trouble that’s going to happen at this time of course is that we can’t have small and intimate spaces and like small and intimate theatre isn’t going to work in the pandemic. That’s a post-pandemic dream.
Rebekka: You were saying 9M is taking a bit of a pause, if you were to resume what would that look like? Are there expectations there?
Liz: I don’t think I am resuming…for a little while. And in some ways I guess I think this is a personal choice, theatre artist to theatre artist, I do think there’s some value in taking a pause and in taking a step back and consuming some art. Rather than feeling this need to be constantly producing and producing and producing and putting stuff out there. Nothing against people who have been putting stuff out there. I’ve been trying to catch some readings and the odd sort of virtual theatre, some recorded stuff. Some of it’s very good, some of it’s kinda hard to watch. So there’s a mix. The Hamilton Arts Council kindly invited me to do a…something, for their artist series and they were kindly very open about what that could be, and I did a storytelling piece. But I can’t see myself producing anything until things are a little more the way they were, just because I do think. . .live is really really important and I think for me, theatre inherently [with] social distance I don’t think it works, to be honest. Like you need people to be together and be able to socially interact with one another and…including actors, as much as anything, half the reason we do it is for that connection that we make to the audience.
Rebekka: I love the idea of artists taking a pause and consuming, and resting, and kind of realigning with what they want to work on and the kind of artist that they are. . .how do you imagine folks can support artists who want to do that because, for a lot of artists, work is not possible in certain ways.
Liz: I mean I think that was a big thing for the Hamilton Arts Council to give that opportunity for people to…like I certainly, I was among people who lost income when HamilTEN and Fringe and all kinds of things got cancelled, right? So it was nice that they were able to provide that as some sort of temporary relief. Those of us that can benefit from CERB, I think that helps. I think that’s probably my real answer to the how do you support artists is universal basic income. [I think UBI should be good for everyone (not just artists), but that it in particular would help to foster a healthy Arts community by giving artists greater financial security. Not to mention it might allow more diverse and under-privileged communities greater access to artistic expression.] I guess the only other thing I did want to touch on with the spaces closing…yeah I’m going to go fully political on this, I gave nice answers before, I’m going to go fully political; I think that the city of Hamilton and the economic community has benefited a great deal from rebranding this city as an artistic community. You know, “Art is the New Steel” was the big slogan eight years ago and then all of a sudden we had a bunch of people move to the city to try to make art only to find that there aren’t, you know, even when the Staircase and Pearl and Artbar were all open, there weren’t performance venues. And yeah I think it’s great to move out of traditional spaces but we also need theatres. We need actual theatre space. I think it should be a priority for the City of Hamilton to, if it’s going to build a new rec centre, to make sure there’s a theatre in that rec centre that is accessible to the theatre community and I think it would behoove some of the investors, particularly some of the real estate investors, that have financially benefited from the arts in this city to make that a priority for them as well.