To be or not to be?
That is the question thespians have been pondering in these perplexing pandemic times in regards to the return of live theatre in Sault Ste. Marie.
The Sault Theatre Workshop made a stalwart effort to mount a live show this month, but put the production on hold when the provincial government put a pause on social circles Oct. 2 in order to slow a second wave of COVID-19.
“We are disappointed and frustrated,” said Harry Houston, who has been working for the past eight months as director of a comedy the group planned to debut Oct. 21 in their Studio Theatre on Pittsburg Avenue.
“We had the set up and half decorated earlier this month and we were in the final polishing stage of the production when the government placed restrictions in hot spots and recommended to the rest of the province, including us, that social bubbles be limited. We could have legally, I suppose, continued with the show but there was an uneasiness about it so we decided to stop rehearsals and postpone.”
The Workshop had planned to stage the Norm Foster comedy Ned Durango Comes to Big Oak from Oct. 21 to 25, with a five-member cast consisting of George Houston Tim Bass, Matt Connors, Amanda Benoit and Taylor Emlaw. The group started play readings back in March, first online and then in person in the west end theatre when groups of 10 were allowed to gather indoors under strict safety guidelines.
When Stage 3 was announced, allowing groups of 50 to gather indoors, “we studied the rules and regulations as to arts performances and moved ahead with rehearsals and blocking and set and we were chomping at the bit to do this comedy in September or October,” Houston said. Dates were set and spirits were high.
The group’s newsletter explains that arrangements were made for protective equipment and ongoing cleaning procedures, and adjustments were made to follow regulations regarding concession and washroom areas. With the community theatre box office closed in Station Mall, the group made different ticket arrangements and ensured contact sheets would be filled out for every performance. Screening questions were in place and no tickets could be sold at the door. Patrons would wear masks unless seated at a table with their social bubble and tables would be six feet apart. A different seating configuration would have to be made for each performance.
With the decision to postpone to an unspecified time period, Houston says he is “weary and frustrated,” but grateful for the work itself. “Norm Foster plays are such a joy to work on that I’m glad we had the process. It’s just good to do the work,” he said.
When the “all-clear” comes, the plan is to present Ned Durango, a play about an aging television cowboy star who comes to the aid of an economically troubled small town.
“Unfortunately, we will have to recast some of the roles,” Houston said. “One cast member pulled out and one is moving out of town.”
With cold weather ahead, Houston says the group will have added costs for heating and snow plowing to contend with, at a time with limited revenue.
“We are lucky to have our own building, which gives us a certain flexibility, but we have the expenses of maintenance and upkeep,” he added.
When the balance of Season 71 was suspended, many season ticket holders donated ticket money back to the group. Fundraisers have contributed to coffers, as well. Two drive-in movie nights were held in the theatre parking lot last month as well as a book signing and reading event with author George Houston for his novel, The Deliverance of Maria.
The Workshop may be down but not out, and members are considering performance and fundraising options for near and future months.
“It might still be possible to do performance readings, perhaps with a Christmas theme, in the next couple of months as long as it doesn’t get worse here as far as COVID is concerned,” says Houston.
“If a venue was willing, we could do lunch or dinner readings for groupings of tables of four or two as a way of bringing something to an audience. We’re thinking about things, looking at options.”
Houston says they are not keen on doing online performances for the time being as “we are not that technically savvy for such a tricky operation.”
The group had been in the process of planning for a show to follow the Norm Foster comedy, possibly an original work by a Workshop member, and that remains a strong future option.
The Sault Theatre Workshop is the community’s longest-running theatre company, established in 1948.
“As long as things remain relatively calm here, we will continue to consider the possibilities.”