Theatre Crossing Over

Opera Atelier’s The Resurrection. Photo by Bruce Zinger

Back in March 2020, while theatre companies across Canada were in various stages of rehearsal or pre-production, a microscopic virus was beginning to wreak havoc globally. We had no idea what we were in for. When life shut down on March 13th, 2020, most of us assumed we’d be back in audition rooms, on set or on stage within a couple of weeks. COVID-19 had other plans for the artistic community and the world at large.

As artists, we situate uncomfortably in the category of  “precarious worker.” While ACTRA laboured to stem the on-camera bleeding, successfully pushing for extended CERB funds at the federal level, our sibling guild, Equity, was dealing with their own issues and creating their own policies. It was apparent that the indie and mid-sized theatre companies were hemorrhaging. Even those with deeper pockets were scrambling to figure out how to pivot. A number of artistic directors who were already in rehearsal quickly pirouetted to streaming and online film versions of productions. What that meant was an outreach to ACTRA to work under WiP and new and quickly developed LED (Live Event Digital) Guidelines. There was going to be overlap with Equity and ACTRA.

Two of those companies were Theatre Orangeville and Opera Atelier. Both David Nairn, Artistic Director of Theatre Orangeville, and Artistic Director Marshall Pynkoski of Opera Atelier reached out to ACTRA. They each shared their thoughts on the shift from live theatre to online performance.

David Nairn, Artistic Director Theatre Orangeville, and ACTRA Toronto member

Marshall Pynkoski, Artistic Director Opera Atelier. Photo by Bruce Zinger.

David Nairn: “I’m a member of both (ACTRA and Equity). The decision to team up was basically made for me. We are a full Equity company. We work under the terms of our associations. We want to engage and have respect for those terms of engagement. We wanted to move forward, and so there was no question in our minds, it was just, ‘how are we going to make this work?’”

Marshall Pynkoski: “As soon as the lockdown started, we wanted to figure out how to stay connected (to their singers, dancers, musicians and audience). And yet, at the end of the day, because we know this has a shelf life, it’s short-term. None of us thought it would last this long, but we know it’s going to end. In some respects, it’s turned the whole experience into something a little more interesting and potentially more positive. I know people have had a rough time with this, but if you have been able to maneuver through this, I do think a lot of the issues have really turned into a catalyst for real creativity. We never would have been exploring film if it were not for the pandemic… We are extending our repertoire because of it; we’re doing new music because of this for Baroque instruments. It’s taken us into a whole new direction, and there’s no way we will walk away from it; it will be part of our lives, part of our genre.”

Opera Atelier’s Director of Production, Zach Bruman, realized early on that they needed to make a shift.  He reached out to ACTRA in October 2020.

Zach Bruman: “When the lockdowns came in with the protocols to have plexiglass between each performer, we realized we’d have to film and to think about contracting and the protocols theatres needed for filming. So actually speaking to Alistair (Hepburn, ACTRA Toronto’s then Director of Film, Television and Digital Media), he was able to give me crash courses and I was able to call him about something and he would take the time to explain it to me. Because if my head was stuck in theatre contracting…. TV and film (contracting) has its differences; how we normally work, how to change that and what’s different. Alistair took the time to give me a crash course on film producing. He took my hand and guided me through it.

DN: “We were in the fourth show of our season. They (the actors) had just performed two previews of a new show by Alison Lawrence called  Too Close To Home. As with all of us, within a few months, we were asking ourselves, ‘have we gone through all the stages of grief?’ Hopefully, we are in the stage of hope. But we were thunderstruck. We were trying to figure out how to continue to create and move forward.”

MP: “Opera Atelier has a strong visual sense. We insist that the visuals are not just something we use to sell a show, otherwise, we’d hire a great PR firm. The show begins with a visual. The visual is not necessarily what you are going to see on stage, but the image says the show is going to feel like this. Or if you go to the show, you are going to feel like this. This has always been the point of departure for us. So to find a filmmaker who was able to help us find that ephemeral moment saying, ‘no, we don’t need a singer standing and singing to interest people in Baroque Opera. We don’t need to be that obvious.’ It’s the human experience. Our whole creative team was very, very intrigued with finding what we wanted the audience to feel. And without our knowing, that was a great beginning to moving into film. The moment we started bringing film in, it took us to a whole other level – a level that was far less linear. It took the storytelling to a level that was more symbolic. It was a natural step.”

Both artistic directors made discoveries that opened up an entire world to their reach. Opera Atelier was accustomed to travelling internationally and had engaged more than 80 musicians from Tafelmusik, as well as their singers and dancers on their travels. Pre-pandemic, Opera Atelier also presented in nine seasons at the Palace of Versailles. Theatre Orangeville had been limited to their bricks-and-mortar location in South Central Ontario. In this new virtual space, Theatre Orangeville’s The Rules For Playing Risk was actually able to engage an audience in France.

Each realized they now had the capability to engage a global audience and offer performances to individuals who may have never even thought to cross a theatrical threshold. The opportunity created equity for many who found “THEATRE”  inaccessible, both physically and socially. Both companies broke open the paradigm. They discovered new digital tools which elevated their stories.

DN: “… we made that headshift, while maintaining the essence of the theatricality. We’re not making movies or TV; we’re not competing with those genres. We’re shooting in the theatre. We’re not hiding that there’s no glass wall, that it looks like a theatre set, that you can see into the wings, that we’re shooting with three cameras, shot from three different angles. But it’s in a theatre. We don’t light it like film. We light it like theatre.”

The Third Life of Eddie Mann (L to R: Stephen Sparks, Jeffrey Wetsch, David Rosser) Photo by Beckie Morris, courtesy of Theatre Orangeville

The lushness of Baroque music lends itself to a filmic genre, so Opera Atelier, which had initially engaged director Marcel Canzona to do some advertising shorts in 2018, brought him back into the fold. Pynkoski and his team had some idea of the outcome. While they had hoped to film Handel’s The Resurrection in March in Koerner Hall, the lockdown defied their plans. While rehearsals occurred in Koerner Hall, they eventually shot in the St. Lawrence Ballroom. It turned out to be spectacular.

Opera Atelier’s The Resurrection. Photo by Bruce Zinger

ZB: “It was too much to bank on an audience. We thought, ‘let’s rehearse in February and film in March.’ But because of those lockdowns, that’s what bumped us… And our performers kept with us. We pre-recorded the audio in Koerner Hall, which is acoustically perfect. I joked about giving Maestro (Marshall Pynkoski) the keys to the Porsche. To record in this space was once in a lifetime. So we used Koerner Hall to pre-record. The editing team worked like mad, so the singers could have the recorded tracks with them in rehearsal with Marshall, so they could practice lip-syncing. And then more lockdowns came, and theatres were closed, so we pivoted to doing the film at St. Lawrence Hall…”

Opera Atelier’s The Resurrection. Photo by Bruce Zinger

Marcel Canzona not only ended up directing the piece but as a result of the loss of the Koerner hall film crew, ended up acting as DOP, cameraman and editor. Things serendipitously fell into place.

Opera Atelier’s The Resurrection. Photo by Bruce Zinger

What is apparent with both of these artistic directors was their concern for those who were working in their companies and the passion which they apply to the work itself.

DN: “How do I keep staff engaged? We have 11 staff on full payroll that we have managed to keep working because we were able to pivot to online. We managed to stay creative. We are a small theatre company. The theatre only has 273 seats.”

Theatre Orangeville draws from the GTA and about 7,500 from their immediate community.

DN: “How are we going to move this forward…? I got tired of seeing artists ‘giving it away.’ Because to give away our work is to devalue it. So in order to keep it moving forward… the example is the film industry. Film has not stopped for one heartbeat since this began, for the most part. So what do we do? We can move to an online experience.”

Neither one will go backwards. They have been introduced to the ACTRA advantage: they can not only engage their regular theatregoers but introduce their work internationally and to those whose ability to physically attend a show is compromised through online streaming. Both companies have more options. Both agreed that the live experience is preferable and the energy is different. However, the ephemerality of the theatre performance is now captured forever in a digitized platform.

MP: “The final product is so gorgeous. The public response, reviews have been stupendous. It has already been shown in Chicago at the Harris Theatre for Music and Dance and in Versailles. It also means that this fall, we continue with that same team and explore that further with a new composition for Baroque Music and for Baroque instruments. Now there is a major role for all of our dancers. It’s going to be a very interesting piece that focuses on the poetry of Rilke and Milton’s Paradise Lost. All of these things wouldn’t have happened if it hadn’t been for the pandemic.”

“All of these things wouldn’t have happened if it hadn’t been for the pandemic.” (Marshall Pynkoski)

They successfully utilized the tools for film to shoot theatre while:

DN: “Maintaining the visual of theatricality. Now we are into (at the time of this interview) 12, with the 13th show on hold. The most rewarding comment from our audience is, ‘We feel like we’re in the theatre.’ They know they’re not in the theatre. They are sitting in their homes. We were calling it Curated Cabaret. We were bringing artists into the theatre one at a time. It was mostly music, or maybe a two-hander or a small scene, seven to 10-minute plays that we’ve incorporated into larger shows. And since day one, we’ve monetized it. Because we wanted to pay artists. How we’ve done that is by playing ACTRA protocol. (*The ACTRA Protocols are the Section 21 Guidelines developed together with other unions, producers and the provincial government.) We took the ACTRA protocols – masking, twice a week testing…. We would send artists to a lab for testing at $200 a head. We were able to do that. The ACTRA protocols are very practical. The standards are stringent. We are doing exactly the same thing as a film set.

The consequences were immense for Theatre Orangeville, which normally produces five shows a year. It meant that not only could they more than double their output but continue to service their other programs, including youth initiatives and programming for neurodiverse youth and adults. It’s a great example of the positive effect the arts have on a community at large.

DN: “We have these shows that celebrate ability. So we’re bringing those shows online for that community. So it’s allowed us to stay vibrant and to stay creative and to stay open.”

MP: “We wouldn’t have been moving into this very, very elaborate film that we’re planning for this fall if it hadn’t been for ACTRA helping us to be able film The Resurrection and take on a (new) big project. And as Zach said, to be walked through it carefully and making certain that we came out with everything having been done exactly as it should be done. We didn’t want to come through and feel we’d just squeezed through. We wanted to feel as if we came through with a real understanding. And that was something that everyone at ACTRA who were so helpful made possible for us.”

And while theatre doors are slowly opening to in-person performance, there still looms the shadow of the ever-present virus. Yes, we want to be in those spaces again, but thankfully for the arts, the precedent has been set. To date, the ACTRA Advantage has enabled 183 theatre productions to continue via ACTRA contracts since March 15th, 2020. As Alistair Hepburn, now ACTRA Toronto’s Executive Director, conveyed, “Not too shabby.” Nope, not too shabby at all! And if any readers are interested in the options available, we welcome the opportunity to enable companies, both big and small, to hybridize their theatre seasons. It’s an easy process. Email for more information.

Please find links below to both companies for current season information and tickets. We encourage you to engage in the arts!

Opera Atelier. (The Making of The Resurrection)
Theater Orangeville

Joy Tanner is the Editor of Performers. She plays Erin Voss on Locke & Key.