It was probably Plato who coined the phrase: “Necessity is the mother of invention.”
But as we crawl our way out of the pandemic, Shaw Festival executive director Tim Jennings could very well have said it too.
After months of thinking and rethinking how to mount productions safely, the Shaw’s 2021 season will get under way with a preview performance of “Charley’s Aunt” on July 9, in an outdoor theatre on the edge ofthe Commons, space borrowed from Parks Canada for the purpose.
The festival has confirmed six productions for the 2021 main season and three more for the late fall and Christmas period. That announcement also promised details on a series of outdoor concerts and other activities.
Getting to this point has not been easy. The government's June 11 easing of restrictions finally allowed live performance organizations to rehearse outdoors with a maximum of 10 performers.
“We’ve been rehearsing by Zoom for eight weeks,” said Jennings. “Now we finally have permission for live rehearsals. We’ve built a whole bunch of tents to do that. I feel like we are Tents R Us.”
Even that modest opening step was hard won.
Jennings credits a massive #FairnessForArts lobbying campaign by over 120 different Ontario arts organizations for opening the performance door even a crack.
“I was one of the steering committee members. We sent out 40,000 letters to MPPs. All we wanted were regulations that were consistent. We wanted parity for live performing arts with sports, film and television protocols.”
To make his point, Jennings tells the story of a TV company recently filming a show in the Shaw’s Royal George theatre, using local technical support and local actors, doing something that Shaw was not allowed to do. “We just wanted fairness.”
“We know for a fact that the campaign helped to change things.”
Even though they can rehearse, the company still doesn’t know how many people they will be performing for. A decision on permitted audience sizes comes with the next phase of reopening.
But Jennings sounds as though he really doesn’t care.
“We’ve said from day one, if you tell me we can only have 50 people, we will serve the public we can serve. Even if we lose money on it — we are serving basic human needs — we will make it work.
“Fingers crossed we won’t be in terrible shape at the end of the year. If that’s what we need to do, that’s what we need to do.”
Jennings hopes by the fall, things will be pretty much back to normal; people in masks, in the theatres without distancing, at full capacity.
“I suspect we will be very, very full, because people desperately want to see theatre.”
He said the festival will employ just about the same number of performers as previous years.
“We offered work to everyone who was on last summer. Most of the folks are back, perhaps in somewhat different roles. By and large the company looks like it did last year.”
And it's easy to imagine the impact of a 16-month layoff would have on the professional troupe.
“The artists at Shaw are some of the best in North America,” said Jennings. “And they were prevented from doing what they have trained for all their lives. Everybody was nervous about what would happen at the first live rehearsals last Friday morning. Super excited.”
“After an hour or two, it was just like they never left.”
It’s not as if the design and technical teams have not had challenges either.
It has meant rethinking staging and set design to accommodate the constraints of outdoor performances and the move indoors, at some point.
“Normally we are changing over theatres from one production to another, daily. Now we are stripping everything out of each tent at night, putting it all away inside for security and pulling it all back out the next morning.”
“It’s been quite a ride.”
Main Shaw productions for 2021
These are the main Shaw Festival productions for the 2021 season:
* “Charley’s Aunt,” by Brandon Thomas, July 9 to Oct. 10
* “Flush,” by Virginia Woolf, adapted by Tim Carroll, July 10 to Oct. 2
* “The Devil’s Disciple,” by George Bernard Shaw, July 14 to Oct. 9
* “Sherlock Holmes and the Raven’s Curse,” by R. Hamilton Wright, based on works by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, July 23 to Oct. 10
* “A Short History of Niagara,” created and performed by Alexandra Montagnese and Mike Peterson, July 29 to Aug. 15
* “Trouble in Mind,” by Alice Childress, Aug. 8 to Oct. 9
Details of the fall productions – “Desire Under the Elms,” “A Christmas Carol” and “Holiday Inn” – will be announced later.
More information is available at www.shawfest.com.