Since mid-March the arts scene around town has mostly been a series of cancellation announcements. Our province is in lockdown mode. Businesses are starting to re-open, but the ban on large gatherings of people will last some time.
Art galleries have been closed for two months. Most performing arts seasons ended early. The Edmonton Fringe Theatre Festival has been cancelled. Teatro la Quindicina has postponed its entire 2020 summer season. The Citadel Theatre has added a note to their website letting people know that their 2020-21 season is subject to change in response to the COVID-19 public health emergency.
However, this does not mean that there has been no art. Galleries and museums hosted virtual tours, the Metro Cinema hosts movie nights where you stream new releases through their portal, and NeWest Books has hosted book launches online.
When it comes to scheduling arts events, I’m fond of saying “there is too much going on!” That has not changed. There is too much going on even in in this pandemic!
I’m not sure if it’s because we’re all supposed to have “nothing to do”, but I find it even more stressful than usual to choose between art events. The reality for me is that I’m working from home full time, so the number of hours available to me for events has not changed. But with artists and arts organizations figuring out how to do or present their work virtually, the arts calendar is overflowing again.
On April 29, Mile Zero Dance pivoted to video conferencing to present Dance Blitz, a scheduled mixed program that ended with a joyous dance party which was just what all the participating shut-ins needed. The lockdown also changed the nature of the artist-in-residence project that was in progress. Thea Patterson presented her project performance of Silverlings on Friday night and Saturday afternoon.)
I didn’t get a chance to see that show this afternoon, but I saw a different project that began as a stage show and ended up being staged via video: the Fringe Theatre off-season show Tracks, which was supposed to be presented at the Backstage Theatre. The work would have been an environmental one: the stage is located inside a building that housed a turnabout for streetcar trains in Edmonton (the Edmonton Radial Railway Society operates a museum in the building), and just outside the theatre is the Strathcona terminus for a historical streetcar ride that goes downtown to the legislature.
Tracks is a which-way performance anthology directed by Beth Dart and tied together by the stories of Mac Brock, who told us about some personal epiphanies he had about himself while encountering trains. Raised in Saskatchewan, the first time he ever took a train was when he moved to Toronto and took the subway. I was charmed by his description of the trains (they looked like giant toaster ovens to his prairie eyes), and moved by his meditations of what it means to be a storyteller when you aren’t that confident in your stories, or, more fundamentally, in the significance of your own personal experience. But we need these stories. We need to know that our experiences are unique, yet shared, and that they’re real and matter.
Throughout the afternoon, Mac gave us two sets of performances to choose from, so it was not possible to see all the performances (unless you had two tickets and two computers — I wish I had thought of that before!). This was probably the plan for the live performance: to get the audience to participate by making a choice. We were further engaged by a feature that let us communicate with the performers via online messages. That was the other interesting aspect of this video presentation: it was all live. The performers were in the space of their choosing — or maybe just the space they happened to be in when the quarantine order came down. So while we were not all in the theatre, we were all, or almost all, in the same place: at home.
Two performances stood out for me. One was by Mustafa Rafiq, who I got to know while covering the noise music scene in Edmonton last year. His segment was wordless, but nevertheless, he communicated experiences that resonated strongly during this lockdown. He was under the covers of his bed the entire time. The room was dark, except for a bright, colour-changing spotlight. At first, we see his arm extending a violin bow to play a guitar that was slung in front of the curtains. Next, he went from the prone position to a kneeling one, all the while playing a saxophone and still under the covers. You could just feel the weight of the blanket pressing down the urge to create, but also the desire to shield the self from the spotlight, especially when you may be conspicuously alone.
The second performance that will stay with me was Hayley Moorhouse’s more logos-based segment. She asked us questions that we answered; hearing her read back the answers in real time made viewers feel seen (I’m not just guessing: someone typed that in). I’m not sure what the experience would have been like in a theatre, and I didn’t hear any of my comments read, but to see and hear someone read your comment back to you on video would be like being featured on a TV show. Like Mac, Hayley also reflected on the concept and the desire to communicate. She said it was like floating around “Sandra Bullock-style” in space, throwing out a distress signal and having someone receive it on the other end. It’s like that sense of relief that character felt, first of all of not being alone, and second, of the possibility of being saved or somehow having your circumstances or perspective change.
I really appreciated those sentiments and thank the creative team for bringing this to us through new ways of communicating. Message received.