How COVID-19 Has Impacted 4th Line Theatre

Kim Blackwell, Managing Artistic Director of 4th Line Theatre, shares how COVID-19 has impacted their season.

It was so unfathomable to imagine on March 8th of this year that the public reading we held at the Peterborough Museum and Archives would be the last in-person art presentation that 4th Line Theatre would be doing for the foreseeable future. We ended the public reading of D’Arcy Jenish’s new work The Tilco Strike and the audience present was so excited by the excerpt public reading we had presented. Everyone dispersed and I went off on a planned family vacation early in the morning of March 10th. And of course by March 12th the entire world had been turned upside down.  Things changed radically for the entire world, in almost an instant. 

For me, the initial stress was getting my family safely home from out of country and then doing the two-week isolation period was only the beginning of a stressful realization that the theatre, where I have spent the past 26 seasons would be altered drastically for the near future.  After that initial personal stress, it was time to regroup with the administrative staff and Board of Directors of the theatre and me wondering, “Is it possible that we might not have a 2020 summer season at 4th Line.” 

Since theatre was now closed, we were doing these meetings and musings online over Zoom. We were madly learning the technology and trying to keep in touch. The immediate focus of the theatre administration and the Board of Directors was the financial health of the organizations. We all know that eventually COVID-19 will end and people will be free to move around freely and meet in groups. And we have to ensure that our arts organization was still around to welcome the people back. There was a period of grieving I had to do, as I came to terms with the possibility that the theatre would not have all or part of its summer season. After 28 seasons of producing large-scale new Canadian plays, it caused me incredible sadness to imagine that the 29th season might not happen. As I came to terms with this very real possibility, so many other ideas of how to engage with our audiences started to percolate. 

At the heart of what we do at 4th Line Theatre, is an exploration of the relationship between art and audience. It is at the core of the art practice at 4th Line. For me, the idea of missing even one season of this delicate and important interaction was too much to imagine. And so we started to devise ideas for continuing to engage with our audiences remotely. Equally as important for me is to look to our artists, most of whom are now without work and think of how to engage them as well. 

We decided to start slowly, with a series of informal artist talks online in the month of May. We have a program at 4th Line entitled the Epic Women’s Directing project, which focuses on training and giving directing opportunities to women of all levels of directing experience. The program offers women directors the chance to work in the epic milieu of our theatre with large casts of actors in the outdoor setting. For several years, I have wanted to create a podcast series, talking to women theatre leaders about their lives, careers and artistic ethos. But like so many ideas you have as a leader of a busy arts organization – there was never enough time to set-up such a podcast series. And now suddenly we have nothing but time, so the idea of finally developing the series as a weekly live online chat was borne. We also wanted to try online readings of plays as an offering for our audiences. The challenge with readings, specifically of our plays, is that there are so many characters and actors in a typical 4th Line play. It would be a real challenge to do an online reading with say 25 actors. We wanted to try something smaller and so have gone with a one-woman show as our first offering. And we are also exploring an online development workshop for a script in development. We will be putting together 12 or 13 actors for a 1/2 day reading/workshop of our new Halloween play. 

We continue to look across the globe at what other theatre companies are doing online to engage theatre audiences for ideas which might be applicable to 4th Line. Many large companies have excellent video of their plays and are making them available online. We simply have never had the financial resources to pay for excellent quality video recordings of our productions. But it is interesting to imagine capturing our plays in this manner going forward. We will also be exploring online workshops for the general public including acting, directing and playwriting – to name only three. There are many possible electronic engagement activities we will be creating over the weeks and months to come, especially if our entire 2020 season is shuttered. 

The biggest challenge with creating online content is figuring out if there is a way to monetize the content. Presently, most artist content being offered online is being offered free of charge. I am not sure that audiences are interested in paywalls for our type of artistic content. It will be important to observe how it goes for the first companies who try to get audiences to pay for access to online content. For now, at 4th Line Theatre, we wait and watch the rest of the world for best practices and we dream of a time when we can congregate again in large groups.

 

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