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Coronavirus: Saskatoon playwright says empty theatres a chance to reflect on art’s future

Saskatoon playwright says dark theatres opportunity to reflect on art’s future
Joel Bernbaum said this is an opportunity to open up to new ways of thinking about the performing arts when things are back to normal. File / Global News

Saskatoon playwright Joel Bernbaum is reflecting on how the novel coronavirus pandemic will impact his own research and the way theatre is done in the future.

He said this is an opportunity to open up to new ways of thinking about the performing arts when things are back to normal.

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“It’s also an opportunity for us in the arts to rethink the way we make our art and the reason we make our art. COVID-19 can be a portal to reimagining a whole new future for the arts. This is an incredible moment in history. Every theatre in the world is dark,” Bernbaum said.

“When the lights go back on, we have a choice. Do we go back to doing the same thing the way we’ve always done it, or do we reimagine the way that we connect with our communities, our audience members, in a way that creates stronger, more relevant and more engaged art?”

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He added it’s not just about moving performances online but instead to re-imagine how theatres can be connected with their communities.

Joel Bernbaum is the first University of Saskatchewan student to be awarded the Pierre Elliott Trudeau Foundation doctoral scholarship.
Joel Bernbaum is the first University of Saskatchewan student to be awarded the Pierre Elliott Trudeau Foundation doctoral scholarship. Brady Ratzlaff / Global News

Bernbaum is a PhD student at the University of Saskatchewan (USask), where he is studying how theatre companies have the potential to strengthen cities by creating connected and engaged citizens.

He’s drawing on his previous works, including the co-creation of the 2020 documentary play Reasonable Doubt, which focused on the 2018 murder trial in the death of Colten Boushie.

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Over 200 interviews conducted by Bernbaum were used in the play to present dialogues about relationships between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people in Saskatchewan.

Heartfelt moments in Saskatchewan during the novel coronavirus pandemic
Heartfelt moments in Saskatchewan during the novel coronavirus pandemic

When completed, Bernbaum hopes his research will be used by arts organizations and cities to engage communities while uncovering new ways for theatre arts to build trust among citizens and promote responsible citizenship.

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“Especially in the times we’re in right now, we’re seeing that community is more important than ever. And community is all about connection,” Bernbaum said.

“Whether it’s a hyper-local community like we have with our theatre company here in Saskatoon or a national community … what we gain from connecting with other people is exponentially valuable.”

“I’m looking forward to making connections with like-minded people who care about social justice and care about a better future for all people in this country.”

READ MORE: Saskatoon theatre icon Henry Woolf receives big 90th birthday present with U of S honour

Bernbaum was recently awarded the Pierre Elliott Trudeau Foundation doctoral scholarship, which goes to outstanding students undertaking social sciences or humanities research.

“It’s a great honour to be the first recipient of this award from [USask]. In moments like these, I always look back and I’m so grateful to all my mentors and teachers along the way who have made me who I am,” Bernbaum said.

“It’s inspiring for me to have my work recognized in this way because my work is all about using the theatre to strengthen cities. … It tells me that the work that we’re doing with theatre arts right here in Saskatoon can be applicable all over the country and all over the world.”

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READ MORE: Saskatchewan students learn about music to cure the isolation blues

He is one of 16 Canadian students awarded the $40,000/year, three-year scholarship as well as a travel allowance of up to $20,000 annually.

“[The foundation’s] trying to create a community of people across Canada who they feel will be the future leaders of the country. And so it’s an honour to be among that community and it will be extremely enjoyable and stimulating to connect with these other 15 individuals from across the country to help learn and grow together,” Bernbaum said.

“Right now, because we are in the times we are, it’s all been virtual but we will gather together. I hope sooner than later.

“This is a very challenging time for many people and a huge shout out to all the medical professionals and frontline workers that are helping us get through COVID-19.”

Bernbaum also co-founded Saskatoon’s Sum Theatre, which offers free Theatre in the Park productions each summer.

Questions about COVID-19? Here are some things you need to know:

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Health officials caution against all international travel. Returning travellers are legally obligated to self-isolate for 14 days, beginning March 26, in case they develop symptoms and to prevent spreading the virus to others. Some provinces and territories have also implemented additional recommendations or enforcement measures to ensure those returning to the area self-isolate.

Symptoms can include fever, cough and difficulty breathing — very similar to a cold or flu. Some people can develop a more severe illness. People most at risk of this include older adults and people with severe chronic medical conditions like heart, lung or kidney disease. If you develop symptoms, contact public health authorities.

To prevent the virus from spreading, experts recommend frequent handwashing and coughing into your sleeve. They also recommend minimizing contact with others, staying home as much as possible and maintaining a distance of two metres from other people if you go out.

For full COVID-19 coverage from Global News, click here.