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The challenge of relaunch for Alberta’s independent arts venues: ‘Profit margins are so small’

"Before COVID, we used to seat about 84 people, and right now we're only seating 36," said Bryon Martin, the artistic director of Grindstone Theatre.
"Before COVID, we used to seat about 84 people, and right now we're only seating 36," said Bryon Martin, the artistic director of Grindstone Theatre. Instagram / Grindstone Theatre

As Alberta continues its relaunch, smaller arts venues in the province say there are challenges to bringing community theatre and live events back amid strict social distancing measures due to COVID-19.

Currently, indoor gatherings remain at a limit of 50 people in Alberta — as long as a distance of two metres can be maintained between people at those gatherings.

In Edmonton, at the Grindstone Theatre — a small comedy, improv and music venue run by a non-profit group — the size of the audience is currently less than half of the theatre’s previous capacity.

“Before COVID, we used to seat about 84 people, and right now we’re only seating 36,” said Bryon Martin, the artistic director of Grindstone.

Martin said that when the province released provincial guidelines for Stage 2, which allowed the theatre to officially begin shows again, the company quickly realized there was extensive measures that would need to be put in place.

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Read more: Coronavirus: Stage 2 of Alberta relaunch takes effect Friday, earlier than expected

“The venue kind of has to go above and beyond,” Martin said. “Once we measured things out, we couldn’t fit a lot of people (and still be) maintaining two metres. And also, the guidelines weren’t particularly specific in how you’re measuring two metres (around seating).

“We are requiring all patrons to wear masks in the theatre, because they may not be two metres away from each other at all times.”

Grindstone officially started offering shows again on July 1, but had previously opened its restaurant only during Stage 1 of Alberta’s relaunch.

Martin said that Grindstone is in better shape because of the restaurant anchoring the theatre.

“We’ve seen people really coming out and supporting, coming by for a drink and for food,” Martin said.

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“So that’s been really positive to help us create revenue after being closed for three months.”

In Calgary, Festival Hall — a venue owned by the Folk Festival Society of Calgary that usually hosts concerts, weddings, and other small theatre and arts gatherings — hasn’t reached the point of opening yet.

“We’re just in the process of figuring out how to put procedures and practices in place, to make it really safe for our renters,” said Sara Leishman, the executive director of the Folk Festival Society of Calgary.

Leishman said that while Festival Hall can normally host up to 220 people, currently there is work being done to estimate what types of floor plans would be necessary for different types of events, and how many people can safely be in the space.

Festival Hall in Calgary, Alta.
Festival Hall in Calgary, Alta. Festival Hall

There were about 35 events planned for this summer for Festival Hall, and Leishman said about 21 were cancelled. Another 14 were postponed into the fall.

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“Having fewer rentals is absolutely going to impact our bottom line,” Leishman said.

“Since March, with the cancellations and postponements, we immediately started losing $20,000 a month.”

Both Martin and Leishman said that they’ve been taking advantage of various government supports — like the small business grant announced by the provincial government in late June — but that in the end, both organizations say they’re still feeling out how things will be moving forward.

Leishman added the fact that Calgary’s Folk Festival was also cancelled this summer has created a no-win situation for them. “Because most of our revenue streams are attached to gatherings, we just got hit on all sides,” she said.

Read more: Calgary Folk Music Festival goes virtual amid COVID-19 pandemic

Leishman said that when Albertans feel ready to go out again, she hopes they remember the smaller organizations that need the support most of all.

“We need venues of all sizes to be able to bring in artists at different stages in their career,” she said. “The small venues have just as much of a place as the big venues.

“The small venues are the ones that are really at risk, because profit margins are so small.”

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At Grindstone, while there are some comedy and improv shows currently running, Martin said that many artists are still waiting to begin performing again.

“We don’t have as many shows as we used to,” Martin said. “We’re just kind of slowly letting producers come out on their own time. Some aren’t ready to get shows up and running yet.”

Our YEG at Night: Grindstone Theatre Company
Our YEG at Night: Grindstone Theatre Company

However, he said when it comes to the bottom line for Grindstone, even with the smaller audience numbers, he believes the business should keep afloat.

“Even before COVID, we would have some sell-out shows on the weekends,” Martin said. “But most of the shows were averaging at about 30 people anyway,

“So in some ways, we’re just such a small space, that if 30 people keep coming out to the space and can space out, then we’re going to be okay.”

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