COVID-19: Edmonton indie arts venues make quick pivot for online Christmas programming amid closures

Kendra Connor with the Varscona Theatre. Supplied to Global News / Photo by Adam Kidd

For indie theatre venues in Edmonton, COVID-19′s second wave has required another pivot.

Most venues fully closed down last spring when the first shutdown took place in Alberta.

While many opened back up for limited or adapted live performances over the summer, the new health restrictions now in place in Alberta meant quick changes had to be made when it came to venues’ plans for the Christmas season.

“Ordinarily, the Varscona is really buzzing with a lot of holiday events this time of year,” said Kendra Connor, the community partnerships director with the Varscona Theatre in Old Strathcona.

She said the theatre recently received a grant from the EPCOR Heart + Soul Fund which allowed it to purchase equipment to begin streaming performances online — the first of which will be the Varscona Theatre Holiday Gala on Dec. 20. Tickets are already available online and are by donation.

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“A lot of it is really similar to previous Varscona galas we’ve done in the past,” Connor said.

“We’re taking a similar format and doing it in digital form, hoping to provide our audiences with something that is kind of familiar and normal this time of year, but in a way that keeps everybody safe.”

She said the group tried to think outside of the “traditional” theatre box for the livestream, including a cocktail segment and showcasing Edmonton’s Christmas Market.

“(The online capability)’s really elevated what the theatre is capable of putting out online. So in addition to this, you can expect a lot more offerings coming down the pipeline in the future,” Connor said.

Just south of Whyte Avenue, the Grindstone Theatre is also working on a similar online Christmas special after its previous plans for an in-person event had to be changed amid the new restrictions.

“It’s changed several times — it was supposed to be a live comedy special,” said Byron Martin, the theatre’s artistic director. “It’s going to be a really funny show, there’s going to be a lot of great people in it.”

Read more: Edmonton’s Metro Cinema launches online screenings through COVID-19 closure

Martin said once the new restrictions came into place, the theatre applied for an exemption with Alberta Health for a “non-public performance” in order to be able to shoot some of the segments. It also received an EPCOR grant this year to help fund programing through the pandemic.

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The theatre hired a team of local comedy writers and improvisers to curate the Grindstone Theatre Online Christmas Comedy Special, which is also by donation and currently set for Dec. 25. Tickets are set to go on sale Tuesday, Dec. 14. 

The Grindstone Theatre in Edmonton is one of several small venues holding online Christmas events this December. Grindstone Theatre / Instagram

COVID-19 led to tough year for indie venues

While groups are working to continue performing and to give more work to local artists, the year has been a tough one for small, local outfits like Grindstone and Varscona.

“This is totally new for us,” Connor said. “We were so impressed by the quick pivot of several theatre companies — the Citadel comes to mind in particular — at the beginning of the pandemic.

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Neither theatre offered livestreams during the first wave of the pandemic in March. However, both offered in-person events in the summer when the number of COVID-19 cases was lower.

“We’ve really had to rethink what it is we can do, what we can program,” Connor said. “(In one summer performance), performers were outside performing on the street facing the theatre, and we put the audience in the theatre lobby facing outside.”

Martin said while the Grindstone operated in its normal theatre space through the summer, the capacity was much lower and masks were required for all audience members. While the group used its EPCOR grant to begin livestreaming all its shows in the summer, he said this latest pivot to online only is “difficult.”

“It’s also just a strain creatively. It’s also a strain on people’s tempers,” he said. “You can tell, just working with everybody right now, in Zoom meetings — we already do all this stuff for the love of it.

“When there’s additional challenge after additional challenge, it just stretches people a little bit.”

Click to play video: 'Theatre Calgary continues long-standing tradition in new and safe way' Theatre Calgary continues long-standing tradition in new and safe way
Theatre Calgary continues long-standing tradition in new and safe way – Dec 10, 2020

However, Connor said she believes one positive the tough year has shown is that Edmontonians are still ready to step up to support local theatre.

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“We’ve been blown away by the response to this (gala) offering, and also to the people who have been able to make it into the theatre to see shows,” she said.

“Everyone is so enthusiastic and I think we’ve really come away with a sense of how much live theatre and live performance is missed.”

Edmonton’s Citadel Theatre is also hosting an online show this holiday season — A Christmas Carol.

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