COVID-19 brings local theatres to a standstill

Tim Yerxa, executive director of the Fredericton Playhouse, stands in front of the theatre in this portrait on Oct. 21, 2021, in downtown Fredericton, N.B. (Aaron Sousa/AQ)

New Brunswick entered Level 3 of the COVID-19 winter plan on Jan.14, restricting most non-essential activities. Fredericton theatres find themselves in a state of limbo once more due to COVID-19 capacity limitations.

On Dec. 27, provincial regulations for hosting indoor events changed to a 150-person maximum capacity. While this still allowed most retail and restaurant venues to remain open, it made things complicated for theatres that require large attendances.

Tim Yerxa, director of the Fredericton Playhouse, said several shows scheduled in December, January and February were cancelled by the artists. 

“We’ve had 25 events impacted and most have either [been] cancelled or postponed,” said Yerxa. “We’re a 700 seat venue. The shows that are coming here require more than 150 seats to be sold. So they generally don’t work for 150 people in our particular venue.”

Yerxa said this left the Playhouse in a “holding-state.” The theatre was still open and ready to host if needed, but without being able to sell the required amount of tickets, staff were forced to wait for something to change. 

“We’re trying to keep it all intact as much as possible and just dealing with one show at a time through the series,” he said. “We’re not making any decisions today on shows for the middle of February [onward], but as we get closer, if things don’t change, we’ll be proceeding with cancelling or postponing those events as well.”

The experience is “gut-wrenching” for Yerxa, who said it’s been difficult knowing that the Playhouse is unable to deliver on its community mandate to “bring people together and have shared experiences.”

GNB’s move to Level 3 on Jan. 14 brings theatre to a complete halt, since it’s considered non-essential. 

Natasha MacLellan, pictured in this submitted portrait, is the artistic director of Theatre New Brunswick. (Submitted: Theatre New Brunswick)

Natasha MacLellan, artistic director of Theatre New Brunswick, said the restrictions are hard, but she agrees with the lockdown. 

“I’m tired. I’m tired of trying to reinvent my art form. I’m tired of trying to carry a company in the middle of an industry crisis. I think all of us are, not just me,” said MacLellan. 

Theatre New Brunswick was able to run two shows before Christmas and hosted its first live performance in two years prior to the new regulations. MacLellan said the experience was different from running a show pre-COVID-19 because it took longer to prepare and required a number of precautions and changes to keep everyone safe.

MacLellan said that despite the tiring nature of constantly changing restrictions, she continues to push forward. 

“We can keep working. We can keep going to work masked and distanced. But we’re not allowed to do the very thing we do,” she said. “It’s just not business as usual, but it’s business. It’s just the strangest time for the live performing arts.”