Covid can’t stop culture
Seeing Hamilton in person before the pandemic struck was a bucket-list event for many people. Now you can watch the original cast of this Tony Award-winning play from the comfort of your own home. Welcome to culture in a time of COVID. At least for now.
There are ups and downs, of course, to experiencing culture through screens. You can’t hear the squeak of dancers’ feet, see the brush strokes on paintings, or feel the music of an orchestra move your soul.
However, the digital world is infinitely big. And with cultural institutions across Canada – and, indeed, around the world – opening themselves to online exploration, you can now experience more culture than ever before at any time of day or night.
The people at Disney recognized this months ago. That’s why, having paid $75 million for the rights to show it, they moved the release date of this incredible musical ahead by more than a year – from October 2021 to July 2020 – so as to capitalize on people’s thirst for culture amid the constraints of physical distancing. The eyes of the world are now on Hamilton on a scale never imagined before the outbreak of COVID.
Cultural industry was knocked down
Physical distancing regulations shut down vast swathes of the domestic and global economies. And while some industries have started to find their feet again, others are still knocked flat. Canada’s cultural industry is one of them. Theatres are shuttered across the country, and countless community-based cultural groups are scrambling. Even Cirque du Soleil went into bankruptcy.
The vibrancy of Cirque’s artistic performances reflects the city in which they were born – Montreal. Summers here are usually filled with big events and festivals. This year, though, it’s very different. The Canadian Grand Prix and the Festival International de Jazz in Montréal are among the many cancelled events, leaving the city quieter than normal. Tourists will come back at some point. But, for now, Montrealers almost have the place to themselves.
The economic impacts of widespread cultural cancellations are devastating. A Statistics Canada survey released in July on the impacts of COVID on businesses showed that over three-quarters of businesses in the arts, entertainment and recreation sector (80.3%) experienced revenue drops of 30% or more.
A survey of independent artists and performers by “I Lost My Gig” paints an even more stark and personal picture. It suggested the average expected loss of income by respondents is $25,000 in 2020. For context, that represents more than 80% of their annual expected income. We see those impacts first hand. Friends and clients of ours in the cultural industry are finding it very challenging financially, with many seeking other types of employment.
Culture is innovative
However, culture professionals are innovative by nature. They know how to roll with the punches, fill seats, make us laugh, and temporarily take us (figuratively speaking) to other worlds. If anyone can be creative in managing through a pandemic, it’s the cultural sector.
They can’t do it alone. And, fortunately, they aren’t alone. We know many clients who are maintaining their philanthropic support of cultural institutions throughout the pandemic – providing some ongoing cash that may help stave off bankruptcies.
Governments across Canada are also stepping up. In May, the federal government announced details of the Emergency Support Fund for Cultural, Heritage and Sport Organizations. The Fund dedicates and directs up to $500 million to “help organizations maintain operations while continuing to support artists and athletes, and retain jobs.”
Adapting to the pandemic
Will all this be enough to save theatres, cinemas, orchestras and the like? That’s very hard to say. But as Canadians move through this pandemic, we know there are some compelling online alternatives to in-person cultural experiences.
Corporations are helping out arts institutions in a variety of virtual ways. This includes connecting would-be patrons with institutions they aren’t able to attend in person. While many of these digital tours are free, some people pay money for them, thus supporting the arts in very challenging times. Early into the lockdown, for instance, our firm provided all employees with digital access to the At-Home Gala by the Metropolitan Opera.
All of the major English and French Canadian networks have streaming entertainment options that give you access to large libraries of movies, TV series and documentaries. You can find some gems in there in both official languages, along with countless foreign films with subtitles.
You’ll also find innovation among established theatre companies. The Stratford Festival cancelled its entire 2020 season for in-theatre performances. However, you can still watch many of their Shakespeare plays through their online portal, Stratfest@Home. Some shows stream for free during certain dates, while others are available for rent or purchase at any time. The two households of fair Verona have never been so close at hand.
It’s a similar story with London’s West End theatres, most of which will remain shut for several months. The National Theatre, based in London, releases one free full-length play every week. They also have a series of at home quizzes, with the likes of Dame Helen Mirren and Sir Ian McKellen asking viewers trivia questions. It’s not exactly “King Lear”, but it’s fun.
You can also listen to Elaine Paige – a musical theatre veteran – every Sunday morning on BBC2 at 8:00 EST. Her show features two hours of songs from Broadway and West End musicals, as well as movies. Sing along from the safety of your kitchen, as at least one of us is prone to do!
As the lockdown slowly begins to ease, in-person options are increasingly available, albeit with some physical distancing conditions. Dinner at your favourite restaurant? Call ahead and take your mask, but at least you can go there again.
Canada is a huge country, with countless options to explore. Following the recent acquisition of T.E. Wealth by CWB, we have been highlighting great places to do exactly that in cities throughout the firm’s expanded national presence. From great restaurants in Edmonton to historic hotels in Québec City, our team actively supports local businesses and cultural icons across Canada.
Thinking of going abroad?
We always enjoy hearing the stories of clients who travel abroad for cultural experiences. And we know many clients are really missing the sounds of the theatre. We do as well.
The fact is, travelling abroad for cultural experiences – for the short term, at least – will be challenging on a number of fronts. The Canada-U.S. border, for example, will stay closed for all non-essential trips for a while yet, and the lights of Broadway will stay dim for months to come.
Looking farther afield, there are flickers of light on the cultural landscape in Europe. Opera houses across the continent closed this spring due to COVID, but many are now finding unique ways to bring live performances to audiences.
Earlier this summer, Berlin-based Deutsche Oper offered shortened versions of Wagner’s “Das Rheingold” to eager opera fans sitting on plastic chairs in an outdoor parking lot. Demand for the modified shows was red hot. Only 800 tickets were available for the five scheduled performances, and they all sold out in 12 minutes.
Be informed to be entertained
The key to really enjoying culture in the pandemic is to be informed. Research not just the venues, but any relevant travel restrictions and cancellation policies. And if that’s too much to take on board for now, why not host a small theatre party at home? With the world turned upside down, taking in some Hamilton with friends might be just the thing, for now.
This article was published in Leon Frazer & Associates Strategies newsletter, September 2020 edition. Read the full edition here.