Plenty of local theatre companies have transitioned their live performances to virtual screenings, and though we can take bathroom breaks whenever and eat as many noisy candies as we want, it’s just not the same. Donna Spencer, artistic producer of the Firehall Arts Centre, made this analogy: “You go to a restaurant because you want to be pampered and taken care of. And yes, takeout food is good…but you still have to do the dishes after.” COVID substitutions may be safe and inventive (and at their core, necessary)—but they simply aren’t the real thing. 

Spencer and the team at the Firehall have been working since the shutdown (which affected six productions in their 2019/2020 season) to bring live theatre back in a safe, authentic way. They considered doing a salon-style series (“Like the old days,” Spencer jokes) but determined that the idea was too elitist: access would basically be limited to rich people with giant houses. During the summer, their Music in the Courtyard series brought small audiences of no more than 30 to a distanced, outdoor performance venue. “This was not only to give artists an opportunity to work,” says Spencer, “it was a test to see if we could have live performances safely.”

They determined they can—even indoors (an essential factor, unless every show from October to April is a low-tech, site-specific rendition of Singin’ in the Rain). Spencer says that the protocol on buying tickets, getting into the venue, moving about the lobby, using the washrooms, and sitting in the theatre have all changed to reflect the appropriate pandemic precautions. “We are taking the health issues around this very seriously,” says Spencer. “We want to be able to share our work with people feeling safe and comfortable.” All of the performances will also be available virtually for folks who aren’t able to see the shows live.

Spencer hopes that the Firehall’s (intimate, but live) audiences will help reignite the theatre’s spirit, and give the local economy a kick in the pants, too. “When we are up and active, people are getting on the bus or getting on their bikes, going out for dinner or going to get a drink—and that whole tourism and entertainment shutdown has just had a devastating impact on everybody,” she says. “The creative industry really benefits all of the sectors, and people are really starting to recognize that.”

We got the rundown on the first few shows in the Firehall’s 2020/2021 season, which were selected to reflect, celebrate and challenge these difficult times. “This is going to change our art, and how we create work,” says Spencer, “but its also going change our appreciation for it.” Here’s what to expect from behind the curtain in the coming months.

I Walked the Line

October 15 to October 25

This play is by Canadian actor Alan Morgan (who you’ve probably seen on the Arts Club and Bard on the Beach stages). “He realized he wasn’t getting alot work because he was getting older, so he changed his career and left the theatre,” explains Spencer. Morgan instead took a job as an administrative assistant for a healthcare union, but six days in, they went on strike. The play is about him walking the line and the understanding he gained from working in that field. “It’s a really timely piece because of the incredible stress on our current healthcare workers,” says Spencer. “Their willingness to find a way through this is amazing, I’m in awe of them.”

In the Beginning

November 4 to 7 

Spencer calls this project a sharing of information from Indigenous nations, including the Squamish, Tsleil-Waututh, Musqueam, and representative of other nations who have come over water or across mountains to get to the place that is now called Vancouver. “Audiences will get the opportunity to hear about their sense of what Vancouver was before it became what it is now, but also the ability to recognize the strength of the people who have stayed,” says Spencer. It’s part of the Heart of the City Festival, which will also feature play readings from Indigenous playwrights.

The Amaryllis

November 12 to November 22

The Amaryllis, at it’s core, is about the change and evolution of a brother and sister’s relationship—but it’s also about a woman who is afraid to leave her house (relatable). Plus, it’s a comedy. “When I read it, it made me laugh, but it also made me think about what fear can do to people, and how it can force them to isolate,” says Spencer. Obviously, physical isolation is a good thing in the context of a global pandemic, but the play also prompts questions about the future. “Once people are allowed to increase their bubble size, will the fear go away or will it stay with them?” Spencer wonders. “Will it make us afraid of everybody we see that we don’t know?”

You can find more information about the Firehall Arts Centre’s 2020/2021 season on their website, firehallartscentre.ca.