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Jewish arts institutions battered amid virus chaos

Louise Pitre and Joe Matheson in The times they are a changin' (photo by Andree Lanthier)

On the morning of March 12, Lisa Rubin, the artistic and executive director of the Segal Centre in Montreal, made a difficult decision: the theatre would temporarily shut down immediately because of COVID-19. Three hours later, Quebec Premier François Legault announced a ban on any gatherings of more than 250 people, affirming Rubin’s choice. 

“I knew from the meetings I was having, from the ad hoc committees, the experts I was talking to that it was imminent,” she says. Shutting down the season meant cancelling the remaining dates for The Times They Are A Changin’ and the entire run of Oslo, a play about the Israeli peace accords, which was slated to run from April to May. For that show, everything was already done: sets were built, actors had memorized their lines, ads had been published and the lighting was designed.

“That was a big blow,” Rubin says. “For theatres to have to close their doors right now, and to have to tell these artists and craftspeople and ushers and box office attendants and carpenters and painters that there’s no show for you to work on the next few months, it’s devastating. It’s absolutely devastating.”

Rubin is not alone. While health and economic news about rising death tolls and plunging stocks dominate headlines during the coronavirus pandemic, the tragedy of what’s befallen arts institutions has gotten somewhat buried. Theatres, festivals, producers and artists are part of a gig-based industry that invariably relies on a combination of government grants and private fundraising to supplement ticket sales.

For the Segal Centre, it’s not just about their main season, either. The centre hosts guest theatre companies with one annual show, as well as fundraisers and sold-out classes, all of which had to be cancelled as well. 

“Coming to terms with the uncertainty and the repercussions this could have on our businesses and our organizations, and then, of course, for the artists … it’s quite scary,” Rubin says.

In Toronto, the co-artistic directors of the Harold Green Jewish Theatre Company, David Eisner and Avery Saltzman, had to make a similar call, postponing the Canadian première of The Great Divide, which Saltzman also directed. They plan to run it next year instead. The fate of their other planned show for this season, Vitaly: An Evening of Wonders, is still in flux.

“We’re in the same boat as every not-for-profit,” Saltzman says. “It’s a sad time in the arts community.”

Saltzman notes that Canada’s biggest theatre companies, such as Shaw and Stratford, have been suffering the same problems, postponing openings and cancelling programs. Their business typically kick-starts in April, coinciding with the start of festival season, a traditionally hectic few months from April to September when hundreds of arts festivals vie for the precious few warm weekends available in Canada.   

Among those festivals is the Toronto Jewish Film Festival (TJFF), slated to kick off in May.

Debbie Werner, the festival’s executive director, says they are “actively working on alternative ways and means of delivering our program to our audience.” Specifically, they’re considering rescheduling certain screenings and live guests for the fall, while conducting the rest of their program digitally – selling tickets to one-time-only screenings that audience members can log into and view from their home computers.

Jérémie Abessira, TJFF’s director of operations, says he believes this curveball may create an opportunity to change the way people think about film festivals.

“It might affect not only the next few weeks, but it might affect years of thinking about how we were watching films, how we were showing films and what is a film festival,” he says.

On the upside, Abessira noticed the website traffic for Jflix, TJFF’s free streaming website, where they host many past festival films, has doubled its normal volume since March 11 – around the same time the pandemic started dominating headlines.

Werner also believes this will redefine festivals after the pandemic passes. “It also helps us appreciate even more those opportunities when we actually can come together as a community,” she says.

Rubin, from the Segal Centre, agrees.

“When this is over, the need to gather and to be together will be stronger than ever,” she says. “We’re going to keep going. The curtain will rise again.”

It was also announced on March 19, that Jewish Music Week in Toronto, scheduled for May, has been cancelled.