Come From Away Toronto’s untimely end must galvanize calls to save live-action theater

The cast of Come From Away is shown in an undated photo. The production has closed permanently at the Royal Alexandra Theater in Toronto.Matthew Murphy / The Canadian Press

On December 27, Mirvish Productions announced that its production of Come from afar had permanently closed at the Royal Alexandra Theater in Toronto. Production only recently reopened on December 15 to enthusiastic applause after a 21-month hiatus due to COVID. Since then, COVID-19 cases have erupted behind the scenes and four performances have had to be canceled. Shutting down production even for a short time while retaining the cast and crew would be financially prohibitive, so David Mirvish made the difficult decision to shut down the production for good.

This news is devastating for the arts in Canada’s largest city and the country as a whole.

In a statement, Mirvish criticized the government’s lack of financial support. “In other parts of the world, the government has stepped up support for the commercial theater sector by providing a financial safety net for the sector to reopen and perform during the pandemic, protecting the tens of thousands of good jobs created by the area. This is the case in the United States, the United Kingdom and Australia – where the productions of Come from afar keep playing.

Opinion: To avoid more closures like Toronto’s Come From Away, governments must support Canada’s performing arts sector

He added, “Without such a safety net, it is impossible for production to take another extended outage. The costs of a second reopening are prohibitive and risky. “

Come from afar, with book, music and lyrics by Irene Sankoff and David Hein, tells how 38 planes bound for the United States were diverted to Gander, Newfoundland, after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, and how the local population is occupied, fed, housed and emotionally supported 7,000 passengers for five days. It’s a musical that shows the best of humanity during a dark time and how that generosity of spirit continued. If ever there was a show that was needed during this pandemic, Come from afar is this. The show has been championed, celebrated, and embraced because of its message of kindness and respect for others wherever it has been performed.

The cancellation raises many questions, including: what does this mean for the theater in this country? If Mirvish can’t even put on a Toronto production of a hit musical like Come from afar, should other companies just give up?

As the late Stephen Sondheim wrote: “Art is not easy. It takes courage and heart to create theater and this country is full of creators who have done just that. The theater is too important to expressing who we are as humans and as a society to stop. Statistics make it clear how important theater is to the economy when millions of dollars are spent on creating jobs, maintaining restaurants and hotels, supporting small businesses and more.

The theater has been an economic savior in difficult economic times. Look no further than Stratford, Ontario. In the early 1950s, the city was in financial difficulty when it lost the railroad. Tom Patterson, a prominent citizen, believed that creating a summer festival dedicated to Shakespeare would be the solution. It seems to have worked. The Stratford Festival will celebrate its 70th season in 2022.

Gil Garratt, artistic director of the Blyth Festival in Blyth, Ont., Had to cancel his indoor season last summer. because of COVID-19. What did he do? He built an open-air theater on a deserted soccer field and made it a shorter season. People have flocked.

In 2011, Michael Rubenfeld, then artistic director of the SummerWorks theater festival in Toronto, was informed that 20 percent of the funding was being withdrawn because the Harper government did not like the topic of one of the plays (on a terrorist group in Toronto). Rubenfeld rallied his supporters and raised funds to cover money lost. He also staged a protest that saw various arts and theater groups across the country express their outrage at this government interference. The following year, funding was restored.

Ultimately, it is the pandemic that wreaks havoc on how and when to go to the theater. What will help? Money. Financial support from all levels of government can provide relief to companies that produce theater by ensuring that there is a cushion when they have to cancel performances. It is vital. How do you get it? We must galvanize.

There is power in numbers and in noise. Every citizen who thinks theater is important in their life should write to their city councilor, member of parliament, prime minister and prime minister to ask – no, demand – the financial support that Mirvish says is lacking, and explain why the theater is worth it.

Every artistic director of every theater, big and small, in Canada should come together to do the same, including attendance, income and jobs numbers to prove the point.

Likewise each board of directors.

Deploring this terrible situation is no use. The union is. There is power in numbers and making noise. Supporting the theater is vital.

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