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No ‘going back’ for Calgary arts community in post-COVID world

Adaptation is something that artists know well, especially in the last few months.

Venues, theaters and galleries were all closed, and artists were forced to create from home – and physically alone.

Productions were cancelled, along with festivals, touring acts, and other artistic productions.

Calgary summer classics like the Fringe Festival, the Comic and Entertainment Expo, and even the Calgary Stampede would no longer go on. The Calgary Folk Music Festival, too.

However, true to their nature, Calgary artists have found ways to keep creating through these difficult times.

The Indie YYC started a couple years ago, and is used to putting on multi-disciplinary live events. This includes poetry, spoken word, and musical acts.

“[It started] as an initiative to try to knit together all the disparate artistic communities in town,” said Frederick Tamagi, one of the founders of The Indie YYC.

“All of the communities are pretty vibrant, but quite siloed off of each other.”

With COVID-19 restrictions in place, their events have been cancelled for months.

Like many businesses and organizations, the team at The Indie YYC moved operations online. It even inspired a new initiative, The Indie YYC Inspires, which features all kind of curated videos from artists with uplifting or empowering messages for the public.

These are posted to the organizations Facebook page

“This is what people need right now,” said Jonathan Ferguson, who also works with the Indie YYC.

Beyond this organization, plenty of other musicians and poets have taken to posting videos online.

Performances are live streamed from the artist’s home, and others are pre-recorded and edited before posting.

All artists are adapting and learning.

It isn’t just musicians who have adapted to this online format either.

Dev Nicoll-Ellis, also known as DeVery Bess, has also embraced the challenges brought by COVID 19.

They are a drag king and gender performance artist, who is used to doing live shows. Their world came to a quick stop once things started shutting down.

Devery Bess at Twisted Element as part of their Twisted Pride Weekend, August 2019 | YOUTUBE

“I have had the time to really invest my time into learning new technologies, and learning these different things about the importance of live shows,” said Nicoll-Ellis.

“If it wasn’t for COVID and self-isolation, [the learning] wouldn’t have happened.”

They have been taking time to make music videos, and learning how to incorporate animated elements.

When restrictions start to ease and they can perform live, Nicoll-Ellis will likely be incorporating these visual elements and graphic technologies into their stage performances.

Actors and playwrights typically producing for the stage have now been pushed into learning a new medium.

Digital elements like sound, lighting, and projections are often incorporated into stage productions but some theater artists rarely go beyond that.

The IGNITE Emerging Arts Festival by Sage Theatre has produced plenty of stage productions over the years. COVID-19 restrictions forced the festival to move online, and the productions had to adapt with it.

Stage productions turned into audio recordings, web series, and short films – improv was done over Zoom.

Acting without other actors

Some actors, like those in Chantel Dixon’s Anonymous, had to adapt to acting without a scene partner.

Mackenzie McDonald as “Duke” in Chantel Dixon’s production Anonymous for the IGNITE! Emerging Arts Festival | YOUTUBE

“My interactions with all the [other] actors were rehearsals, which was unfortunate,” said Mackenzie McDonald, one of the actors in Anonymous.

For that production, actors could film themselves or be filmed.

The latter option had actors acting with the director.

But with so much talk of adapting to the current situation, what will things look like in a few years?

“I don’t think there’s such a thing as ‘going back,’” said Patti Pon, President and CEO at Calgary Arts Development.

“How is it possible? We’ve all learned so much more, we tried so many different things, why would we just dismiss them and ignore them and go back to a way things were.”

Though some of this learning may have been without the effects of COVID-19, it likely wouldn’t have been this rapid.  

Dixon’s three-part web series likely would have remained as a staged show, and she never would have explored the avenue of film.

“I think it’s great that the creators are now exploring that you don’t need to have a live audience,” she said.

“[In the future] I think there’ll be more cinematic journeys, more immersive audience kind of techniques. It’s going to be new.”

Recovery of the arts industry will be slow

Pon talked about how things will be slow to resurface, as the arts were the first sector to be directly impacted in the pandemic.

Following the announcement of public gatherings being cancelled, ticket sales for live events started getting refunded within the same day.

“[The arts] will be one of the last ones to recover,” Pon said.

“When you talk about a few years from now, we’ll probably just be surfacing from the direct impact of this pandemic.”

Recovery may be slow, but the arts will return in whatever shape or form possible.

Luke Azevedo, the Calgary Film and TV Commissioner talked about how adopting proper safety protocols and guidelines will be integral to moving forward.

“It’s going to be a while before we start seeing [the arts] going back in any specific way,” he said.

“We’re moving forward with what will be new production reality.”

Though the artists drive the industry, it’s the audiences that will help the arts survive.

Kyle Simmers and Derek Simmers work on “Vanitas” as part of the 2019 BUMP Festival. This festival is set to go on despite COVID-19 restrictions. | EUNICE HAU

When ticket sales stopped, many refunds were turned into donations. The money often went back to the artists or the producing organization, or was donated to other art companies.

Audiences are eager to keep art in their lives, and to keep themselves entertained in a time where we’re forced to stay home.

“I think that that has really brought back a large amount of appreciation, for many people, toward the arts,” Azevedo said.

While artists are rapidly adapting, it’s venues that have seen the major changes.

Venues have been closed for months

The Ironwood in Inglewood, once open with live music seven days a week, has been closed for the last three months.

They’ve had to change their floor plan to accommodate to the physical distancing guidelines, and have been keeping a close eye on what going on in the city.

“It’s been challenging,” said Amanda White, general manager at the Ironwood.

Though their doors have been closed, they’ve still had some live performances, which were streamed on Facebook.

The artists were distanced on stage, everything had been cleaned, and the audience was virtual.

As restrictions have lifted, their stage and dining room will be open this Saturday, for the first performance in three months.

“We’re super excited about that,” White said.

“We’ve already had people calling all day today and making reservations.”

Their location will seat around 50-60 patrons, which complied with the 50 per cent capacity regulation when it was in place.

As for the future, they’ll be handling things on a week-by-week basis.

Though they’ll be waiting on guidelines from the city on how to move forward, White doesn’t seem worried about audiences coming back.

“People are going to want to come out,” she said.

“Musicians are hungry to play.”

But for other artistic venues, the future is much less certain.

Rich Theroux, who co-founded Rumble House with his wife Jess, isn’t keen on having to adopt rules and regulations to his business model.

Rules don’t always work for everyone

“Our system here is built on not telling people what to do,” he said.

“So, the idea of standing outside of the gallery with a thermometer, and swabbing people on the way into the gallery and telling them where to sit really goes against the grain of everything I’ve done so far.”

Jess Szabo and Rich Théroux had their wedding on the roof of Rumble House last year.| ANDREW BOLTON

There isn’t necessarily a plan for how they’re going to handle the relaunch at Rumble House, so it looks like their operations will remain online for now.

They’ve been holding their weekly Wednesday auctions through their Facebook page, with artists dropping pieces off at the venue. It’s mostly for profit, but they sometimes trade pieces for good deeds.

The future of the arts, in all disciplines may be uncertain, but there’s no doubt it’s bright.

Artists have learned so much in so little time, and now more than ever the arts are thriving as audiences yearn for entertainment.

While things may continue to change, that may not necessarily be a bad thing.

Artists are known for creating beauty out of difficult times, and this pandemic is no different.