Erratic is one word to use to describe François Legault and the Québec government’s approach to developing and implementing public health measures throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. Unscientific, unsettling, and authoritative also come to mind.  The speed and intensity in which they backtracked on recently announced deconfinement measures in Gatineau, Lévis and Québec City is yet another damning illustration of how their capital-driven approach to public health endangers us all and risks pushing Québec into a cultural dark age of sorts.   

In these pandemic-times, theatres have the unfortunate distinction of being both one of the safest places to be and one of the hardest-hit industries. We are an easy and symbolic target to shut down, seen by governments as a means to convince the population that they have their safety and well-being in mind.

Yet, cultural institutions and artists adapted quickly and innovatively to the pandemic, implementing health and safety measures that practically eradicated the risk of transmission.

Capital-driven versus community-driven
Our risk factor pales in comparison to that of schools, malls, gyms, restaurants, or many workplaces. In fact, a large number of capital-driven workplaces don’t put an ounce of the care that theatres do towards protecting their employees, which is why we see large outbreaks in meat processing plants or various factories. Like in Ontario, where the government is targeting patios even though it was at an Amazon warehouse that a 500-person outbreak erupted.

Theatres on the other hand are community-driven, and the measures put in place to protect audiences and artists alike reflect this reality. 

Reduced capacity, stringent sanitation protocols, and obligatory masks for audiences all contribute to the safety of our craft. Add to this the fact that an audience member’s trajectory from the moment they step into the building to the moment they leave can be tightly controlled, that there is no conversing or mingling between audience members during a performance, and that contact tracing is far easier than in most places, and you begin to understand why live theatre is heralded by many scientists as an activity that is surprisingly equipped and adapted to operating safely during COVID-19.  

A failure to communicate
Despite all this, when the government finally began listening to reason and allowed theatres to resume their activities (after malls, stores, movie theatres, and spas), the messaging around the decision was so ill-conceived that many in the public naturally balked at the decision. “250 people gatherings, but I can’t see my parents? When we are at the precipice of a third wave?” was a constant refrain, but who can blame folks from reacting as such after more than a year of contradictory messaging and half-measures?

The truth of the matter is that the vast majority of theatres can in no way accommodate such a large number of people. For most, the distancing measures in place bring that number down to somewhere between thirty and fifty.

Attending a play is not exactly a gathering either. As a colleague expressed to me earlier this week, “We are not gathering in proximity, we are sharing space with isolation measures in place. I love my subscribers, but I am not looking to hug them.”

Now, admittedly, the government has funded a marketing campaign to promote how safe attending the theatre is, but will it be too little, too late? One can understand why the public and media are not quite following recent decisions, but minimally those with the platform to do so must labour to debunk some myths about the number of audience members allowed in our venues and the low-risk activity they are engaging in once they are seated and watching a performance.

Artists at the brink
The recent highly mediatized study conducted by the Fédération nationale des communications et de la culture–CSN paints a very alarming picture of the state of our sector: 11,7% of surveyed members have had suicidal ideations in the last year, 43% show symptoms of major depression, and 41% are considering giving up their artistic careers entirely. All told, 63% are experiencing heightened or severe psychological distress. 

It is clear that our industry is tethering on the brink of irreversible collapse. The government should bear this in mind as they decide yet again to shut us down instead of putting measures in place that will thwart propagation where it matters most: capital-driven workplaces and schools.

With a seemingly unending curfew and indoor gatherings with loved ones remaining impossible, we have a responsibility to make sure people may frequent places that are controlled and secure, such as theatres.

The financial support measures put in place for the sector can only serve as a life jacket for so long. If we care to have a thriving artistic scene, like that which has been at the core of our cultural and national identity for over half-a-century, then we must keep theatres open. We must allow performing artists to share stories in indoor and outdoor spaces with all the care, love, and consideration that is at the heart of why we do what we do.



Image: Matthew Kabwe and Tania Kontoyanni in Marc Prescott’s Encore. Set: Jaclyn Turner, Lighting and costumes: Zoe Roux