“I’ve been in theatre for over 26 years and I’ve never faced anything like this,” Thom Currie shakes his head. “I’m a natural optimist. When the pandemic started, I thought, ‘Two weeks and this’ll all be done!’ Nope. We shut down Sunday, March 15, 2020.”
Like so many public venues in Ontario, Thunder Bay’s Magnus Theatre went dark for the foreseeable future. As governments and health authorities Canada-wide struggled to contain the spread of the COVID-19 virus, Currie, Magnus’ artistic director, and staff struggled to figure out how to keep theatre working safely in the pandemic.
As the company tried to second-guess the pandemic (and governmental responses), Magnus laid off most of its staff briefly in the spring of 2020.
“But we are in the upper 50th-percentile of employers here (in Thunder Bay),” Currie explains. “We chose to bring the staff back, not for a week or two, but permanently.”
In an odd twist of fortune, the Magnus Theatre facility’s converted century-old building needed lots of renovation and upgrading. The 20 recalled staff had plenty to do. As the pandemic evolved, and restrictions were in constant flux, Currie hit upon an outdoor theatre venture for the fall of 2020. Magnus’ location adjacent to Waverly Park, with its new outdoor stage, was ideal.
“We called in the health unit and they inspected the premises, told us what needed to be done and put in place,” Currie says. “We also worked with the actors’ union for safety protocols for the cast.”
A Closer Walk with Patsy Cline opened in September, 2020, with audience members sitting on portable chairs they had brought, and the cast on a makeshift stage off the parking lot. And then, as so often happens in the northwest, weather struck.
“There was this ebony cloud coming over the park—rain and hail,” Currie recalls. “We covered everything and ran. But the audience just sat there in the rain until it was over.”
As the sun reappeared, actors and staff looked at each other, asked the audience if they wanted the play to continue. The answer was an emphatic ‘yes,’ so after a few minutes uncovering equipment and readying the venue, Patsy Cline continued.
“Andrew Cecon, who was born and raised here, looked out at the audience and shouted, ‘You are Warriors of Art!’” Currie chuckles. “That was when I realized that if a hundred audience members stuck around in such a situation, we were doing something right.”
Magnus moved back inside that winter, again with a health unit inspection, with the theatre-in-the-round production of The Drowning Girls in November. Because of spacing and social distance restrictions, only 50 people at a time were permitted in the audience gallery. As well, Magnus struggled to mount a version of its Young Audience Tour for school-age children. Foreseeing another shut-down, Currie arranged to have the plays filmed with local actors and then screened at local and regional schools. Using Zoom technology for Q and A sessions, Magnus reached some 15,000 school children in the process.
Come September of 2021, Magnus was able to mount an indoors run of Home: A Bluegrass Celebration, with 50 percent audience attendance. Then the province allowed full audience capacity, but Currie was uneasy going that route.
“I took a long look at our audiences and asked people as they came out how comfortable they would be with full attendance,” Currie says, “and they said they weren’t. We stayed with 50 percent for that reason. People need to feel comfortable in our setting.”
Just as Magnus converted its auditorium back to its usual setup from theatre-in-the-round in January of this year, COVID-19 tapped the world on the shoulder. With the Omicron variant on the loose, gathering places faced yet another shut-down. Currie jettisoned one production that would have been impossible to mount under the new circumstances.
Part of “two years of pivoting,” as Currie put it, includes more summer outdoor shows. “There is a thirst for that here.”
This summer, he hopes to remount Home: A Bluegrass Celebration, from the 2021-22 season, re-imagined for the outdoors. It will feature the same cast, all local actors, and allow up to 200 people at a time in the audience.
“It will be a full outdoor experience, with a bar, snack stand and lots else,” Currie says, adding that as Waverly Park is not part of Magnus Theatre’s property, he is anxious that Magnus not be in the way of other users of the park. Moreover, Magnus has just acquired a giant saddle tent that Currie hopes can be set up seasonally in the park, with fixed seating on risers so that people do not have to bring their own chairs.
Arguably, like its audiences, Magnus is a warrior of art—it was the only professional theatre in Canada to be operating throughout the pandemic period.