Man lying down wqith his heqad clasped between his hands

Wish you were here

Originally published on qathet Living

Simply put, COVID gutted audiences in mid-sized and large venues here and across Canada. If we don’t collectively start coming back to our theatres and the arena, qathet could lose the defining arts and sports scene residents have been building for generations.

In the middle of September, actor Jeffery Renn came back to his hometown to perform At Your Service: The Life and Yarns of Robert Service – My Glorious Youth, at the Max Cameron Theatre. It’s an internationally-touring one-man show. 

But in the 400-seat theatre, just 28 people filled seats that Saturday night. Afterwards in the lobby, Max Cameron Theatre manager Jacquie Dawson said that in the three-night run, no night attracted more than 30 people. 

“I normally wouldn’t book a show in September,” she said. “It’s not a great month for audiences, but that’s when he was coming through on tour.” 
Even by September’s standards, the audience was tiny. Too small to cover the costs (other audiences at The Max have been much larger since then, however.)

 Jacquie is a life-long theatre professional, with a distinguished career going back to coordinating the cultural village and performers for the 1978 Commonwealth Games in Edmonton, through managing national touring shows and music, and much more. For the past 15 years, she has been at the helm of qathet’s largest presenting theatre: the Max Cameron, at Brooks Secondary School. 

The Patricia Theatre – courtesy qathet Living

This winter, Jacquie is raising the alarm that audiences have shrunk so much since COVID – and realistically, over the last 10 years – that qathet may lose at least some of what we have. 

Indeed, COVID blasted a crater in our collective show-going habits, here and across Canada, as we discovered the joys of the couch and Disney+, Sportsnet, and of course, Netflix. Now, coming out of COVID, we’re also struggling financially with expensive groceries and fuel, sharply-higher housing costs, and debt. Plus, many of us are staying home to avoid this season’s flu and respiratory virus… not to mention omicron, which is still circulating. 

Performing arts audiences are down nationally by at least 40%, according to a pair of Zoom seminars this fall collaboratively prepared by several national arts agencies. However, here in qathet, it’s hard to generalize. Most presenters describe audiences as “hit and miss.” Very hard to predict. Sometimes, they’re sold out. Other times, they’re not. 
The region’s big five theatres – the Max Cameron, the Patricia, the Evergreen, James Hall at the Academy of Music, and Cranberry Hall – plus the Kings at the Hap Parker Arena – are all hoping to increase the size of their audiences in 2023. Those at the top know it’s going to be a fight. 

Adding to the stress on the big venues are just the sheer number of events that can happen on a single night in town. Smaller venues have become popular places to see live performances and film. For example, the Forest Bistro hosted the Townsite Actors’ Guild original play, Weed Lube: a Slippery Slope this fall (it’s coming back March 2 to 4). All four performances were sold out, packing the 70-seat Marine Avenue establishment – which also served tapas and cocktails to the audience to enjoy during the show. That’s something most larger venues can’t do. 
Locals and visitors can enjoy live music regularly at The Boardwalk Restaurant in Lund, 101 Bistro at the Lund Hotel, Wildwood Public House, Forest Bistro, Seasider Restaurant, the Carlson Community Club, the Open Air Market, the Royal Canadian Legion and elsewhere. The Patricia Theatre re-opened in October 2021 under the nonprofit management of the qathet Film Society, and may expand to be able to host more live performances as well. Royal Zayka screens Bollywood films some nights. The ARC on Alberni, Townsite Market, the Library, Tidal Art Centre, qathet Art Centre, the Loggers Memorial Amphitheatre, the Rotary Pavilion at Willingdon, the re-built Lund Gazebo, the re-built stage at Palm Beach, Townsite Brewing, and more are relatively new venues that host performances. Lang Bay Hall, the Italian Hall and the soon-to-be-upgraded Lund Community Hall are historic and still-vibrant venues. Even the new Resource Recovery Centre will feature a natural amphitheatre with concert potential. And more. 

If all of qathet’s 21,000 people were invested in going out and seeing something one night a week – live music, a movie, a hockey game – we could certainly support all these venues. But for all the reasons listed above and more, we haven’t been. So, like everything else in 2023, our venues are vulnerable to our social and economic flux. 
It would be tragic to lose them.

Max Cameron Theatre manager Jacquie Dawson (on stage at the Max with the members ofTiller’s Folly) has been working in the performing arts field across Canada for more than 40years. She is concerned that if audiences don’t come back– in qathet and nationally we’ll start to lose what we’ve built.

1. Max Cameron Theatre

Fortunately, the Max Cameron is owned by School District 47, and most of its use is institutional, so the theatre doesn’t need to justify itself financially through travelling performances. The shows that theatre manager Jacquie Dawson brings in do need to at least break even. 
This year, her season includes At Your Service; Tiller’s Folly: 25th anniversary concert; Jim Byrnes & Friends; and upcoming shows are The Wardens (January 19) and Early Morning Rain: The Songs of Gordon Lightfoot (April 25). The Max is also the venue for Brooks Theatre Department’s 2023 annual production: The Addams Family Musical, which happens mid-May. In the past, she was able to bring in larger performances, including Ballet Victoria’s 2014 touring production of Dracula – far too expensive a show to bring now, due to dwindling audiences, with its large company of dancers and technical crew. 
“It’s getting more and more expensive to bring performances here,” Jacquie said, noting that she works with theatres on central Vancouver Island to block-book musicians and theatre groups. “Gas, ferry, accommodations, meals, the artists fees, management fees – it adds up. My fear is that it’s not sustainable the way it’s going.” 

The most popular shows, she says, are those featuring local talent. The Brooks Theatre Company’s production usually sells out multiple nights. Also, children’s shows. Both Fred Penner and the Kerplunks sold out in the spring. 

Jacquie has a lot of sympathy for locals who are being hit financially right now, and she believes that’s a fundamental reason why live performances of all kinds are struggling. As someone who drives to Brooks from south of town each day, she knows that higher gas prices make a huge dent in discretionary incomes. 

However, she also notes it seems many locals are looking for a large scale show when they go out. Many folks, she says, travelled to Vancouver in 2022 for Cirque du Soleil, Elton John, and other large events with hotels and ferries adding to the cost. What’s a mid-sized venue gotta do?

2. The Patricia Theatre

The Patricia’s manager, Laura Wilson is in daily contact with a small but lively group of independent theatre operators across Canada. It’s become a support group – sharing both successes and woes – while they all try to keep their theatres alive. Some are businesses; most, like The Pat, are non-profits. 

Laura is blunt that public money is the historic building’s life support right now. “Grants allowed us to pay off our mortgage. Our reality is there was half a million dollars in deferred maintenance costs to do when we [the qathet Film Society] bought it last year.”

The board’s vision for the theatre is a community amenity. During the day, the theatre can be rented out by groups to run their own screenings – such as Youth & Family’s Wisdom of Trauma event in October, which filled the 250-seat theatre. Some evenings, performers such as CBC’s Grant Lawrence or PRISMA’s Arthur Arnold can book it too (an addition to the stage is being planned, to encourage more live events). 

For the evenings, Laura tries to guess which films will bring out the local audiences. This is risky business. First, she said, she is still trying to figure out who The Pat’s audience is. Second, she notes, some studios that produce blockbusters want theatres to run their film for two weeks – far, far too long for a money-making run in a small centre like ours, Laura said. Other times, she’ll book a film only to learn that Netflix or another streaming service is releasing it the same week. 

“We need 60 people a night paying to be there to break even,” Laura said, adding that the concession sales are vital. “So far in the 2021-22 fiscal year, we have an average of 42.”

Streaming services have gutted movie theatres across Canada; Cinemax recently revealed that their audiences are down 30% since before COVID. But Laura said it’s important to remember why you’d go out to see a show.

“When we had Peter Rabbit 2, and there were 75 kids in the theatre and they were all laughing at once – that’s what it’s all about,” she said. “There’s nothing better than hearing someone else crying during a sad scene, or laugh at the same time as you.”

3. James Hall

Academy of Music administrator Carrie Lanigan often books concerts for Thursday nights and Sunday afternoon at the school’s 280-seat theatre. In her experience, it’s important to select datest that are least likely to compete with other events around town. That’s why her Valentine’s event of songs by Nat King Cole is on Sunday afternoon, not Valentine’s Day itself. She’s not just fighting other events; she, like others, is battling on multiple fronts – some known, such as the aftermath of COVID, and some unknown.

Carrie reports that when BC re-opened theatres in September of 2021, the Academy’s audiences wanted masking and social distancing – even after those stopped being required. In fact, she guesses that many former audience members haven’t returned because they’re still avoiding COVID. 

Realistically, though, she doesn’t entirely blame the slump in ticket sales on the pandemic. Audience numbers have been falling since 2012. She guesses it’s at least partly because there are so many events in qathet’s vibrant art scene. 

The Academy’s premier Christmas Event, Carols by Candlelight, normally sells out three performances at Dwight Hall by the end of October. This year, tickets were still available performance weekend. 
A choir that sold out in Campbell River this past spring attracted a small audience here – a phenomenon other qathet theatre managers reported as well.

Fortunately, James Hall doesn’t depend on consistent ticket sales for its existence. As it is attached to a non-profit music school, James Hall’s revenue stream includes grants, fees and sponsorships, as well as ticket sales. 

4. Evergreen Theatre

With 700+ seats, The Evergreen Theatre is qathet’s largest performance space. It doesn’t suffer from a lack of audiences like the other venues do for one very simple reason: it’s a rental theatre, rather than a presenting theatre. That means performers pay a flat fee to rent it, and they assume the risk, rather than the City of Powell River, which owns it (The Evergreen is located inside the Recreation Complex). 

“My long-term goal is to build culture in my department,” said Tara O’Donnell, the City’s Manager of Parks and Recreation, who oversees the Complex, Dwight Hall and other indoor and outdoor venues. “But I’m always community-focused. I never want to displace locals. I don’t want to duplicate their efforts, but to support them.” 

Tara is currently writing a cultural plan, which assesses the city’s cultural amenities, including performance spaces. If the City is paying to maintain the Evergreen, she wants to make sure the theatre is being used to its full potential. 

5. Cranberry Hall 

At the first concert back after COVID restrictions lifted, “people were so grateful to be back in community,” said Annabelle Tully-Barr, president of Cranberry Community Hall Association. “People were just buzzing.”
That energy hasn’t translated into record ticket sales. For example, Annabelle said, Newfoundland folk musician Sherman Downey put on a really great show in November of 2022, and had a modest house of 42 – just over half the audience he entertained three years ago (the capacity is 70).

Cranberry Hall is run by a volunteer society – charged with maintaining an affordable community amenity. Most of the time, it’s used by small rental groups such as AA or yoga teachers. This year, the Home Routes concerts are using the hall, to encourage their audiences to come back into a more spacious venue than private homes.

The Hall isn’t in the business of making money, but it does need to break even. A small rental house on the property helped the board eke a way through COVID. It’s a niche space, she says; an intimate venue that offers great acoustics for fans of live music. 

“I hope that live performance is still relevant to this community,” said Annabelle. “It is the kind of magic that is experience-based and can never be repeated. Showing up to witness and feel that connection is a kind of sacred trust. And it feeds the performer, who is putting themselves out there, heart and soul and decades of dedication. It is a privilege I never want to willingly give up!”

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