I was directing Five Women Wearing the Same Dress by Alan Ball for Canmore’s Pine Tree Players when the second round of COVID restrictions hit Alberta. Even though there were bigger-picture things to get worked up about, I was upset. COVID had shut us down once already, in the spring, and we’d been desperately hoping for a live audience this time around. Instead, our feminist comedy became a comedy of errors as, rather than performing for a masked, distanced, and happy-to-be-among-people audience, we managed a dress rehearsal and two incredibly limited performances for half a handful of personal cohort members. After nearly a year of work, the production team tried hard to salvage some semblance of a show, but the disappointment was palpable. “I was shocked a bit when I came into such a close contact because of a work situation that was beyond my control. But to be honest I was mainly upset because I felt like I was letting my cast down,” says Shannon Andrew, who played Mindy. Down to five regular cast members and an ill-prepared understudy, the team still gave it their all, but as put by cast member Michelle Monk, who played Georgeanne, “it’s hard to get into a performance without the energy of a live audience to play with.”
On the eve of our dress rehearsal, which would turn out to be the only show we performed with our entire cast, I was cranky. I wanted our show, damn it. I knew it was unlikely that I’d ever be involved in a production of Five Women again, and that also made me sad. I wanted to give a pep talk to my cast, but what was there to say, other than “COVID sucks, yo”? Then I walked into the green room, where I found Chezlene Kocian, who played Trisha, helping Courtney Schreiner (Meredith) fasten her wig. Shannon wrote out her lines as our assistant producer Tambry Kopp made sure everyone got their food. Michelle asked for help crimping her hair. The backstage atmosphere was no different from any other show, and it took me a moment to realize why.
COVID might have drastically altered how our show was presented, but “we had numerous extra months to bond and work on our characters, leading to a performance that was just that little bit more special to us”, says Sage Pryor, who played Frances. Though most of our audience became virtual, and what they viewed was a recording of our dress rehearsal with hastily assembled video and audio that many of our viewers would complain about, in the memory of those who worked on it, this production became one of the special ones. The ones in which relationships extend past teardown. The ones we won’t forget.
Fast forward to Pine Tree’s spring show, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time by Mark Haddon. For those unfamiliar with it, this show is a vast undertaking at any time, but this time we at least knew going in that there was a high chance it would be a filmed production. Whereas Five Women scrambled to create a product for online consumption, this time there was enough advance notice to lean into the strengths of a filmed format.
“In a way, Curious Incident worked a little better than others because it tried to embrace its shortcomings”, summarized Assistant Director Brian McDonald. The Curious Incident production team chose to tell this story in a comic book film hybrid format, which was certainly a more creative vision than simply filming a run of the show. Still, it was hobbled by several things from the start. Arguably the largest of these is that rather than the social experience that a theatre production or film set often is, Curious Incident was a strangely lonely experience.
Scout Hogg, who played the lead character, Christopher Boone, shared his insight. “Theatre before, and that during the pandemic, were two very different experiences. While both versions had the same aim—to delight, inspire, entertain, and examine the world around us—the conditions on which these aims were attempted differed greatly. As an actor, live theatre excites me for the camaraderie. For a short period of time, during the run of the show, the audience, the crew, and the cast are living a shared experience within the world of the performance. The same goes for the rehearsal process. The time leading up to the show is when relationships are built between not only the characters in the story but the people embodying those characters. This was, in my mind, the part most directly impacted by Covid. Not being able to physically interact with anyone made building these complex dynamics quite the challenge.”
I’m inclined to agree. Rehearsals in person are fun. Sitting with friends, sharing snacks, watching the action—all are bonding activities. Rehearsals done over Zoom? Boring. Playing theatre games in a circle in person feels silly but fun, because everyone is doing them together, in a shared space. Playing them alone in your living room feels kinda dumb. And it’s stressful—are they looking at me? Are they not looking at me? Should they be looking at me? What do I do? Interpersonal cues that are clear in person can be ambiguous and distracting. Throw in the fact that those of us with ADHD looked like cats stalking bugs as we struggled to focus while in a room alone, and rehearsal could feel like a chore. Turns out theatre isn’t much fun when you’re only connected virtually.
Performing alone in front of a green screen with your directorial team on a laptop is weird too. Sometimes it was hard to take directions in the spirit in which they were meant, because it could feel like criticism coming from a disembodied voice. I remember one scene I performed in with Scout, filmed in separate locations, connected via Zoom, after which we were told, “good flow”. Was it really? I had no idea. I did know that the pancake I’d troweled on that morning after watching seven YouTube tutorials was melting, my ears hurt from the earbuds connecting me to Scout, and I had none of the euphoric adrenaline that comes after nailing a section of script with actual fellow cast members. Great theatre comes from sharing a world with one another, and yet that kind of connection seemed nearly impossible when I could hear Scout through my headset, but physically he was three blocks away at a different filming venue.
I remember feeling desperate for human contact when I finished my underwhelming filming day. I headed out to the parking lot, where I squinted at arriving figures. Is that Jarrid, I wondered? It kinda looks like him, but even though we’ve been doing this show for two months, I’ve never met the man. Oh! That’s definitely Tyler. Tyler! Over here! Let’s shout at each other across the parking lot and pretend we’re actually at rehearsal!
The final product of Curious Incident was inarguably of better quality than our hastily filmed dress rehearsal version of Five Women. It received solid feedback, too. But at the end of the day, when asking my fellow cast members their thoughts about it, I heard the same thing over and over. “It was good, for what it was.” “Not the same as being in-person.” “I finally met Laura on the street last week, and it was surreal.” “I won’t do another Zoom show.”
Five Women produced more satisfaction in its participants because we were able to be with our fellow theatre enthusiasts, even though our end product wasn’t all that we’d hoped it would be. Curious Incident had a show with better reviews, but left its cast and crew wanting more.
Fast forward one more time. While some might call us masochistic for continuing to attempt theatre during a global pandemic (though we prefer determined, thankyouverymuch), Pine Tree is currently in the middle of our Canmore Summer Theatre Festival, which is a yearly event that takes place outside. This year the offerings are a spectacular non-binary version of Twelfth Night, directed by Shelby Reinitz, and Minotaur by Kevin Dwyer, directed by Tyler McClaron. I’ve switched back to the production team this time, assistant to intimacy coordinator Anastasia St. Amand, and a large part of our job has been to offer mental health support as the festival navigates Alberta’s reopening. From the dreaded Zoom rehearsals in early stages, to masked limited outdoor rehearsals, to unmasked interaction with one another, there has been a palpable shift in the mood of participants.
There are, of course, nerves. “When things start to look promising, [you] plan an outdoor theatre festival, and everything is moving in the right direction, but you can’t help but feel like you’re waiting for the other shoe to drop,” says Production Coordinator Tambry Kopp, and this hesitancy is shared by many.
A large undertaking like CSTF can sometimes lead to stress and tears when participants feel overwhelmed. That doesn’t seem to be happening this time. Last weekend, at rehearsal for Twelfth Night, approximately ten of us hid from the scorching sun under a tent in the middle of a large park, this year’s outdoor venue. Stage manager Meg O’Brien called break… and nobody moved. We all stayed under that tent, and more came to join. Some chatted quietly. Others laid back for a power nap, with a little smile on their faces. And this, to me, really drove home what I’d learned during my year and a half of doing theatre amid a global pandemic.
“This is my third year participating in the festival, and part of the magic that keeps me returning is the amazing community of actors and creatives who make the festival so fun. Being in person again is a huge part of that sense of community,” says CSTF veteran Irene Poole, who plays Nephew 29 and Man With Gun in this year’s Minotaur, as well as Festes and the Priest in Twelfth Night. Isabella Pedersen, who plays Olivia in the latter, agrees. “It’s electrifying being back in the same physical space, sharing the energy with your fellow actors. That’s the magic of live theatre that honestly can’t be replicated, even through Zoom.”
Connection is what gives theatre its magic. Crew to cast. Cast to audience. Audience to story. While CSTF is not yet live, I predict that both the product and the experience of its participants will capture that magic, and it’s going to be amazing.
I’m glad that we persevered throughout restrictions, allowing us all some kind of creative outlet in tough times. But as with all aspects of our current existence, I’m excited for a new normal, even if it means that theatre might look different. “You learn to not have expectations. And to manage the expectations that everyone else has. Share the frustration. But also rejoice in the art that still gets made. Learn to find the joy in the process again, even when the process feels like a moving target. But most of all, be open to it all,” says Tambry.
This. All of this. And most of all, as we gather for our seven-months-late wrap party for Five Women, I’m excited for a chance to do what we missed out on in our aborted run, and during the months since… I’m excited to share space with my fellow theatre-lovers, and create those connections once more.