The fight to contain the spread of COVID-19 has created an unprecedented challenge to the performing arts. Theatre and dance companies around the world have been shuttered with little clarity on how or when they will be able to welcome large crowds back into their spaces.
We, at Canadian Stage, remain committed to live art. The need for stories, for art, and for connection continues despite the pandemic. As such, theatre and dance will also persist, and Canadian Stage will continue to support artists, stories, and connectivity. However, the ways that artists create, the ways in which audiences experience art, and the ways that we operate as an institution will have to change. Perhaps radically.
The future is uncertain. To help us navigate these uncharted waters, we have developed the following five guiding principles. They do not necessarily point to a final destination, but they give us a framework to evaluate our most immediate decisions. We wanted to share them with you.
1. WE ARE EMBRACING CHANGE
When the pandemic began, the words “recovery strategy” were used frequently to describe how to approach the next few months. It is abundantly clear that there is no easy way out of the current situation. We believe that we must let go of a recovery mindset and adopt an adaptive mindset.
The recovery mindset is built around the myth of the "return to normal". It analyzes the present context by determining how different it is from our idea of how things are supposed to be. It is a mindset that privileges the maintenance of the status quo by trying to strategize ways to return to the familiar. We believe this mindset is not in tune with reality.
An adaptive mindset, on the other hand, seeks to understand the present context on its own terms. It retains that core of what is important from the past but lets go of what no longer serves the present and foreseeable future. It looks for new opportunities and welcomes change. It is positive. It is curious. It is future-focused.
This is the only way forward.
2. OUR VALUES MUST LEAD US
Humanity is at a crossroads: we can either rebuild our world in a way that is more egalitarian, humane, and ecologically conscious, or we can retreat into fear, distrust, and authoritarianism. As of today, it is unclear just where we are headed.
As culture-makers, we can play an important role in pushing our society towards a more democratic, equitable, and just version of itself. Before we can do that, we need to acknowledge where we have failed in this regard. Canadian Stage has been complicit in and has benefited from systems that were designed to perpetuate barriers of access to Black, Indigenous and People of Colour (BIPOC). Excellence in white artists has been privileged and prioritized over excellence in BIPOC artists thereby creating an environment of systemic oppression and inequity for Canadian Stage staff, artists, and audiences since its inception over 35 years ago. The perpetuation of these systemic inequities is intolerable.
To live up to our desire to be a force for social progress in the world, we are investing significant resources into undoing the colonial and racist structures that have been allowed to exist and flourish inside the organization. We are re-centering the organization’s activities, resources, and measures of success around the social impact of our work. We are meaningfully committing ourselves to our organizational values (creativity, empathy, inclusivity, community, collaboration, excellence) by increasing the ways in which we are internally and externally held accountable to them. For more details, please see our Black Lives Matter statement.
3. NOTHING FOR ARTISTS, WITHOUT ARTISTS
Canadian Stage exists to support art and artists. The pandemic presents a serious challenge to the ways that we have typically done this. But there is no sense in upholding this institution without ensuring that artists remain at its centre.
Our artistic community is in crisis, and Canadian Stage stands in solidarity with artists. We share their questions about how they can contribute to society during the pandemic. We share their challenges in figuring out how to create and share their work. We share their fear about an uncertain future. Over the coming months, our focus will be to provide space, time, and resources to our community of artists to ask these questions, meet these challenges, and talk through these fears. Our priority will be to get resources into the hands of artists so that they can live, create, and continue to contribute to the vibrancy of our city.
4. WE ARE HOLDING ON TO SCALE
Canadian Stage is distinct in our emphasis on scale. We are one of the only arts organizations in Canada that supports the development and presentation of bold, contemporary, large-scale Canadian work. How we approach scale will need to be adapted during the pandemic. However, scale remains core to our mission: scale of imagination, scale of ambition, scale of rigour, scale of impact, and scale of innovation.
5. OUR IMPERATIVE IS TO KEEP PEOPLE AND COMMUNITIES HEALTHY
Perhaps our greatest function during this pandemic is preserving the health of people and communities. Health can be defined in three ways. Most fundamentally, health is the absence of any disease or impairment. We are absolutely committed to ensuring safe environments to our artists, staff, audiences, and volunteers and not exposing anyone to unnecessary physical risk.
But health is more than that. It is also a state of being that allows individuals to successfully cope with all the demands of daily life. In addition to physical needs, health involves emotional, psychological, and spiritual needs. Arts and culture are critical elements in meeting these needs. Art is a tool for us to make sense of our lives. It provides us with an emotional outlet. It creates bonds between us. We must keep art alive to preserve our health.
The third way to look at health is to see it as a state of balance; an equilibrium that an individual has established within themselves and between themselves and their social and physical environment. Canadian Stage has an important role to play in fostering balance. This means encouraging social cohesion through our programming. This means being especially sensitive to the needs of the communities around us and moving in sync with our world. This means encouraging our staff and artists to find an appropriate balance between their work lives and their non-work lives. This means mitigating risk in favour of organizational stability during these unstable times. This means sustaining strong, equitable and resilient communities and democratic institutions.
Humanity’s capacity for creativity is a balancing tool. It reorders chaos into harmony. It turns problems into opportunities. It sheds light on darkness.
We are living through a humanitarian crisis of unique proportions and we may only be at the beginning of it. We do not necessarily know what the future holds for any of us. At Canadian Stage, we see our ultimate responsibility inside this crisis as helping to sustain an active and productive civic life. We achieve this through the unique gifts that the performing arts bring: connectivity, interpersonal and intrapersonal engagement, intellectual and aesthetic stimulation, empathy, creativity, and hope.
These five guiding principles give us a bit of light to illuminate the obscure path ahead of us. We are grateful to have you with us as we forge a new future together.
Wishing you all peace, health, and joy for the remainder of our summer.
Brendan Healy is the Artistic Director at Canadian Stage.