Sometimes the best news arrives when you least expect it.
While driving to her trailer for the Thanksgiving long weekend on Friday (October 8), work was the last thing on Emily Martin’s mind — until her cell phone started “exploding” with messages.
“I had to pull over to the side of the road in Orillia to check my messages and then do a bunch of work,” says Martin, general manager of Showplace Performance Centre.
That same afternoon, the Ontario government has announced it was lifting capacity limits on concert venues, theatres, cinemas, meeting and event spaces, spectator areas of sports facilities and more, as well as remove the requirement for physical distancing. The changes came into effect at 12:01 a.m. on Saturday (October 9).
For the not-for-profit Showplace, it means the downtown Peterborough performance venue can again welcome full audiences — double vaccinated and masked — to its 640-seat Erica Cherney Theatre, as well as host smaller shows in its 100-capacity Nexicom Studio space on venue’s lower level.
The last time both spaces were filled to capacity was March 5, 2020 for Peterborough Performs: Musicians Against Homelessness, a multi-act event that saw more than $30,000 raised for United Way-supported agencies.
“You see on TV that the hockey games are coming back with higher (crowd) capacities and the (Toronto) Blue Jays are playing in front of 30,000 people drinking beer unmasked,” says Martin of her frustration leading up to Friday’s announcement.
“What’s so different about our space? What we had been proposing were things like not having any concessions so people have to stay masked, as well as checking for double vaccination.”
“I literally just talked to them on Thursday, saying what we are advocating for,” Martin says, referring to Peterborough Public Health. “I have so much respect for them. Keith Beecroft has been a gold star through all of this. I really can’t say enough about the entire team there.”
Meanwhile at the 350-capacity Market Hall Performing Arts Centre, the other not-for-profit performance venue in downtown Peterborough, general manager Chad Hogan says he was “shocked” by the announcement audience capacity limits would be lifted.
“We’ve been trying to prepare for various scenarios at different times through the past year and a half — going from where we were at to full capacity was not something we thought we would be seeing,” says Hogan, adding “It’s welcome news but it creates a bunch of new questions that we need to answer to make sure we get it right.”
“Logistically, there are some challenges that we need to discuss with our industry and at the board level. It’s a simple announcement, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s simple to implement. There’s some anxiety around how we’re going to scale all of this up in a timely manner. But it’s a good kind of anxiety — finally we have something to work towards.”
At Showplace, Martin says that same cautious approach in welcoming full audiences back will be a priority moving forward.
“My email has been blowing up all morning (today) with people wanting to rent the space, which is awesome, but we can’t turn a giant venue around on a dime,” she says, noting most of her staff remains on layoff.
“We ask people to be patient with us. We had no notice this was coming. We have a giant building that has to be cleaned. Our tech people’s working-at-heights training has expired. They have to be recertified so they can take theatre lights down and clean them.”
Despite the challenges, Martin says Showplace is “thrilled” by the development.
“We’re excited and happy. It makes it a lot easier to do our planning. It’s nice to have the freedom to be able to plan. We’ve known for months we have all this work coming up, but it’s been a lot of hurry up and wait. You don’t want to pull theatre lights down and clean them and then have to wait another six months. We’re not quite ready for it but now we know when we are ready, we can go.”
When Showplace audiences return to the main theatre, they’ll sit in brand new seats that will be installed come the end of October.
“We’re essentially opening a new auditorium, which is so sweet,” says Martin.
For Market Hall, Hogan says the focus is on getting it right for returning audience members.
“We want to make sure the logistics don’t take the joy out of the experience,” he explains. “Because we are unequivocally complying with the vaccine passport, what we need to figure out now is the best way to streamline that process.”
“Nobody wants to stand there for two hours waiting to get into the place. We’re going to be cognizant of the experience while we’re figuring out what we can manage.”
So as both Martin and Hogan begin the baby steps necessary to again welcome back full-capacity audiences, one big question remains: When will shows again be booked for the two venues?
“We’ll probably start with a couple of shows that are a bit smaller, and gauge from that what we’re capable of — but we’ll most certainly see shows here in January and onwards,” says Hogan, noting the last theatrical show at his venue was a performance by Trent University’s Anne Shirley Theatre Company staged the week the pandemic was declared.
Martin, meanwhile, assures Showplace “is going to be a busy place” come January, adding “We have a lot on the books” for early in 2022.
“It’s been a grind,” says Martin of the past 19 months, crediting Showplace board members and staff — and, yes, Hogan too — for being “a sounding board” during a difficult time.
“Pivot is a word I hope I never have to hear again in my life. Mentally, this has been the hardest thing I’ve had to deal with in my life.”
“Knowing that we’ve gotten through, I hope, the worst of it is huge. We have worked so hard to get this far. Now we just have to be patient and make sure we’re ready for this (full capacity audiences).”
For his part, Hogan admits there wasn’t a day when he didn’t think about the possibility that Market Hall would never open again.
“There’s been a lot of pressure without any real sense of control,” he reflects.
“We’ve been doing everything we can to keep our head above water. Thankfully, with the supports from the federal government, we’re positioned to be able to open in a way that we feel is representative of what we are historically known for.”