The lights will return to Upper Canada Playhouse

Artistic director Donnie Bowes, seated in front of posters of great Playhouse productions of the past, looks forward to welcoming audiences back to their theatre for a 2021 season filled with music and laughter. (The Leader/Gibb photos)

MORRISBURG – Upper Canada Playhouse has been dark since April of 2020.

COVID-19 closed the doors of every live theatre in Canada last spring, including those of the Playhouse, cancelling all the plays and concerts that people have always looked forward to at “their theatre.” It’s been a very difficult time for everyone from actors, theatre staff and musicians to playwrights and directors.

However, the lights will be coming back up on the stage at Upper Canada Playhouse.

The exact date of the 2021 box office re-opening is not yet known.

This must await the “green light” from both government and health services.

The Playhouse is eager to welcome theatre-goers back – they are hoping for that to happen this April.

During 2020’s dark months, “the Playhouse has been busy and pro-active,” said artistic director Donnie Bowes in a recent interview. “We look forward to bringing laughter and music back to our audiences as soon as we are able. We have missed our audiences: we are ready to go just as soon as it is safe to do so.”

Playhouse staff is working hard to ensure that theatre patrons and performers will be returning to a site that is fully compliant with all safety protocols.

Social distancing is in place in the auditorium.

“We’ve invested in special cleaning protocols,” Bowes explained, “including a new air filtration device that will allow us to completely change the air between shows. We are also investing in electro-static devices that let us disinfect seats and all surfaces thoroughly and quickly. Plexi-glass is already in place for concerts and in the office.” Masks remain mandatory.

“We’re closely following all government and health protocols to ensure that the audiences and performers have a wonderful experience in our Playhouse,” Bowes said.

Business manager Roseann Kelly, “the absolute anchor of this entire place” according to director Bowes, hard at work at her desk in preparation for the new season.

Most of the shows from the cancelled 2020 season will be replaced by new shows in 2021 chosen to accommodate production requirements. The cancelled 2020 shows will be featured in future seasons.

Safety rules in 2021 mandate smaller cast shows, with actors agreeing to quarantine themselves.

This has led to changes in rehearsals, in the performance space, and in distancing from the audience. The goal of all these changes is, always, to limit any possible risks to actors or audience.

Courtney Ward, box office, will be ready to handle customer bookings and ticket sales when the theatre doors re-open this spring.

“The playwrights and actors are really helping our industry: concert producers have reduced their fees and actors have changed their schedules,” Bowes explained. “We are all rarin’ to go just as soon as we get official permission and it’s good and safe for everyone.”

While Bowes is delighted with the upcoming season of concerts and comedy, he has, however, also had to confront a tough new reality.

The Playhouse is faced with financial challenges in 2021, primarily due to the loss in revenue that a safety mandated 80 per cent decrease in seat sales will create.

Upper Canada Playhouse has functioned as a solid business over the last several years.

“We have had a wonderful group of sponsors, faithful members and regular very large audiences,” Bowes explained. The loss of one part of this business model – steady, full houses – means the Playhouse is facing some challenges. Adding to this financial situation is the fact that the Playhouse does not receive any arts funding.

Technical director Sean Free, adjusting box office plexiglass, has been at the forefront in installing extensive new health and safety measures at the Playhouse.

The Theatre is currently working on some exciting new ideas to compensate for that loss of revenue in what Bowes describes as “our resiliency campaign.”

“When our box office opens sometime in the early spring, audiences will probably need to book sooner. Patrons may not get their “traditional” seats under the new seating arrangements. Summer shows will run for five and a half weeks each, which should allow everyone a good chance to take in each show.

Making this a great season will involve some compromises,” Bowes said. “We hope our audiences continue to be supportive and understanding.”

One thing theatre patrons can be assured of, however, is a fantastic line-up of shows in 2021.

Popular performer Leisa Way will be opening the Playhouse season with her fabulous musical tribute to Patsy Cline. She will be back in town in December with a brand new Christmas show: “the first live performance of this show anywhere will be here at the Playhouse,” Bowes said.

Returning to the Playhouse stage will be Johnny and June, the hugely successful musical salute to Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash, starring outstanding performer Aaron Solomon as Johnny Cash.

And Playhouse favourite Marshall Button will bring his beloved “Lucien’s” unique and skewed comic view of life and the universe to the stage with The World According to Lucien.

The summer season will feature three shows this year. Two of these productions are from the pen of renowned Canadian playwright, Norm Foster.

Marshall Button will star in Come Down From Up River, a comedy set in New Brunswick. “As always, Norm uses comedy to draw us into his relationships. This is a lovely story and a lovely show,” Bowes said.

Norm Foster himself is returning to the Playhouse to star in Old Love, a delightful comedy following an older man and an older woman re-tracing the years of their relationship.

“Frankly, nobody can perform a Norm Foster comedy like Norm Foster,” Donnie laughed. “It’s great to see Norm, Marshall and Leisa agreeing to come back to Upper Canada. They love working here and we love having them.”

Bowes is still in final negotiations for the last comedy of the season: the show will be announced at a later date.

“I am excited to see the 2021 theatre season opening up,” director Bowes said. “Our wonderful staff is making all things possible. Our actors are ready to be back in the rehearsal hall and on stage. And wouldn’t it be a terrific dream if, in mid season, the whole situation changed and opened up. While we are being very safe and careful, our season is flexible. If the situation changes, believe me, we will be ready to add seats at a moment’s notice.”

While Upper Canada Playhouse must still wait for the final go-ahead from government and health services before officially opening its box office up this coming spring, Upper Canada Playhouse is promising a wonderful 2021 season.

“When the lights go down, separated seats or not,” said artistic director Donnie Bowes,” it’s live theatre. There will be music and laughter and the joy of seeing real performances again at our Playhouse.”

Craig Harriman, maintenance, will ensure a totally safe and pleasant environment for both audiences and actors.

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