Since mid-March, it’s been lights out at Neptune Theatre.
Typically, an audience of 450 people would laugh, gasp, and cry while watching a play on the main stage. When the pandemic hit, the downtown Halifax theatre closed.
“We shut down immediately,” says Neptune artistic director Jeremy Webb. “We were the first industry to react overnight across the world and will be the last industry to open up again.”
During the lockdown, Neptune’s revenue evaporated because of cancelled and postponed shows. During this time, tickets would typically also be in high demand for the annual season-ending musical, plus people would begin buying subscriptions for the coming season.
The impact has forced tough decisions. “Our revenue dried up,” Webb says. “We’ve had to lay people off. We had to cancel and postpone shows, so there are hundreds of artists who had contracts booked over the next year; they have been told those contracts are on pause.”
All these recent events have taken an emotional toll. As staff got laid off, Webb says he felt “survival guilt” as he kept things running while finding a way for the theatre to reopen. As an actor himself, he understands what that means for the Neptune team.
“There have been many times where people say, ‘well, they can go and do some other kind of work,'” he says. “I balk at that because it would be like asking anyone in any industry to go and do a completely different job because actors are artists… You go from job to job, gig to gig, so it’s contract based. With all of that taken away, what you’re left with are people trained to do a certain job, unable to work.”
Some Neptune artists have posted their digital videos, singing or doing a humorous piece from their home. Through its Neptune at Home program, the theatre is hosting virtual performances by local talents like North Preston singer Keonté Beals.
The employees who remain have been trying to maintain the theatre while keeping costs down. “It’s very sad to be in this building day by day, watching us all try and keep this company going,” Webb says. “Then, the biggest room in the building or the two theatres itself that we have standing there empty.”
But there is a ray of hope. Last week, the theatre began hosting a screening for Thom Fitzgerald‘s movie Splinters, converting Neptune into a cinema, with distancing protocols in place. “People were buying a drink at the bar, sitting and watching a piece of entertainment, and it’s like ‘OK, we can do this, we can get through this,'” Webb recalls. “It’s just going to take time, and we need everybody to be safe and secure when they come back.”
Webb gets many questions about why plays cannot yet resume. He explains that a play requires a lot more staffing than a movie. With distancing rules only allowing Neptune to sell 25% of its 450 seats, plays would be a money-loser. The staff continues looking for ways to reopen and offer lower-cost shows that fit the new financial model.
The federal government wage subsidy, CERB, and the theatre’s funding partners have helped. But Webb and other industry advocates are pushing for more help as they meet with the culture and heritage minister this week to raise their concerns.
“Without some emergency relief, I’m fearful that not everyone and every company will survive; the cultural fabric of our community of our province will suffer and will not be there when everyone gets back to that new normal,” Webb adds. “It’s going to be difficult, it’s going to be tough, and it’s a case of looking at what we value in society and need.”
While he worries about the present, Webb is hopeful for the future, awaiting the moment Neptune can welcome theatregoers again.
“It’s also about when the audience is ready to come back,” Webb says. “Will our audience feel safe until there is a vaccine? When will that vaccine come? How will it be spread throughout the community? That’s going to take a year or so, at least, even if a vaccine is ready today. We’re keeping an eye on all of that and trying to make plans that make allowances for those facts we have no control over.”