Ongoing efforts to flatten the curve of COVID-19 infections have produced harsh consequences for artists and cultural institutions across Canada. Inuit performers—who already must work to overcome the lack of northern performance venues, poor internet connectivity and access to wider audiences—are now facing a new set of challenges.
In March, as provincial and territorial governments began to accelerate their responses to COVID-19, some theatre companies voluntarily halted performances to protect audiences and performers, hoping that these would be short lived restrictions. But the widespread closures have endured, forcing Indigenous theatre companies to adjust to a world where gathering audiences in a physical space is impossible. This comes on the heels of a stellar year for Inuit performance, with Qaggiavuut’s nationally-touring production Kiviuq Returns getting a strong start at the Tarragon Theatre in Toronto, ON; Igloolik’s ArtCirq performances in Venice, Italy, on the occasion of Isuma’s presentation in the Canadian Pavilion at the Venice Biennale; and the widely-celebrated circus-theatre hybrid Unikkaaqtuat at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa, ON. Even performers in the North, where the viral threat is currently less acute, have had their shows cancelled. “We’re keeping the boat afloat,” says Qaggiavuut Director Ellen Hamilton, “quietly working,” to adjust programming.
Performance is “all about audience,” says playwright Reneltta Arluk, Director of Indigenous Arts at the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity and a member of the Inuit Art Foundation’s Board of Directors. In late March, faced with the complete cancellation of conference revenue and an inability to safely continue activities, the Centre temporarily laid off 75 percent of their staff, retaining directors from the arts side of operations, including Arluk, and members from the leadership team. Long a hub of Indigenous artistic creation, the Centre provides vital residency programs to Inuit and other artists. “It’s in a bubble of its own,” explained artist Jesse Tungilik in 2018. “It really helped bring my artistic practise to the next level.” As news was breaking on the Centre, Quebec’s Cirque du Soleil shuttered operations, laying off 95 percent of its workforce while the Stratford Festival announced layoffs and delayed contracts for over 900 workers.
Among the postponements at Stratford was a halt to the next developmental stage in Pawâkan Macbeth, a reimagining of Shakespeare’s tragedy into Cree history, legend and cosmology, produced by Akpik Theatre (of which Arkuk is the Director). While Arluk feels assured that the show will eventually go on, the postponement has affected the play’s contracted actors. As part of Pawâkan’s development, a tour of six Northern communities was planned. Now the all-Indigenous cast, which includes actors Sophie Merasty, Joel D. Montgrand, Allyson Pratt, Mitch Saddleback, Aaron Wells and Kaitlyn Yott must find other sources of income. Although Akpik still has funding for a future tour, as a project-by-project company without an operational budget, it is not eligible for supplemental funds from the federal government to provide income for actors in the meantime.
While this new reality is bleak, many theatre companies have turned their resources to advocating on behalf of artists, managing relief funds and helping artists access the support resources different levels of governments have begun offering. After being forced to place its late-April production of Sedna on hold, Urban Ink, a Vancouver-based theatre company that produces plays by Indigenous and culturally diverse creators, has appealed to ticket buyers to consider donating their refunds to enable the company to continue elevating diverse voices. Written by Arluk, Corey Payette and Marshall McMahen, Sedna features a cast of large-scale lantern puppets, and is performed in English and Inuktitut, with original music by Payette and the late Kelly Fraser.
These closures have also created an immediate need for performers, who rely on regular performances for income and are often not eligible for federal support through the Canada Emergency Response Benefit or extended Employment Insurance benefits. The National Art Centre has partnered with Facebook to offer paid online performances, which offered the cast and crew of Pawâkan the opportunity to perform a community telling virtually on the NAC’s Facebook page on May 1st.
Qaggiavuut meanwhile launched its Emergency Relief Fund. Quickly recognizing the need to support performing artists, Qaggiavuut diverted all donations from their Qaggiq building fund to support Inuit and Nunavut performing artists “to help those struggling because of lost income due to cancelled gigs,” says Hamilton. Initially meant as a bridging measure until CERB took effect, the fund is still working to fill the spaces where federal funding is not yet available to artists. To date $30,000 has been raised, $27,000 of which has already been disbursed to 38 Inuit and Nunavut performing artists.
Qaggiavuut’s artists were in the midst of writing a new play, with rehearsals set to begin at the end of April and performances to tour in Nunavut during the summer. After placing that program on hold, they are instead forging ahead with their Red Wall Sessions and Children’s Music Series, which feature artists performing traditional songs for adults and children, with a new one every week on Facebook and Youtube. “Luckily we’ve done a lot of filming and producing masterclasses,” says Hamilton, adding “we have to now be really creative about ways we can use this material to create digital resources.”
Drum circle Huqqullaaqatigiit, who have been performing a weekly drum dance for over a decade, have simply shifted their performances to a Facebook Live gathering on Tuesday nights while the Inuit Art Foundation has partnered with the Inuit Futures in Arts Leadership project to host De-ICE-Olation workshops, an online series that pays artists to share their skills with others. “All of my gigs have been canceled for the year...I’m hoping that it doesn’t last for too long because it is my livelihood,” says throat singer Charlotte Qamaniq, of the Juno-award nominated band Silla and Rise. Qamaniq hosted a throat singing workshop for an Inuit-only audience online, and when tickets immediately sold out, was contracted to host another. “Being hired to do this workshop has really helped,” she says.
For its part, the Banff Centre team remains committed to looking ahead. After addressing the immediate logistics of closing its spaces, cancelling contracts and programs, and housing—a number of temporarily laid-off staff continue to live on-site—the Centre is shifting to imagining how it will operate in a post-COVID-19 world. “Everything we do is in response to the changing times of the government and the pandemic itself," says Arluk; “there is pressure to ensure that when people come back, there is a sense of sustainability, because this experience has been so globally rocking.” For Arluk, the fact remains that gathering together is crucial, both to audiences and for the performers themselves.
Connecting while performance spaces remain closed is new and difficult for many performers, not least because of the connectivity problems in the North, something Qamaniq and Hamilton both note. Nevertheless, it does offer some artists new opportunities. “I had a virtual performance with Isuma TV, and I’m working on some more virtual appearances soon,” says singer Beatrice Dear, who is currently at work on a new album. Isuma TV’s mediaplayers allow for high-speed video interactions in six Northern communities. Although online shows cannot replicate all the aspects of live theatre, virtual performances and workshops offer a potential way forward for actors and singers while everyone is stuck inside. Says Deer: “this pandemic gives me time to focus on new material.”