Students get a lead role in keeping theaters open amidst Omicron
Travis Seetoo didn’t have his phone on him. While out on a bike ride, he was on the grounds of the Shaw Festival in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario, when he was grabbed by a stage manager.
“She’s like, ‘Let’s go!'” Seetoo recalled.
Just like that, Seetoo was ready to act – called in as an understudy for a show last year after another cast member began showing symptoms of COVID-19. Seetoo said it was the first time a Shaw actor had been called out because of it. You are not allowed to come to work at Shaw if you have symptoms.
As Ontario theater companies begin their seasons amid a sixth wave of COVID-19, the odds of that happening have increased – as has the reliance on stunt doubles. Shaw asks his society members to study more roles this year due to the Omicron variant.
“It could happen any time now,” said Seetoo, acting in two Shaw shows this season and scouting five more roles in those two plays. “You definitely run your lines a lot more. You try not to forget them.”
Often, stunt doubles are already on the show, playing another character or part of the ensemble.
The Stratford Festival has hired more actors this season and also has more stunt doubles than usual. It was planned to start previews for the musical Chicago last week, his first show of the season.
But three performances were canceled after eight cast members tested positive for COVID-19.
The shows were able to resume on Tuesday, with stunt doubles replacing two roles.
“Heroes of Living Theater”
Alex Mustakas is currently in the casting process, paying much more attention to hiring stunt doubles, especially for his musicals.
He’s artistic director of Drayton Entertainment, which is performing 15 different shows at six venues across southern Ontario this season, in locations like Drayton and St. Jacobs near Kitchener-Waterloo and Grand Bend on Lake Huron.
“Standing doubles are the heroes of live theater,” he said. “The alternative is not theater and I don’t think that’s an option anymore.”
Still, Mustakas worries. His son and his wife recently contracted COVID-19 and he had to self-isolate at home. He spent all this time thinking about what would happen if he put on a show at that time. Drayton’s season doesn’t start until late May.
Then there is the cost. Stand-ins are an added expense, often out of reach for smaller theater companies with tighter budgets, or shows with smaller casts. There are stand-in rehearsals that need to be arranged, which is difficult to do if the show only airs for a short stint or has a short rehearsal period.
But canceling performances is wasting a lot of money. Mustakas budgeted him this season. Mirvish Productions in Toronto doesn’t do shows without stunt doubles.
“Losing a performance is a very, very, very bad thing,” said John Karastamatis, director of communications and programming at Mirvish. “When you’re hiring understudy and all that, what you’re buying is insurance.”
Mirvish is in rehearsals for Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, the Tony Award-winning 3 hour 30 minute mega play, which will debut in Toronto at the end of May. It was originally slated to air in fall 2020.
To avoid any downtime, Karastamatis said, each part of the series has two one-liners, more than they had before. It also means additional costs, like more costumes to fit those liners. In the regular cast alone, the show has over 500 costumes.
Learn by undoing
Shaw Festival had to stop production of A Christmas Carol in December during the first Omicron wave, after a member of the company tested positive. He learned from this experience, especially about the importance of masks.
Actors keep masks in rehearsal and a mask mandate is in place for the public until at least May 23, even though the province does not require it. If an actor tests positive, the stage manager should determine if other people in the show are at risk of exposure. That’s a possibility, of course, because the actors are maskless when they do shows.
The only Shaw show that’s going right now, Cyrano de Bergerachasn’t had to cancel any performances yet.
Kimberley Rampersad, Shaw’s associate artistic director, said stunt doubles are already being sought for other shows in rehearsal at the moment. She describes them as “immeasurable”.
“Our stunt doubles will continue because COVID is what it is,” said Rampersad, who this season is also starring in one show and directing/choreographing another. “They’re going to avoid us and have already avoided us canceling shows.”
It also meant a change of mentality for the actors, accustomed to not missing a show, whatever their ailments. Seetoo, now in its eighth season on Shaw, has heard its share of horror stories.
“Before, there was a lot of pride [that] more experienced actors said, “Oh, I kept going and bleeding from my solar plexus all the time, and I did the best Hamlet you’ve ever seen,” he said.
Seetoo is happy that COVID-19 has changed that.
“We have the same motivation we had before that we continue no matter what,” he said. “We still do, but we’re staying home because we want the show to go on.”