A Civic Theatre drive-in event from this past summer. Photo submitted

A Civic Theatre drive-in event from this past summer. Photo submitted

LARGE POPCORN, EXTRA BUTTER: Hey 2020, it’s been weird

The Civic Theatre’s Eleanor Stacey writes about the theatre’s COVID-19 challenges

Eleanor Stacey

2020 needs no introductions or platitudes — we all can relate to the statement that it has been a year like no other. And of course, we are all still grappling with the social and economic impacts and challenges that have taken this year by storm.

On March 16, like all other cinemas and performance spaces in British Columbia, The Civic Theatre had to close as a strict precaution to guard against the spread of COVID-19. We were dark for five months, sacrificing the income stream that makes the existence of Nelson Civic Theatre Society possible, and withholding community gatherings to see films — the thing that in 2012 our community fought so hard to get back.

I think I can safely say this for the team at The Civic: we don’t typically shy away from a good challenge. In the last few years, we have done exceptional things within our venue and across our programming: NCTS has made a mark locally and across broader networks with our Screen-Based Industry economic initiative, the Rural Arts Inclusion Lab, and our Super 8 and Craft Brews of the Columbia Basin film challenges.

We didn’t take our 2020 COVID-19 closure lying down, instead opening our first-ever summer drive-in, offering an enviable number of award-winning video-on-demand films through our website (coupled with some great interactive talks with directors and producers), and spurring some CoVideo Challenges to get people creating at home. We have offered up our marquee for birthday and anniversary messages, and we tenaciously decided that Nelson could not go for months without Civic Theatre popcorn, enlisting staff and volunteers to manage our curb-side touchless pickup.

In a moment when we knew that people may be feeling sad and isolated, we decided it was our role to dig in, to stay active, and to continue to build community. In fact, we are further diversifying our portfolio again now with the upcoming reopening of Reo’s videos as an NCTS program.

As we all watch the COVID-19 statistics in our province, we know that B.C., and indeed the world, is not out of the woods yet, in terms of disease control or economic viability. Yet, some things have changed. Most notably for us at The Civic, in August we were permitted to reopen our venue for film screenings and community events, but with a cap of 50 people. For reference, this is 16 per cent of our 306-seat capacity. In a regular year, averaging across our wide range of content from blockbuster new releases to esoteric indie films, we seek to fill 27 per cent of our capacity to pay our bills. This means that at 16 per cent in the best of scenarios we are operating at a loss, although the federal wage subsidies that continue to support us are definitely helping.

Patrons have commented to us that they do feel safe and are pleased to return to the theatre. We are so happy to be open, and to see familiar faces come through our doors again. We have missed you! However, we are not seeing 50 patrons at each screening. We completely understand why — there is a lot of fear connected with congregating indoors right now. We have done our very best to meet or exceed the health guidelines for safe gatherings, with ample space between guests, rigorous cleaning, and all our employees and volunteers wearing masks. We are doing the best that we can given the circumstances.

I know that many of our usual guests won’t be comfortable coming to the theatre yet, and we look forward to the time when COVID-19 cases decline enough for you to feel differently. However, those of you who do feel like a movie might be an option at this time, we hope to see you soon. Please come see a movie, get a popcorn, and support your local independent cinema.

This time continues to be an operational challenge for us, so your ticket and concession purchases are key to our ability to stay open in the coming months. As a registered Canadian charity you can also give to us by visiting civictheatre.ca and clicking on “Make a Donation.”

Your support will go towards keeping our doors open, our staff employed, and our ability to continue to develop and grow our programs and services for our community.

We hope to see you in our lobby soon.

Eleanor Stacey is the Executive Director of Nelson Civic Theatre Society.