Like many businesses, local theatre company Theatre Outré has been grappling with how best to restart in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic. But for the group, reopening is about a lot more than just selling tickets.
Founded in 2012, Theatre Outré is the brainchild of artistic director Jay Whitehead. The company has a queer mandate and is “a leading outlet for alternative queer theater in Alberta.” “We define Queer in a very broad way” said Whitehead who is also a professor in the University of Lethbridge’s Dramatic Arts program. “Queer might be very literally the LGBTQ+ community or Queer might be odd, different, weird, or other.”
The theatre company puts on shows like Drunk Improv, Lip Sync Roulette, and The Gomorrah Boat, this year’s The Love Boat inspired iteration of its long running improvised soap opera. All of this alongside cabarets and holiday themed events at its venue, Didi’s Playhaus.
In a city that is severely lacking in queer spaces Theater Outré serves as a home and hub for Lethbridge’s LGBTQ+ community. “I think [it is] so important because in a city like Lethbridge the queer community might feel very invisible” said Whitehead.
Theatre Outré has also become a vibrant alternative in Lethbridge’s performing arts scene. “As someone who grew up in Lethbridge I think that our arts community has always been really strong […] but when I was growing up there wasn’t a huge variety in the theater community” said Ashley Thomson, a performer with Theater Outré.
“If you’ve lived in a bigger city center, Lethbridge can feel a little bit boring, but not with Didi’s Playhaus open.”
Thomson is one of 15 members of the Impromptou Players, a performance cohort that will be in all of the company’s improvisational theatre pieces this fall. Although performers will be flying by the seat of their pants on stage, there is nothing improvised about the safety measures that have gone into making this possible.
“We have gone to tremendous lengths to make sure we can produce these shows safely, with our audiences’ safety and our performers’ safety always at the forefront of our minds” said Whitehead.
The Impromptou Players are limiting their interactions with others outside the cohort and undergo regular testing and symptom checks.. Performers will also wear masks and maintain social distancing while performing outdoors for a distanced audience. These measures are important for safety but also add a layer of extra obstacles for the Impromptou Players.
“We can take those COVID restrictions like masks [and] social distancing and make it part of the story […] there’s a lot of funny things that can happen when you have actors in masks improvising and we’re not trying to ignore that.” said Whitehead.
Theatre Outre has specialized masks with a see through area for the mouth. These make it easier to see a performer’s lips but are still a challenge to work around.
“We read so many social cues from the lower half of a person’s face” said Thomson “You [have to] consider how your face is reading to the audience knowing that it’s covered with a mask. So bringing more physicality into your body becomes a big thing, being really conscientious of the angle of your head and keeping that mask positioned so [they] can see your mouth.”
After a summer starved of opportunities to perform in person for an audience, the challenges are a small price to pay for the opportunity to do so once again.
“The pandemic has been so hard on everyone and when you can’t socialize and do that thing that is so meaningful to you […] It’s been really hard on people’s mental health and emotional wellbeing.”
Online performances co-ordinated through zoom provided a taste but for performer Brent Clark “there’s something different having people in the room,being able to feel that energy, […] being cut off from that was kind of tough.”
Performing and rehearsing in person again also gives Clark an opportunity to sharpen his skills with some of the best. “We have some really talented people that have been performing in Gomorrah and Theatre Outré for years. They are really good and I hope to absorb some of their skills and some of their mentality.”
Whitehead hopes these shows can be a beacon of hope and a reminder of community while many have been isolated for so long.
“I think it’s really important especially during these times that we’re all separate from each other that we have those opportunities to come together and create a community even if it’s just for the temporary time the show is happening.”
“When times are tough the best thing that we can do is come together and laugh about what we’re going through.”
Theatre Outré will be performing every Saturday while weather holds. More information can be found on their website theatreoutre.ca.