As the COVID-19 pandemic shuttered live theatre venues around the world, empty seats and cancelled programs became the norm. Manitoba Theatre for Young People (MTYP) was no exception, yet in the midst of chaos, the award-winning company for children and young adults found ways to reimagine its offerings and even learn a thing or two to enhance them in the long term.

“The essence of theatre is bringing people together to share a story,” says Pablo Felices-Luna, MTYP artistic director. “Yes, there are ways to share stories that don’t involve presence, but theatre itself thrives on that. Being unable to gather strikes at the core of who we are and what we do. So we have looked for ways to prepare for the time when we will be reunited with audiences, when artists will be able to share their work with young people, and the adults—such as teachers— who connect them with theatre.”

Felices-Luna and his team employed no small amount of “theatrical ingenuity” to map out a play-friendly pandemic plan. Collaborating with guest companies to produce work locally, developing new plays online, shifting classes and workshops to digital and outdoor platforms, and running cohorted theatre camps over the summer formed part of the picture, as did laying the groundwork for the next—and shorter—theatre season.

MTYP has worked tirelessly to generate as many ideas or scenarios as possible to respond to each new COVID curveball. “There has been a lot of throwing metaphorical spaghetti at the wall,” the artistic director laughs, “but this wall is devious and keeps moving when you least expect it.”

Despite the challenges, the year that was has shed light on new ways of working that may prove valuable. Digital classes have increased access to programs for young people living beyond Winnipeg, and play development online has expanded the pool of artists with whom the company can collaborate; something Felices-Luna describes as “freeing”.

“It has also heightened our awareness of the importance of staying in touch with artists and audiences, even during down times. That is something we will definitely carry forward.”

The process of planning and executing theatre programming during a pandemic required the company to root itself in positivity and optimism, says Felices-Luna. Another priority was maintaining and strengthening contact with key supporters, such as public school teachers.

“Our Drama Outreach program is working to deliver online programming that supports curriculum, or tailor it as needed, always with the awareness that we need to respond to the needs of teachers. We know it is incredibly complicated to teach in these times, so we want to support rather than hinder the work of educators.”

MTYP was quick to adapt its program in 2020, reworking what would have been a seven-show season to six, as travel restrictions scuttled plans for touring companies to perform. At this point, with ongoing pandemic restrictions, only two of the remaining shows are scheduled.

The murky nature of the path forward notwithstanding, optimism remains a mainstay of the MTYP mindset.

“The stories that need to be told will continue to be told,” says Felices-Luna. “The pandemic hasn’t eliminated any of the underlying social issues we want to explore with audiences, nor has it wiped out all the joy we want to share with them. I know at times this may have felt like a joyless stretch of time, but in my experience, the ability to find laughter in some of strangest places is one of the great gifts artists have to share.”

Educators are an essential component of the MTYP family, he says, and every effort will be made to ensure that as teachers explore new ways of communicating with their students, theatre forms a reliable, effective tool to promote dialogue and engagement.

Characterizing the relationship between MTYP and teachers in a perfectly theatrical way, Felices-Luna cites an excerpt from the 2019 run of a favourite production: A Year with Frog and Toad. “Just replace “Toad” with “teachers” and “Frog” with “MTYP,” he begins.

“Dear Toad, today when you told me that you were sad because you had never received a letter, it made me sad too. I suppose that is how it is with you and me. I am writing this letter, hoping that it will make you feel happy, knowing along that unless you are happy I cannot be. Your friend, Frog.”