Dream in High Park – Canadian Stage

An Evening with Jeremy Dutcher presented by Canadian Stage.
Photographer: Dahlia Katz. Lighting Designer: Aidan Ware.
Featured: Jeremy Dutcher (piano+vocals), Teiya Kasahara (back-up vocals), Jonathan MacArthur (back-up vocals), Naomi McCarroll-Butler (woodwind), Bram Gielen (upright bass), and Tara Kannangara (trumpet). 

“There was one particularly magical moment for me, where I felt like, this is why I love what I do,” says Monica Esteves, Executive Director, Canadian Stage. Canadian Stage was one of the first organizations to return to in-person performances as soon as Ontario entered Step Two of the roadmap to reopening, with Dream in High Park. The programming included a performance by Indigenous classical musician Jeremy Dutcher, at the High Park Amphitheatre, which drew around 400 people. Normally the amphitheater can host up to 1,000 people, but the numbers were deliberately kept low for COVID Safety Protocols. “It felt like being in communion with a lot of people. It felt like a rock show. It was totally magical. It felt like we were all experiencing something that many of us have previously, but anew, with new eyes, new senses. A greater appreciation. A realization that we can’t take this for granted.” 

With over eighty years of history, Canadian Stage was the first professional theatre company in Toronto, established as The New Play Society in 1945. In its contemporary form, Canadian Stage came into existence in 1988, with the merger of CentreStage and Toronto Free Theatre to become one of the largest not-for-profit theatres in the country. Both parent organizations were Toronto Arts Council operating clients, a relationship that continued with Canadian Stage. 

Dream in High Park, a summer ritual of Shakespeare productions in High Park has been one of the most iconic and celebrated programs of Canadian Stage since its inauguration in 1983.  In 2012 Dream in High Park was renamed Shakespeare in High Park. It returned to its original moniker in 2021. “As a kid and a teenager, Dream in High Park was really meaningful for me,” says Esteves. “It really is a dream, under the stars, experiencing something beautiful. Sitting on the grass.” When the pandemic hit the city, like other performing arts organizations, Canadian Stage cancelled all its programming. “We cancelled for the first time in 40 years,” says Esteves. Overnight, all planning, went out the window. “Canadian Stage’s programming happens two to three years out. We were able to pivot quickly to digital, but it’s been difficult for us not knowing how long the digital programming needs to continue. We’ve been programming in three to six month periods, but those are very different planning cycles than we are used to.” Since the onset of the pandemic, they have produced over 15 digital productions. 

Given that Dream in High Park happens outdoors it was possible to have the program in September 2020, when the city opened up briefly and allowed permission for public art events in parks. Despite all its challenges, the pandemic also opened up the opportunity to diversify Dream in High Park, moving away from the annual Shakespeare productions, and inviting other organizations to participate. New programming included music, theatre, dance, community arts, comedy, and kids programming. “In 2020, we got an opportunity to test out the new programming, and also test COVID Protocols. Success gave us the confidence to start shifting and creating a new plan for the summer of 2021.”


MUKUTHÔ by dance Immersion & Canadian Stage: Curatorial and Presenting Partners.
Photographer: Dahlia Katz. Lighting Designer: Logan Cracknell.
Set and Costume Designers: Casimiro Nhussi and Pulga Muchochoma. 
Featured: Casimiro Nhussi (Dancer), Pulga Muchochoma (Dancer), Kobèna Acquaah-Harrison (Musician)

So, to prepare for this summer, Canadian Stage reached out and had conversations with dozens of professional arts organizations, community arts organizations and artists. In a short span of time, they programmed for five months, from mid-May to the beginning of October. With everything ready to go, all they needed was the green light from the government which came in June, when the province entered Step Two. What followed was a summer packed with events and activities, from concerts, outdoor pictures, theatre, and lots of other activities, showcasing a range of artists and arts organizations. 

“Never before in my twenty-five-year career, have I experienced such collaboration,” says Esteves. With the pandemic wiping out all live in-person events, musicians, theatre artists, dance artists, and all other performing art artists found themselves in a similar situation. “There wasn’t a day that went by when I wasn’t on the phone or connecting virtually with a colleague from another organization or an artist. That’s been really heartwarming. I think that we're going to be a much more collaborative sector on the other side of this.”  Canadian Stage’s amphitheatre, from a COVID safety perspective, is ideal for in-person events. “And so, we felt that it’d be important for Canadian Stage to share space,” says Esteves. 

An example of another collaboration that happened during the early days of the pandemic was #LightsOn, a venue reopening guide that offers practical suggestions to address how venue managers may interpret and operationalize current municipal, provincial and federal guidelines. The venue reopening guide is a collaborative effort of live entertainment organizations and individuals, including Ryerson’s School of Creative Industries*, Toronto Arts Council and Toronto Arts Foundation, with support from the City of Toronto, TO Live, SOCAN and the Toronto Alliance for the Performing Arts. Canadian Stage’s Director of Production participated in the research and the creation of this guide, and #LightsOn was a major source for their operational manual. 

The big challenge for Canadian Stage moving forward is the transition from outdoor performances to indoor. “At this point we are proceeding with the plans to have theatre productions this winter. With restricted capacity, there isn’t really an economic argument for these productions but there is a very strong artistic reason to persevere. What we’ve heard from our audiences is that they’re ready, if we have the right safety protocols in place. With Ontario announcing vaccine requirements, people are ready to come back into the theatre, so we're going to be ready, and we're going to make sure that there's something on the stages that's really great, inspiring and uplifting to get us through another year.”


*The University is in the process of selecting a new name