As Montreal loosens its restrictions, live theatre has regained its place as an integral part of campus life. In going to see the McGill Savoy Society’s wildly entertaining show, The Pirates of Penzance, I was reminded of what makes going to the theatre such a distinctive experience: The connection between performers and their audience, and the simple sense of camaraderie born from this shared experience.
The McGill Savoy Society was able to cultivate exactly this energy. A Gilbert and Sullivan-focussed theatre troupe, Savoy performs operettas that fall somewhere on the spectrum between operas and musicals. This year’s annual mainstrage operetta, The Pirates of Penzance or, The Slave of Duty, is a comedy about a pirate apprentice, Frederic, who upon being released from indentureship, must navigate his exaggerated sense of duty to the pirate ship and his desire for love.
During a particularly comedic set of hijinks, I took a look around the Vanier College auditorium, where The Pirates of Penzance was staged, and thought about how different theatre looks today. Half the cast, as well as all of the audience, were masked, and the audience was spread out across the auditorium. Facing a crowd again was an especially striking experience for the performers.
“There was a two year hiatus for me, and being back on stage was quite surreal,” Alice Wu, U3 Arts and vice-president of Savoy, explained. “I had to remind myself to think of how poor your visibility of the audience is, or how it feels to be standing all hushed backstage, waiting for the curtain to part [….] Being back on stage was a gift.”
Even the venue, a CEGEP in the Saint-Laurent borough, was a world away from the troupe’s usual Moyse Hall Theatre on campus.
“We had a week in the venue […] so that includes all the dress rehearsals and the shows,” Wu said. “We had to figure out spacing on the stage. It was just quite the time crunch, and it made everything more hectic than it probably needed to be most years.”
The important aspects, however, remained—people gathering together to laugh and enjoy the arts together. Lee Federle, U1 Arts, was happy that the venue was outside of her usual sphere.
“It was nice to explore a new part of the city,” Federle said. “Sometimes first-year students, myself included, find it hard to leave the McGill bubble, and this was a fun way to do just that. I never would have thought to come to this neighbourhood, but it was an interesting experience nonetheless.”
With many of McGill’s traditions and activities either cancelled or shifted to an unsatisfying Zoom format, it can be hard to feel connected to the university as a place for more than just academics.
“I didn’t really have a baseline to compare it to,” Federle said. “A lot of club meetings and events are online so it was just fun to experience an in-person show hosted by the school. I really try to look for things I can go to that aren’t virtual, and a hidden benefit to that is finding things that push me out of my comfort zone.”
With the pandemic taking a hit to in-person gatherings, performing arts groups have become more invisible to students. Jacqueline Olechowski, U1 Arts and lover of performing arts, lamented the difficulties of finding shows like The Pirates of Penzance to go see.
“I find it hard to find out about events like these,” Olechowski said. “Now that I know about the McGill Savoy Society I will definitely try to see more of their shows and try to find other theatre groups to go watch. It was a fun way to spend a night!”
The electricity of the performance was palpable not only for the audience, but also for the cast and crew themselves.
“As for the highlight of the production, I think it’s always got to be the camaraderie,” Wu said. “I love the people, and I love making the production possible and creating a space for us to make magic and memories together and to create something we’re really proud of.”
As the university tiptoes toward normalcy, supporting the performing arts is a great way to feel connected to the McGill community.