Two-part 'Fall On Your Knees' tests audience demand, resiliency of live theatre

TORONTO — Under most circumstances, luring theatre audiences to a two-night, six-hour drama about deep family dysfunction is a tall ask.

Do this amid an ongoing pandemic and tightened household budgets and you have the challenge facing the ambitious stage adaptation of “Fall On Your Knees.”

If any production is going to jump-start a rebirth of live theatre it would seem to be this kind of go-big-or-go-home spectacle, a music-driven touring showcase based on Ann-Marie MacDonald’s global CanLit hit.

The show wrapped its Toronto run over the weekend and next heads to Halifax on Feb. 10, followed by Ottawa and London, Ont. – a gamble that’s only possible because of a unique five-way partnership to share costs and risks, says David Abel, managing director of English Theatre at the National Arts Centre.

"The natural human instinct in a situation like this is to come back and test the waters, sort of dip your toe in rather than dive right into the deep end,” says Abel, noting plans firmed up during the still-uncertain days of the pandemic.

“We didn't know if our future was going to be half-digital or if (audiences) were years away. But we had to kind of take a leap of faith and say, ‘Yeah, we think that by this point in time, the worst of it will be over.’"

Like the sweeping novel, the stage show teems with characters and mysteries to unravel. MacDonald, who consulted on the adaptation, says a one-night affair was quickly ruled out.

“There was a consensus that well, that's just going to shortchange everybody, especially the audience,” says MacDonald.

“This is a story you want to eat with a spoon. This isn't a spare 90-minute one-off. This is a full meal. And it's immersive.”

As a result, viewers must buy separate tickets to two performances in order to see the entire story, which revolves around a multi-generational Cape Breton family shattered by abuse and historical trauma.

For theatres trying to schedule both shows, that requires front-loading the run with Part 1 shows to build momentum, and ensuring there are enough Part 2s at the end of the run to meet bookings and accommodate last-minute sales.

That’s pretty much what happened in Ottawa, says Abel, where NAC has had to convert one Part 1 show into a Part 2 show because of unexpected demand.

“We were running out of Part 2s but also the inventory for Part 1 was not moving at the same rate at the end of the run,” he says of the upcoming shows.

“The worst thing that can happen for us is that we sell out Part 2s. Because the moment you stop selling Part 2s you stop selling Part 1 – people are not going to buy Part 1 only…. It would be a tragedy to have all kinds of Part 1 inventory left, no Part 2 inventory left, and yet we know that there's demand for both of them.”

Because there had “only been a few people sold into that Part 1,” customer service was able to transfer those Toronto patrons to other shows.

“We can get pretty close to capacity for everything if we sort of manage the inventory. You can direct people into performances (and) you can take a performance off sale for a minute just to allow other performances to fill up, and then put it back on sale," he says, adding that audiences now seem more likely to buy last-minute tickets than pre-pandemic times.

Still a month from the Ottawa stop March 8 to 25, Abel says the National Arts Centre show is approaching its conservative final sales target of about 50 per cent — a more common industry standard is 66 per cent — and ticket sales have been especially strong for Halifax’s Neptune Theatre, where demand “jackrabbited out of the gate, ahead of the rest of us.” Each theatre has their own sales target.

“They're very, very well sold now. The rest of us are kind of catching up to them,” he says of Halifax’s run Feb. 10 to March 5.

The show’s regional ties likely help – it’s directed by former New Brunswicker Alisa Palmer and written by former Halifax resident Hannah Moscovitch, while MacDonald, the book’s author, drew inspiration from her Lebanese mother’s experience growing up in Sydney, N.S.

“It's incredibly difficult and it's incredibly ambitious. But I think, for me, it was really important,” says Palmer, who brings the show to the Grand Theatre in London, Ont., March 29 to April 2.

While the impact of COVID-19 was "devastating on so many people," Palmer, whose theatre development company Vita Brevis Arts is the fifth partner in the collaboration, says she's heartened by a decade-long effort to bring "Fall On Your Knees" to audiences.

MacDonald, too, sees potential in developing lessons learned here into a post-pandemic model for theatre's return.

"Pooling our resources, co-operating, communicating, sharing our audiences, etc., I think is always a great thing. The more we can help each other and do stuff together and the more we can share our work across our massive country, the better," says MacDonald.

While there's a long history of Canadian co-productions, they typically involve just two theatres covering the upfront costs of sets, costumes and rehearsals, notes Abel.

“Fall On Your Knees” suggests another way of doing things.

“The idea of a four- or five-way co-production — which really there aren't that many precedents for — might be one of the things that we all look to as a model,” he says, adding that the show also benefited greatly from lead donors, Margaret and David Fountain.

"Life has changed, our society has changed. We're building as opposed to rebuilding, I think.

"We're building something new, as opposed to trying to recreate what we had before, because it's a different world."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 5, 2023.

Cassandra Szklarski, The Canadian Press

Note to readers: This is a corrected story. A previous version said Canadian Stage converted one of its past Toronto shows from Part 1 to Part 2 to meet demand. In fact, the National Arts Centre converted one of its upcoming Ottawa shows.