Elena Eli Belyea, theatre producer. Illustration: Sam Hester

Elena Eli Belyea: Making theatre more accessible

This challenging year also had its silver linings.

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To close out 2020, we're bringing you 20 stories from an extraordinary year. Doctors. Teachers. Entrepreneurs. Activists. These are the stories of ordinary Albertans who were changed by circumstances beyond their control—and what they did to make their worlds, and ours, a little better.



News of the pandemic’s arrival in Canada broke while Elena Eli Belyea was in the middle of a show at the Toronto Sketch Comedy Festival.

“On the first night we had 20 people,” they said. “Which was like, ‘Yeah, that makes sense.’ And then the second night there were 40 people, and I remember being like, ‘Is this good? Should we be gathering? Maybe this is bad.’ And then I flew back to Edmonton and [we] immediately went into lockdown.”

Belyea—a playwright, actor and theatre producer—had been going at full tilt since January. Their theatre company, Tiny Bear Jaws, was preparing a new show and a summer tour, and they had just wrapped filming on the pilot for a web series in early March.

But by April, most of Belyea’s work for the next year had been postponed or cancelled.

Platforms like Zoom have made theatre attendance accessible for more people.

While this has been a challenging year to make theatre, Belyea points to a major silver lining: platforms like Zoom have made theatre attendance accessible for more people.

When the Pride Centre of Edmonton reached out asking if they could create an online theatre piece for Pride Week, Belyea and their creative partner, Sydney Campbell, set about developing a show for the internet—not just in format, but in content.

The result was httpeepee, a sketch comedy featuring situations that became common this year: fighting with a coworker through a shared Google Doc, attending a Zoom dance party, video-chat shenanigans.

Even a tech-failure contingency plan was part of the show.

“We came up with a game where if someone’s internet connection goes off the rails, then the other person who’s still there has to do something they hate to entertain the audience.”

Campbell did push-ups. Belyea ate a raw onion.

So much of theatre is about who is able to get into a certain space.

Elena Eli Belyea

And there were practical discoveries as well as creative ones.

During the run of httpeepee, Belyea noticed all the different ways the online format allowed the audience to enjoy the show. “I’ve heard people say they have a lot more space to have whatever reaction to the show they’re watching, in whatever circumstance they want,” they said.

“Maybe you want to turn the lights down in your house, maybe you don't like the volume up so high, maybe you want to be able to watch half of it and then watch the other half the next day.”

Belyea has carried forward this lesson in making theatre more inclusive to the projects they’ve worked on since.

Belyea points out that “so much of theatre is about who is able to get into a certain space”—from who can afford the ticket to who can access the content. The relative ease of providing closed captions or subtitles is a huge advantage of going online.

“All these things are possible, and if you make it available to people without them having to ask you for it, then people will use it,” Belyea said.

Miranda Martini is a writer, editor and musician. She’s also the membership editor for The Sprawl.

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