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Theater companies grappling with uncertain future due to COVID-19

Theater companies grappling with uncertain future due to COVID-19

Some are making tentative plans for summer or fall, some turning to digital platforms
Theater companies grappling with uncertain future due to COVID-19
Saratoga Shakespeare presents The Tempest last summer at Saratoga Spa State Park.
Photographer: gazette file photo

With all of the changes brought on by COVID-19, theater companies are asking, “can the show go on?”

Companies and theater troupes in the greater Capital Region haven’t been able to put on live in-person productions since mid-March when New York State’s ban on unnecessary gatherings was put in place. Many, like Schenectady Civic Players and the Schenectady Light Opera Company, postponed or canceled the rest of their spring seasons. Some are turning to digital platforms, hosting readings via Zoom.

Others are making tentative plans for the summer or fall.

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“Certain things we’ll just have to work around and think outside the box because the main thing is ‘can we still, with these restrictions, do our part?’” said Carol Max, the director of Curtain Call Theatre in Latham. 

“Our part is art. It’s to tell the story. We can still tell the story. . . we just have to be a little more creative.” 

The company has had to cancel three shows this spring. It hopes to include the productions in the next season, though even planning that far ahead is in a sense meaningless, according to Max.

“Nothing’s definitive. Of course, we’re going to act in accordance with official guidelines, which we’re all waiting for,” Max said. 

Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s re-opening plans, which were announced last week, state that arts, entertainment, recreation and education organizations will be part of the fourth phase of businesses allowed to open. It’s not clear yet when that phase of re-opening will begin for the Capital Region. 

In the meantime, Max is considering ways that the theater might safely present shows once Curtain Call can open. She’s planning on staggering people as they come into the theater, requiring everyone to wear masks, not handing out playbills and shutting down the concessions area.

She’s also discontinuing the subscription program for next season, just in case COVID-19 cases rise again in the fall and is looking into the cost analysis of producing shows with fewer people in the audience. 

“Even once all these restrictions are [lifted] you still have to do an analysis of, with everything in place, is it financially feasible? Can you still keep your lights on if you’re only allowed x-amount of patrons? It’s great to try to do it but you’ve got to be able to keep the lights on,” Max said. 

Other theater companies are looking into similar measures and running similar analyses. 

Barrington Stage Company, located in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, has rehauled and reconfigured its summer season in the hopes that it can still hold live performances come summer. 

“We first dealt with social distancing . . . ‘How are we going to keep [audiences] six feet apart?’,” said Julianne Boyd, the artistic director of Barrington Stage. 
They started by removing half the seats in the main theater, which includes 520 seats. Boyd plans to stagger entrance and exit times and open alternative entryways to ensure that the lobby won’t be crowded. The summer season will only feature small cast shows so it’s possible for actors to maintain social distancing measures while on stage.  

"I just picked shows that did not need a lot of sets and costumes and it became clear to me that I needed to pick [one] or two-character plays so that I didn’t have a lot of people on the stage,” Boyd said. 

Beyond that, Boyd also hopes to run a socially-distant performance of “South Pacific” in a local park. The actors and each of the musicians will be six-feet apart from each other and the script will be read rather than acted out. 

The changes will have a major impact not only on the staff and the audience members but on the financial well-being of the Barrington Stage. While tickets for the upcoming shows have been selling quickly, the bottom-line is that there are fewer shows and the company will have to sell fewer tickets than normal. 
“This mini-season will take care of the expenses related to the season but we will need to do a campaign to get us to next year to be able to do the regular season,” Boyd said. 

However, for Boyd, presenting shows virtually or any way besides in-person just doesn’t have the same impact. 

“I think theater’s about the collective experience. It’s about people getting together, albeit six feet apart this year. With 163 people you will feel a dynamic there and all that energy is going toward the stage and it’s a shared experience and it’s sort of shared humanity,” Boyd said. 

The Saratoga Shakespeare Company also hopes to bring that sense to people, though it has had to make major changes to its 2020 summer season, which was supposed to be filled with celebrations. 

It’s the company’s 20th anniversary season, as well as the first season for Marcus Dean Fuller, the new executive and artistic director. 

“Admittedly this is not how I saw my first year as Artistic Director [going],” Fuller said in a recent interview with The Gazette. 

The company canceled its main stage productions when it became clear that it wouldn’t be able to house its actors — Saratoga Shakespeare Company actors typically stay on Skidmore College’s campus during the summer but the college canceled all its on-campus summer programs in mid-April. 

Its professional training program, which gives undergraduates hands-on experiences, also had to be canceled for this summer.

“That’s something that we really can’t adapt to any kind of in-person experience. That’s something we’re pretty disappointed about,” said managing director Emma Halpern.

The company still plans to go ahead with the Poetry in the Pines event that it works with the Saratoga Performing Arts Center to present, though the format will most likely have to change as well. 

When The Gazette spoke with Halpern and Fuller in April, the company was also starting to discuss producing digital content or promoting other local arts organizations through its social media. 

While other theaters have already taken on major financial hardship, because Saratoga Shakespeare doesn’t rely on ticket sales, the impact may not be quite as harsh. 

“I think most importantly, although we have had to modify our season, we’re moving forward with optimism,” Fuller said. 

During this pandemic, people need a sense of escape that the arts can provide, according to Boyd.

“Right now we’re all so self-isolated and I think it’s important that we keep the arts alive. Art’s soothing, it heals us in many ways, you go, you forget about your problems. For a couple hours, you’re living somebody’s life,” Boyd said. 

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The Daily Gazette is committed to keeping our community safe and informed and is offering our COVID-19 coverage to you free.
Our subscribers help us bring this information to you. Please consider a subscription at DailyGazette.com/Subscribe to help support these efforts.
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