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Onstage / Theater in Phase 4 and beyond

WNY companies have a wide range of plans

Torn Space joins Shakespeare in Delaware Park in being among the first to return with live performance. It is presenting its yearly outdoor experience at Silo City through August 16, implementing social distancing and PPE. The show, Silence, revisits figures from past Torn Space mythology. (Image from 2019’s Feast)

image by michael thomas


In a typical year, August would have the theater industry excitedly rehearsing Curtain Up! shows and theater writers preparing preview pieces for the upcoming season. But planning for anything right now is an exercise in flexibility and precaution and planning for things that require large indoor groups—like theater—is that exercise in extreme.


There almost certainly is no Curtain Up! next month, and what happens from here and beyond depends on what theaters learn and when they learn it. Artistic leaders are busy creating multiple flexible scenarios that they are ready to implement the moment it’s legal and safe for both audiences and performers. In that regard, one size doesn’t fit all.


“It’s all the same, only different, for all of us,” says Richard Lambert, executive artistic director of New Phoenix, by way of describing how each theater’s situation and decisions are impacted by its overhead, size, flexibility of seats, financials, operating costs, and more. For example, having to maintain a lease on a space where no theater is happening forced Subversive Theatre Collective to cancel the entire 20–21 season and leave its twelve-year home in the Pierce-Arrow building; the company currently seeks a new venue (Raíces Theatre Company, which subleased from Subversive, will be in residence at Road Less Traveled Productions when live theater resumes). New Phoenix, which is spared paying staff or rent, still owns a building that has insurance, utility, and maintenance bills.


Back in March, before shelter-in-place orders, performance venues were briefly able to remain open at fifty percent capacity, but that was before anybody had knowledge about how the virus spread. Many hoped that a fifty percent rule might return—and allow theaters to resume financially practical operation—but those hopes were dashed when the six-foot rule went into effect and blown to bits when Phase 4’s first iteration did not allow for live performances with anything less than complete social distancing.


Indoor six-foot social distance doesn’t present a profitable model for most Buffalo theaters, with the possible exception of Desiderio’s Dinner Theatre. “Fortunately, I have a large enough space to keep tables farther than six feet apart plus six feet from the stage and still have a decent house,” says artistic director Jay Desiderio, who’d like to put up a show as soon it’s safe for all concerned. “The show I had to stop rehearsing when COVID hit was Wait Until Dark, but maybe I’ll try bringing back On A First Name Basis or another comedy with a smaller cast to lighten up the dark days.”


Meanwhile, for the 259-seat Kavinoky, social distancing means roughly fifty-seven people per show, a number Executive Artistic Director Loraine O’Donnell—who estimated using a tape measure—says not only precludes financially feasible operation, but also wouldn’t allow the theater to accommodate its 2,000 subscribers, even if a few weeks were added to the run. A show the size of Something Rotten, the originally planned Curtain Up! large-cast musical with orchestra, creates additional performer safety issues both on- and backstage.


At Shea’s, our region’s biggest house seating 3,019, large touring shows aren’t profitable if the house isn’t full. Optimistically, Shea’s recently announced plans to begin its 20–21 Broadway Series with a now non-union tour of Tootsie opening December 1. Last year’s remaining canceled shows are rescheduled throughout 2021.


“Our team is consulting with health and safety experts, colleagues around the country, and government officials to ensure that when we reopen, every precaution will be taken to ensure your safety,” says Shea’s president Michael G. Murphy. Other than adherence to New York State requirements for sanitization and disinfection, no specifics have been released.


At small indoor spaces like, say, Irish Classical Theatre’s (ICTC) intimate Andrews Theatre in the round, keeping patrons and performers six feet apart would be nearly impossible (and that’s not even considering the bathroom and dressing room situations at most theaters) so ICTC “will refrain from live performances until we can gather without risk,” says artistic director Kate LoConti, who reiterates a sentiment expressed by every company leader interviewed. For most, that means putting off plans until March—and that’s  best case.


“We’re proceeding extremely cautiously because our audience is of a particular age,” says Mary Kate O’Connell, executive artistic director of O’Connell and Company, echoing a concern many theaters have about the median age of theatergoers, which ranges from mid-forties (musicals) to mid-fifties (plays). “We need to address their comfort levels as well as our volunteers, actors, and everybody in between.” Conversely, Theatre of Youth has to consider that it attracts primarily families and children, says managing director Tracy Snyder, the sole employee remaining out of a three full- and eight part-time staff.


“We were set to announce our 20–21 season as the pandemic began and then held off. I’m glad we did,” says Chris J. Handley, Alleyway’s new artistic director. “As a company devoted to telling new stories, we have to be aware of what those stories are. The world is a different place than when I was set to announce my inaugural season. While I love the plays we had selected, and am committed to producing them, I am also spending a lot of time reading the latest work of playwrights around the country. So, yes, we have a season ready to go, and when the time is right, we’ll announce, but it’s likely that season will include shows that haven’t even been written yet.”


For companies without permanent space or salaried employees—like Buffalo United Artists or Brazen-Faced Varlets—it’s easier to step back, wait it out, and be flexible. “Our size typically feels like a disadvantage and right now it’s helping us stay afloat,” says Kelly Copps, artistic director of Second Generation Theatre, which is in residence at the Smith Theatre on a rental basis. “There are fewer things that we are responsible for than other companies: fewer employees and fewer bills make it easier to weather this particular storm.”


But how?


Embracing the virtual

As it did around the world, COVID prompted WNY theaters to transition to virtual programming where possible. Alleyway moved its annual Quickies online, performing one play live every Sunday for six weeks this past spring. O’Connell and Company continues a reading series and ICTC released short “Celtic Connections.” Second Generation did its fundraiser, Miscast, and accompanying auction online. Torn Space released the audio experience, Passage. MusicalFare—which maintained a full staff of six—continues to livestream cabarets from its space.


“Chris Cavanagh has basically turned our cabaret into a television studio,” says MusicalFare Artistic Director Randy Kramer. “Moving forward, one of the ideas we’ve had is stream and distance, where we have maybe twenty people attend with VIP tickets, because we’ve been able to take a ninety-seven-seat cabaret and livestream to increase the capacity by ten times. That creates something brand new that works and for people who don’t have the ability to come to theater in best of circumstances.”


Road Less Traveled, which has moved its originally planned 20/21 season to 21/22 and will remount its canceled Hand to God and The Curious Case of the Watson Intelligence next spring if it’s safe to do so, has three digital initiatives planned for this fall and winter. Alleyway also has three digital projects for the remainder of the year, including a virtual production of its signature A Christmas Carol, and brand-new digital category for its Maxim Mazumdar contest; the winners will be presented in a fall festival. Raíces Theatre Company will release a recorded reading of an original musical, El Closet Magico, by María Pérez-Gómez, music by Adrian Guadalupe and María Pérez-Gómez. And in perhaps the most ambitious digital transition, ICTC is replacing its first two planned productions with an October virtual production of Sea Marks, the show that opened the company’s previous Calumet space and starred Vincent O’Neill and Josephine Hogan; this one features Chris Kelly and Kristen Tripp Kelley. “It has been a positive challenge for ICTC to switch to a new medium, but we have risen to the challenge, and savor this new forum,” says LoConti. 


“It makes me a little jealous to see other theaters who are able to do more [virtual presentations] and fundraiser stuff, and I can’t because we furloughed three other full-time employees and I’m by myself,” says Kavinoky’s O’Donnell, who no doubt speaks for other solo operators as well as theaters without the budgets for such endeavors. “Most of my time has been spent talking to people on the phone. The shortest conversation I have with a patron is twenty minutes because they want to ask questions, see how we are, say how much they miss us.”


That patrons miss theater is without question, but are they ready to come back? SDP, O’Connell and Company, and ICTC were in the process of surveying patrons at press time, but MusicalFare polled in mid-May. Responses indicated that forty-six percent of patrons were ready to return, twenty-four percent were highly likely to return, twenty percent were undecided, and only ten percent were not likely. The numbers are encouraging, but theaters are committed to ensuring safety of both patrons and performers. The big question: when can that happen?


When to go live

For Shakespeare in Delaware Park, the answer is now, as social distancing is something the company can manage with the four-person, forty-five-minute show that will tour in Olmstead parks this summer. Potential for a rain-impacted season means that SDP has always had a contingency plan and, in fact, not having the expense of building the stage actually kept money in their coffers. “We’ve got a whole year to see what happens, a year to see what practices work best,” says SDP Managing Director Lisa Ludwig, who says the company will learn a lot from the tour; next summer could see socially distanced performers, new costume protocols, online donations instead of hat passing, and shorter run-times.


Torn Space, which each summer presents an outdoor experience at Silo City, will not make an exception this year. Implementing social distancing and PPE, Silence will run July 31-August 16 and join SDP in being among the first to return with live performance. “Contactless pre-registration and auditory guidance will make for a solitary experience among a small audience, seated outside and six feet apart with specially designed masks that draw viewers into the ritual,” says Artistic Director Dan Shanahan, who adds that the show revisits figure from past Torn Space mythology.  


For everyone else? “This just sucks. All I do all day is think about this because it changes minute to minute and then the next plan goes into effect,” says O’Donnell, who spent months creating scenarios involving a one-person show, calculating social distancing for The Woman In Black, and moving things around, only to ultimately opt, in late July, to join the theaters across the country in pausing until March 2021—with fingers crossed. Currently, the plan is run the one-woman show, I’ll Eat You Last: A Chat with Sue Mengers, with however many patrons will be allowed with social distancing--and maybe even run it November to February if interest holds; that would likely make Kavinoky the first theater come back with indoor live performance; the theater will then pick up midseason in March with Pride and Prejudice and do its first two shows in the 21-22 season.


O’Donnell’s experience isn’t unique. Initial, optimistic plans for many theaters included remounting productions that were cut short in March. “Up until two days ago, I still had the Kiss of the Spider Woman set up,” says Lambert, who hoped there might be a way to revive the four-star show. “Now, I’m waiting for someone in New York to say ‘to open your performance space, here are six things you need to do.’ Once I have that list, we’ll do it  as quickly as possible but until I get those specifics, we’re going to stay flexible. Our managing director wants to have something ready for Curtain Up!, but if we open too early when we can’t really afford it… I’d prefer to go more cautiously.”


RLTP Artistic Director Scott Behrend agrees: “We don’t know what people’s perceptions are going to be once we reopen. Part of it was looking at financials and cash flow; we would have to start spending money in a couple of weeks for next season, and the most disastrous thing would be to put tens of thousands of dollars into a show and nobody comes.”


Aside from Subversive, whose decision was prompted by real estate issues, RLTP is the only theater to announce a wholesale move of this season’s slate to next. If things improve before September 2021, Behrend will remount the four-star hit Hand to God—the set is still on stage—and run it even at half capacity. “A big reason we moved the season is because we’d be locked into show dates and moving the entire package gives us the best chance for success,” Behrend says. “If we can run Hand to God, maybe we run eight weeks. Same thing with Watson, or one-night fundraisers become two-night fundraisers. It’s just leaving ourselves opportunity [and mitigating risk].”


On the flip side, Second Generation Theatre will go ahead with its first announced show of the season, Constellations—in one form or another. “We happened to choose two shows to kick of this season that are extremely small,” says Copps. “Constellations has two people and Songs for a New World is four. We’re trying to be prepared for multiple situations, one of which is presenting at least Constellations, at least digitally as a livestreamed ticket event, and depending if we’re allowed to have humans in the theater, perhaps reduced audience. The flexibility of the Smith Theatre [means] we can fit in a good number of people while adhering to safety standards.” Secret Garden will likely be too big to keep; this season’s canceled shows—Three Tall Women and Cabaret—will move to the 21/22 season.


Other theaters are adopting a more wait-and-see approach. ICTC has planned alternative programming through the end of the year, hoping to pick up its remaining four shows in the new year. New Phoenix is still “dancing around the idea of September,” says Lambert, but he’s scrapped Suddenly Last Summer and is looking at two-handers and hopes that January will allow him to mount Dawn King’s Foxfinder, a play he was excited to produce. MusicalFare hasn’t ruled out September either, but won’t be doing the originally scheduled Nice Work If You Can Get It; if safely possible, the offering will be something smaller and socially distant. All theaters are prepared to be nimble in accordance with the latest CDC guidelines.


“In-person theater is crazy to think about right now,” says Handley. “We could put into place new policies that would keep our audiences socially distanced, but it's impossible for the performers. Any good play worth its salt is going to have people who are in love or angry with each other. And any good love or fight scene is going to mean actors within six feet of each other. So I don't think it's feasible attempt putting a show onstage right now.”


The long run

Without a vaccine, even socially distanced shows are risky and costly. As Second Generation’s Executive Director Kristin Bentley notes, “Producing anything the cost doesn’t go down if you’re only able to make half the revenue.” And not only will patron revenue be reduced, but increased cleaning, sanitizing, and PPE supplies are an additional expense theaters must incur to operate.


“The reality is that a vaccine or having people feel comfortable is a ways off,” says Kramer. “We’re going to have to program in a different way, anticipate smaller audience sizes. Moving forward, it’s going to impact the larger shows; it’s easier to reduce the size of a revue than a traditional book show. I don’t anticipate us getting back to quote normal for quite a while. Just trying to figure out new normal in the interim.”


“None of us can afford to close indefinitely,” says O’Donnell. “If that’s what it takes to keep people safe, that’s what we’ll do but it’s gonna hurt and it’s gonna hurt bad. The main thing I‘m talking about is numbers in terms of what’s going to help us keep the lights on but it’s not that; it’s about keeping everybody safe.”


“The pandemic has resulted in a loss of ticket sales for theatres across the world. For us, it's to the tune of forty percent of last season's projected revenue, and a slash to this season's budget of even more,” says Handley. “We are going to have to be creative for the next few years, but that's why most of us got into this business in the first place, to create things! And we will! So, have faith in the Buffalo theater community. Give when you can, send notes of encouragement, volunteer your time, and most of all, come back once it's safely reopened.”


Donna Hoke is Spree's theater writer, Home editor, and Medicine in WNY editor.

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