Around Christmas last year, the 5th Avenue Theatre was struck with a COVID-19 outbreak in its “Disney’s Beauty and the Beast” cast that resulted in the company canceling a week of rehearsals. Managing director Bernadine Griffin said that, heading into the production, they had hopes that “Beauty and the Beast” would exceed their budgeted revenue goal, ideally making up for some “softness” in their subscription numbers, which Griffin said are half of their pre-pandemic levels.
Instead, Griffin said they wound up a few hundred thousand dollars shy of their $2 million revenue goal, a still impressive feat considering the company canceled 10 performances as a result of the December outbreak. Around 12,000 patrons were notified and refunds and gift certificates were issued in some instances while other patrons were shifted into later performances, occupying seats that otherwise might have been available for purchase.
Griffin’s company isn’t alone navigating the delicate dance of keeping their company — which, in the case of “Beauty and the Beast” included around 150 actors, creative team members, crew, musicians, technicians and artisans — safe and healthy while trying to return to the stage and resume their art. Theaters across the city are weighing new costs and processes, from regular coronavirus tests to utilizing understudies for the first time, in an effort to get productions back on stage and in person. As they do so, when and how the benefits of producing digitally will fit into future seasons also remains high on their minds.
Book-It Repertory Theatre was well into rehearsals for an originally planned January opening of a Julian Glover adaptation of “Beowulf” when the threat of the omicron wave forced them to postpone the production to this summer.
“It is an intimate business,” said Book-It artistic director Gus Menary, reflecting on gathering artists, audience and staff back in a building. Hypothetically, “we couldn’t just think about a person who got it, we had to think about the five people they gave it to and the five people each one of those people [could give] it to.”
Griffin knew during the production process for “Beauty and the Beast” that even five cases among the cast were going to cause a halt in the show’s progress. The organization was doing daily rapid antigen tests with additional PCR lab tests on Friday, which added a dose of tension to each day once the production returned to rehearsals and they waited to see test results and parse through any false positives.
For a smaller organization like Sound Theatre Company, which can’t afford the same volume of tests as their larger peers, even the limited amount of home tests the state is making available is a welcome addition to their safety precautions. As a nonunion company that occasionally works with union artists, production manager Rosemary Jones has had to look to other companies and union policies to pull together safety procedures for Sound that will allow them to safely return to in-person productions.
“We talked very much about not knowing whether to commit to full in-person and just in-person” as opposed to continuing to produce an entire or partly digital season, said Sound founder and artistic director Teresa Thuman, whose company will return to the stage this April with the thriller “Gaslight (Angel Street).” “Whatever we do, we need to make sure that we have escape hatches in some ways. It’s just very tough from a business planning perspective.”
While the city’s theater companies have already banded together to keep their mask and vaccine requirements in place through at least the end of May, the safety and health of their artists also remains at the forefront of leaders’ minds. Though there have been many ups and downs over the last year, many leaders are feeling comfortable enough with precautions in place to take a more sure-footed step back out onto the stage.
“I would say probably 12 months ago we felt more gloomy,” said A Contemporary Theatre managing director Anita Shah. “Six months ago, we felt more optimistic. Now we know that things are going to go up and down. Rather than waste any energy sort of wondering or trying to predict what’s going to happen to us as a global society, we’re just going to focus on the work.”
Must the show go on?
During the pandemic, many theaters have used the time offstage as a chance to examine how they operate. Around the country, that has resulted in conversations about some of the long hours typically imposed on theater’s rehearsal process. Many theaters, including 5th Avenue, have heeded the call and moved to eliminate 10 out of 12 technical rehearsals, which saw actors called for rehearsals for a 12-hour window with two hours dedicated for a meal break. Designers and crew would be in the theater even longer. It’s one of multiple efforts to create more equitable working conditions in the field.
Another that Griffin said 5th Avenue had started to implement even before the pandemic, but the importance of which the pandemic emphasized, was the use of understudies to back up the lead cast.
“No actor ever said, ‘The show must go on,’” Griffin said, quoting a thought from her husband, actor Seán G. Griffin, on the oft-used phrase. “No actor ever once said that, it’s the producers that always say that.”
ACT’s Shah echoed the importance of dismantling that mentality around theater. While ACT, which opened “The Thin Place” this month, hadn’t used understudies in the past, Shah said, the organization has taken some of the pandemic downtime to evaluate how they operate. A pandemic adjustment, like having a backup actor in case a central character’s performer becomes ill, is now a commitment that goes beyond that necessity.
“It’s actually about general health and wellness for our performers,” Shah said. “It’s an incredible amount of pressure to feel like, if you don’t feel good one day, for any reason, that you are a reason the show possibly might not happen.”
For “Beauty and the Beast,” Griffin said they not only had substitutes ready for their actors, but also for the production’s stage management, crew and other areas throughout the technical side of the production. Griffin acknowledged that there’s certainly a financial impact to adding these additional people to a production, but said it was more important to focus on the safety of the people in the company.
Sound’s Thuman has also made the decision to add two understudies to her upcoming production, each covering multiple roles, but noted that the cost has played a part into how the organization will utilize them. For example, she’s not requiring the understudies to completely memorize their lines. Thuman said Sound simply doesn’t have the resources to pay each understudy for the dedicated time they would need to do that. Still, having them go on stage with a script in hand would be better than having no performance at all.
Book-It’s Menary said the company will have understudies for “Mrs. Caliban,” which opens later this month. Though Book-It hasn’t produced in-person under COVID yet, Menary said he saw how other organizations were attempting to produce, and the problems they faced, and didn’t see any other choice but to move forward with understudies. As a result, Menary said, the organization has moved away from their previous large casts, shrinking cast size in order to reallocate those funds to areas like hiring understudies and instituting more hygienic processes. The additional costs are a challenge, one that Menary hopes an increase in future giving to Book-It can help cover, but he noted that these additions and understudies are crucial and might just save them if something were to go wrong.
“If someone is taken out for even a little bit of time,” Menary said, “they miss a whole chunk of either the process or performances. It can be financially disastrous. So we put safeguards into place on that.”
The digital future
One of the more beneficial developments in the theater realm during the pandemic has been the increase in shows being produced for streaming or recorded so audiences could view theater from their homes. The addition opened new doors to accessibility for those who either can’t physically make it to the theater or who, due to the pandemic, didn’t feel safe doing so.
Despite a hiccup last year that saw Sound Theatre Company canceling its production of “The Madwoman of Chaillot” because the licensing agency failed to secure the streaming rights from the author’s estate before granting Sound the right to produce an online version, Thuman said the company is committed to keeping digital in their stable: “It feels almost weird to completely eliminate digital now.”
A month after Sound’s production of “Gaslight” concludes, it will stream for 10 days, and Thuman said that Sound had secured the streaming rights for a to-be-announced fall main stage show. Though Sound has budgeted for this streaming addition, Thuman noted that it’s not a “professional” budget and the company is relying on some volunteer help to make “Gaslight” happen. They’re still figuring out the cost of being able to continue this into the future, taking into consideration both their “radical hospitality” mindset that sees ticket prices as low as $5 and the reality that many patrons won’t want to pay the same amount to view something digitally as they would to see it in person.
The potential additional cost of producing digitally, and the uncertainty around how much it would bring in, alongside the tension between theater’s Actors’ Equity Association and film and television’s Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists unions about whose realm these digital productions belong in long term, still has some a bit skittish to fully dive in. Though ACT streamed a digital version of its production of “Hotter Than Egypt,” Shah said they’re still exploring what the future might hold.
Book-It’s Menary said the company intends to keep an audio element during its hybrid season while it transitions to in-person productions.
Though Intiman artistic director Jennifer Zeyl said they see audiences largely ready to get back into the theater, Intiman also sold several hundred tickets to a filmed version of “The Mystery of Irma Vep” — a two-person show produced to reduce the variables at play during the pandemic — during the final week of its in-person run. As Intiman nears its next production, Leah Nanako Winkler’s “Two Mile Hollow” in April, Zeyl reemphasized the idea that, in addition to continuing to provide digital options, allowing people a safe way to experience theater includes continuing to wear masks.
“I don’t know that everybody’s ever going to feel safe sitting next to strangers in an enclosed space for a period of time without masks,” said Zeyl, who is immunosuppressed. “One thing that’s going to be incredibly important is normalizing mask wearing. If someone is in a different risk category, they should not be ostracized for protecting their health and the health of people that they’re in a household with. There are tons and tons of medically fragile and invisible disabilities around us all the time.”