What Are Theatremakers Doing to Present Safe Productions?

Special Features   What Are Theatremakers Doing to Present Safe Productions?
 
A look at an Equity-approved musical, an immersive experiment, and an amateur teen show.
Nicholas Edwards and cast of <i>Godspell</i>
Nicholas Edwards and cast of Godspell Emma K. Rothenberg-Ware

Six months into the COVID era, there are already multiple approaches to putting on a show without endangering performers, crew, or audiences.

A production of Godspell in New England adhered to strict Equity guidelines by submitting detailed health and safety plans. Elsewhere, Broadway artists—led by Tony-nominated director Michael Arden—went upstate to experiment with a variety of production techniques. And in the Bronx, teens at a JCC presented Rent: School Edition.

Here’s how theatre is evolving in this pandemic, proving that the show can—and will—go on.

Equity’s First Approved Musical From the Eyes of Its Choreographer
Prior to March 13, choreographer Gerry McIntyre had five jobs lined up for the summer 2020 theatre festival season. When the pandemic hit, he lost all but one: Godspell at Berkshire Theatre Group (which ended its extended run September 20) in Pittsfield, Massachusetts.

Spamilton Arrivals 19 HR.jpg
Gerry McIntyre Joseph Marzullo/WENN

Without hesitation, McIntyre stayed on the team, but there were several hurdles to making sure this production could actually open. It required approval from a number of agencies, all of which were working independently from each other.

“It started with a no from Equity, then a maybe; then a no from Massachusetts, and then on a Friday, the Governor [Charlie Baker] said yes; and on Monday, my union said no because they didn’t feel it was safe for me, then Wednesday they said yes; and I left Sunday and had two weeks to get the show up.”

So what exactly does Godspell look like in the middle of the pandemic?

“I felt like I won a booby prize,” says McIntyre. “All my friends were so excited for me and then when I told them about restrictions they said, ‘Oh good luck.’” Among the restrictions were no physical touching at all—no kissing, no lifts, nothing.

in <i>Godspell</i>
Nicholas Edwards in Godspell Emma K. Rothenberg-Ware

While quarantining with the cast and crew for two weeks, the choreographer set to work adapting to a number of changes, including plexiglass, masks, and limited movement. The first thing McIntyre did was establish a homebase on stage for each performer. “It’s always the same water bottle, towel, and tambourine, and it never changes,” he says.

Next, McIntyre started thinking about the songs individually. According to director Alan Filderman, this production of Godspell is set right in the middle of the pandemic. “So I have an idea to make ‘All For The Best’ a complete commentary on our world today,” the choreographer says. “It has sanitizer, powder, wipes gloves, straw hats, and a measuring stick instead of a cane for the vaudeville number.”

Once the show was planned out, rehearsals began. Actors had to be six feet apart when speaking, 10 feet when singing, and if they moved from their homebase, they had to be masked without singing or speaking. There were several instances throughout where an on-site Equity stage manager would tell McIntyre couldn’t do something and then had to readjust. “I called it ‘choreography with a condom,’” he says.

in <i>Godspell</i>
Najah Hetsberger in Godspell Emma K. Rothenberg-Ware

All of the props had to be sanitized by the stage manager and no one else could touch them (aside from the assigned performer). And in the vaudeville section of “All For the Best,” no one could look at each other—they had to face out the entire time to avoid contaminating one another with sweat or saliva droplets.

The adjustments were not easy, with several cast members losing their patience at one point or another. “I completely supported them,” says McIntyre. “But the horrible part is I couldn't comfort them. Usually I would put a hand on their shoulder for support, and with this new normal that’s not allowed. I had to wear gloves and a mask to write down my notes on a notecard. The opening was spectacular, but I couldn’t go backstage and thank my cast who worked so hard for this to happen—I had to email them.”

It was all worth it, however, when Godspell opened August 7. Audiences—and critics—loved the show. “The sound of the applause and the love the audience gave made this crazy journey worth it” he adds.

As the production wrapped in the Berkshires, McIntyre hopes a template emerges for what is possible with live theatre in this new era of performance.

PHOTOS: Check Out Photos of the Berkshire Theatre Group's Outdoor Production of Godspell

A Group of Broadway Artists Search for a Safe Path Forward
In upstate New York this June, Michael Arden led a group of artists—including Tony winner Nikki M. James, Krysta Rodriguez, Claybourne Elder, and Andy Mientus—as they put on American Dream Study, a three-part, invite-only immersive production that experimented with form as they sought a path for how theatre can move forward safely.

Michael Arden
Michael Arden Emilio Madrid

Under the banner Forest of Arden, the director got to work just a few weeks after the shutdown in April. A total of 33 artists started meeting on Zoom once a week to throw out ideas both for content and safety measures.

“It felt like we were writing our constitution and bill of rights,” says Arden. “It was a very democratic process”

Stage manager Justin Scribner says the Zoom calls helped technical troubleshooting in advance, but also served as a form of group therapy and a think tank. “We were able to safely get to know one another and build community together while processing the pandemic, the theatre shutdown, police brutality, the BLM movement,” he says.

The piece itself eventually evolved into an invitation from the Institute of Sleep and one in which audiences would take part in a dream study, using their smartphone device with video, and then individually in cars. Inspired by the Catskills Mountain folklore, Arden said they “wanted to make a piece about the American dream, Rip Van Winkle, and our own dreams; about a country that has been asleep to its own problems.”

The staging had three settings for both the audience and performers, with the goal being to try as many set-ups as possible. The first was an interactive walking adventure where people encountered stories in the wild, using a smartphone visual audio experience. There were 16 scenes, dances, and monologues, all using soundscapes taken from rehearsals.

Leigh-Ann Esty and Sara Esty in <i>American Dream Study</i>
Leigh-Ann Esty and Sara Esty in American Dream Study c/o @michaelarden

One vignette featured Cathy Ang on a boat in the middle of a lake where audiences could see her move from a distance in sync with audio. “The technology was really, really successful,” said Arden. “There’d be a whisper in their ear, and it felt closer than regular. It felt really personal in a way. Some of my favorite mentors have said distance often equals intimacy on stage.”

Next up, was a drive-in production, with audiences sitting in cars listening to FM radio. Performers wore masks on a stage as the pre-recorded dialogue came through the speakers.

Finally, a third performance took place on a field, with no technology at all. “It was just a gift, a way to reconnect to nature,” said Arden. For the final section, audiences watched the cast make an entrance from a mile away, coming down from the mountains. Then, standing around a fire, groups stood next to a torch (serving as a light and a space divider) as the story concluded, with everyone wearing masks and standing 15-20 feet apart.

For the performers, it was a bonding experience. “We were all in,” said Scribner. "Everyone agreed to get tested and self-quarantine for the weeks leading up to our rehearsals. The company wore masks until everyone had received a negative test result back, and then stayed within their pod." Not everything was smooth sailing, though. “For the performers, dancing and singing in our first rehearsals was somewhat challenging with face masks on,” adds Scribner.

Michael Arden
Michael Arden Emilio Madrid

Arden said the success of the production means Forest of Arden will likely try another experiment next year. “ None of us want to go back to the way things were before, we want to go forward with equitable art that considers service as much as it does performance. We want to enrich the communities and the audiences and think of art as not only commerce and service.”

Teens Put on Rent: School Edition in the Bronx
Shortly before the pandemic hit, performing arts teens at the Riverdale Y in the Bronx were getting ready to launch a production of Rent: School Edition. Four months later, the Director of Performing Arts Laurie Walton found a way to make it happen after New York Governor Cuomo gave the go-ahead for summer camps.

“To be honest, I wasn't comfortable,” said Walton. “I just felt determined to find a way to do this for the kids.”

The company of <i>Rent: School Edition</i>
The company of Rent: School Edition c/o Riverdale Y

To get started, rehearsals focused on mask safety and getting used to new physical spacing. “We couldn’t hear each other clearly for a while but it was interesting how we quickly adapted to the sound coming through the masks,” said the director. No touching was allowed, so each cast member had their own space. So for numbers like “Tango: Maureen,” the performers stood apart while doing the same choreography.

Despite some initial misgivings—the teens seemed “shell-shocked” in the first rehearsal, according to Walton—the performers were able to get creative with the new normal. For example, the two senior boys playing Mark and Roger were supposed to be up on the top scaffolding during a scene, but without a stage, they grabbed some metal chairs and stood on them to create levels.

The company of <i>Rent: School Edition</i>
The company of Rent: School Edition c/o Riverdale Y

Another necessary adaptation was the audience seating. “We were going to use a three-quarters thrust but found the sound was better if we put the performance area in the very back,” said Walton.“We were only able to seat 25 on the deck [instead of the usual 250] and we seated people in the parking lot below with obstructed views and speakers so they could at least hear the show. Once the kids were performing, it seemed to not matter, though.”

Walton was stringent with safety guidelines. “I felt the weight of the world as I worried about the kids and their families throughout the process, but I was right there to keep nagging them to step away, tighten their masks, and look out, instead of at each other, when they were singing.” In the end, she said, the show went off without a hitch.

The audience reaction was stunning for Walton. “They seemed profoundly moved by the experience of seeing their kids so joyous, even with masks on, in being given the opportunity to do something they love, after months of isolation and fear.”

The company of <i>Rent: School Edition</i>
The company of Rent: School Edition c/o Riverdale Y

That fear existed within Walton’s family—who demanded to know why she had to be the “first kid on the block” to go back to the theatre. Let someone else do it to make sure everyone stays safe, they said. “I am thrilled that after 20 years at the helm of this program, it truly was the first time that I, too, felt fearless and very brave.”

After the success of Rent: School Edition, Walton is planning at least two fall productions with what she calls her “Rising Stars.” First up is Schoolhouse Rock, JR. with outdoor performances at the end of October. Then in mid-to-late November is a teen version of the Elvis Presley jukebox musical All Shook Up.

The director plans to remain vigilant with safety guidelines and has already created contingency plans for inclement fall weather to rehearse virtually. “And as much as I feel those nerves coming back—it’s hard not to worry about everything and everyone—I am secretly just thrilled to get busy on a show once again!” she says.

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