“We were going into the second week of Love’s Labour’s Lost when we had to cancel,” recalls Dane CT Leasure, artistic director at Rubber City Theatre – formerly the Rubber City Shakespeare Company – in Akron. “Before we shut down, we thought to offer a final live performance on Facebook by way of a phone at the back of the theater.
There were 12 friends and crew members in the house and Terry Teachout, the drama critic for the Wall Street Journal, happened to be watching on Facebook. Here is what he had to say on his arts journal blog “About Last Night:”
“How does a New York drama critic spend his Friday nights when Broadway’s theaters are closed up tight? I don’t know about my colleagues, but I curled up on the couch with my laptop last week and watched a live performance in Akron, Ohio, of Shakespeare’s Love’s Labour’s Lost.
Like most of America’s theater companies, Rubber City Theatre has since been shut down in the hope of containing the spread of the coronavirus, so it decided to live-stream via Facebook the final performance of its current production as a gesture of solidarity with everyone who knows how vital great art is in times of trial….
To be sure, the technical quality of the one-camera webcast was primitive—the picture was fuzzy and there was no ‘camerawork’ whatsoever. But that didn’t matter in the least: The play came through clearly, and that was all that mattered. Kelly Elliott’s modern- dress staging was satisfyingly simple and lively, and the handful of loyal audience members sprinkled throughout the company’s small auditorium were audibly pleased by the results. So was I, and I found myself asking as I watched: What am I getting out of this experience? Why am I so moved? Exactly what do masterpieces have to say to us at moments like these?
In Shakespeare’s case, the answer is easy enough. Even in a self-consciously artificial comedy like Love’s Labour’s Lost, there are moments of immediacy that reach across the centuries (and through the screen of your viewing device, whatever it may be) and make you sit bolt upright, stunned by their prescience. In my case, it was these lines spoken by Lord Berowne, one of King Ferdinand’s noble companions, that rang the bell of recognition: ‘To move wild laughter in the throat of death?/It cannot be; it is impossible:/Mirth cannot move a soul in agony.’ For of course it is possible, which explains why we most need the balm of comedy when the roof of the world seems to be crumbling over our heads.”
Not a bad way for Rubber City Theatre to go into hiatus.
Since 2015 – upon taking over as president and CEO of Karamu House, Inc., America’s oldest African American producing theater – Tony F. Sias has turned obstacles into opportunities.
But in light of the current pandemic, some tough decisions had to be made first. immediately cancelled what remained of its 2019-20 mainstage season, which included the regional premiere of Katori Hall’s Hoodoo Love and its production of Brian Yorkey and Tom Kitt’s Next to Normal. Forty-eight freelance artist contracts were annulled, though artists received compensation for the work that had been done to date. All educational programming on site was suspended and participants were notified. The popular and successful annual summer fundraiser, the Second Line Parade and Sneaker Ball, was cancelled as well.
On to the opportunities.
While seasonal and part-time employees were placed on furlough, Tony was able to retain 12 full-time employees to keep Karamu afloat by applying for and receiving a forgivable loan through the Paycheck Protection Program, which was established under the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act.
Karamu also used the inability to offer its arts education programs at its facility as a chance to develop and start up online programs that are sustainable and will be integrated into the curriculum once the crisis has passed.
Karamu had already named its “Room in the House” recipients for spring 2020. This artist-in-residency program is funded through a Cuyahoga Arts & Culture grant and is designed to help artists be more empowered and independent by offering a stipend, technical support, professional development and a physical workspace within the Karamu House facility. Rather than cancel the program, Tony and his staff arranged for the residency to proceed in a remote, virtual environment so that Karamu still has an opportunity to work with these talented individuals – Kaylene Abernathy, a digital illustration artist; Moises Borges De Freitas, a native of Salvador, Brazil, who celebrates his African heritage and culture through music and movement; Jacoby DuBose, a film, music and stage artist; and Gary Galbreath, a piano professional with a passion for educating youth – even during this unprecedented COVID19 pandemic.
“We are a celebrated, historical, legendary organization,” adds Tony. “As such, we have always asked ourselves ‘how do we not just survive but thrive?’ And the answer has always been and continues to be innovation and resourcefulness.”
For a message from Tony Sias, go to: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3QzxO4URne0&feature=youtu.be
Charlie Fee holds a unique position in the American theater scene. He is the producing artistic director of three independently operated, professional theater companies – Great Lakes Theater in Cleveland, Idaho Shakespeare Festival in Boise, Idaho, and Lake Tahoe Shakespeare Festival in Lake Tahoe, Nevada – that have created an innovative production-sharing alliance.
“Unlike co-producing models, our collaboration creates year-round opportunities for our artists and our production staffs by extending contracts across all three cities,” says Charlie. “In other words, we create all of the work seen in our three cities.”
And then came the pandemic. “We were in the second week of rehearsal for Much Ado About Nothing,” which was to open in Cleveland in March, move to Boise in May and then on to Tahoe in July, “and, early on, it was a continuously changing environment with constantly evolving information about the virus and compliance guidelines.”
When the directive came from Ohio Governor Mike DeWine to shut down operations, the acting company was on a mid-day rehearsal break and Charlie was in a production meeting with the various heads of production, stage management and design. “We went back to rehearsal knowing that it was over, that the show was done, but we couldn’t just leave each other. We decided to run the show, invite the whole company to watch it, and capture it on an iPhone for an archival record.” And then he cancelled the show in Boise and then in Tahoe as the possibility of a production kept evaporating. “It’s tough telling the same group of people, three times, that we are shutting down their show.”
The remainder of the Great Lakes 2019-2020 season, which ends in May, has been cancelled, but there is still the prospect of opening shows in Boise and Tahoe in the summer even though timelines are constantly shifting. “It is a long shot,” admits Charlie. “The Oregon Shakespeare Festival, a neighbor, has shut down entirely. But the Utah Shakespeare Festival, another neighbor, has announced that it is opening in July, but to do so they are planning on rehearsing in an isolated, quarantined location. We’ll see how that goes.”
And if theaters are allowed to open under new protocols, asks Charlie, what will their new productions look like? “Are musicals more dangerous than straight plays because singers project two or three times the distance as speakers? How far apart must musicians be in an orchestra pit? What will be the required distancing in rehearsal and on stage? Can actors kiss? Fight? And we live on ticket sales. Will people show up?”
With the added complexity of managing three theaters comes added opportunities. “I don’t see smaller union theaters opening anytime soon. Fortunately, we are in a stronger position to sit and wait and see.”
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