The Brookings Institution recently reported that the performing arts have been the most at risk and the hardest hit by the COVID-19 crisis of all the creative arts industries. It was estimated that, nationwide, almost 1.4 million jobs and $42.5 billion in sales have been lost to date.
Like so many other theaters, the Ohio Shakespeare Festival closed its doors in March. Says company member Tess Burgler, “we were smackdab in the middle of our run of ‘Saint Joan,’ were about to start rehearsals for ‘Miss Holmes’ and had just announced our next indoor season at Greystone Hall. And then it was gone.” Also cancelled was the company’s summer outdoor season productions of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and “Othello.”
But rather than wait out COVID-19 or venture into virtual productions to be seen online, the OSF staged 16 live performances of Adam Long, Daniel Singer, and Jess Winfield‘s comedy “The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (abridged) [revised].” The show, which parodies bits and pieces of all of the Bard’s 37 plays in just 97 mad-cap minutes, ran from July 17 – Aug. 9 to sold-out audiences.
How was this accomplished?
They chose a play with a small cast (Ryan Zarecki, James Rankin and Natalie Steen) and already in their back pocket, having staged “The Complete Works…” four times over the past three years.
“Abridged” and “revised” appear in the play’s title in acknowledgement of the show’s treatment of the source material, but the authors allowed the OSF to also cut out the intermission so to limit audience interaction and eliminate most of the sound and lighting elements so to minimize the size of the production crew (Burgler served as director and stage manager).
The show was performed outdoors on secured private property – the Lagoon area of Stan Hywet Hall & Gardens – with the approval of the Summit County Health Commissioner and the taking of every imaginable safety precaution. “We needed a large outdoor space,” says artistic director Nancy Cates, “so that we could create 6-foot squares around every seat” and there needed to be enough seats to make the enterprise financially feasible. Sales were limited to 70 patrons, which was 25 percent of a typical house under normal circumstances.
And following the National Basketball Association’s protocol, the cast and crew lived together in a quarantined “bubble” during the weeks prior to rehearsal and until the final performance.
While hardly a sustainable or replicable formula, live theater has returned – at least for a short time – to Northeast Ohio.
On Thursday, March 12, director Scott Spence and his four-member cast for Steve Martin’s comedy “Meteor Showers” were two and a half weeks into rehearsals with two and a half weeks to go before opening. The set was 80% built and other facets of the show’s design were rapidly moving forward.
The Beck Center for the Arts’ next big mainstage musical, the Tony Award-winning “Something Rotten,” was fully cast and open calls for its next production in the small Studio Theatre, Ayad Akhtar's Pulitzer Prize-winning play “Disgraced,” had just been completed.
“That was when Ohio Governor Mike DeWine announced limitations on public gatherings,” says Spence, who is also Beck’s artistic director,” and everyone had a sense that things would get worse before they got better.” So it was decided among the actors, designers and administrators that “Meteor Showers” would be postponed. “And though we are seriously looking at recapturing titles from this season for next season,” adds Spence, “until we hear more from the Governor and better understand what else is going on in the near future, we will sit tight and lick our wounds.”
Sitting tight is not really in Spence’s nature, so he is busy figuring out the prospect of social distancing in his mainstage theater and devising seating charts that factor in 6-foot separation among patrons and the staggering of rows.
“The best case scenario is that we have 125-130 seats, about 25% occupancy, when people hungry for theater are ready to come back.”
So the question becomes how does a theater whose brand and business model revolves around sizable musicals pare down costs and still maintain its standard of quality and new guidelines for safety? “We just don’t know yet,” says Spence, who is also balancing the arts education arm of the Beck Center, “but it is certainly something we are constantly working on.”
Photo: Nick Drake (from left), Greg Violand, Charles Mayhew Miller and the ensemble in the 2020 production of “The Scottsboro Boys”
Photo / Roger Mastrioanni
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