On Thursday afternoon, a camera crew from “CBS Sunday Morning’’ showed up in downtown Pittsfield to film workers as they removed seats from Barrington Stage Company’s Boyd-Quinson Mainstage.
Ordinarily, that would not be an event worthy of a TV network’s attention, but these, of course, are not ordinary times.
The COVID-19 pandemic has made the prospect of a fall theater season increasingly uncertain, and yet here is Barrington Stage, preparing to go ahead with several shows this summer. To make social distancing possible, the seating capacity of the Mainstage was reduced from 520 to about 160.
Precious few other theaters are venturing into productions before Labor Day, especially indoors. But Barrington Stage artistic director Julianne Boyd insists that audiences are hungry for live performance, and she is determined to give it to them, accompanied by a welter of stringent safety protocols.
“You know what? The community is excited about it,’’ she told me Wednesday. “With nothing happening at Tanglewood, at Jacob’s Pillow — we still have a community that loves the arts. We’ve had such a tremendous response to our [upcoming] shows. People really want to get out, they want to do something, they want to stop the self-isolating and go to a place that’s safe and responsible.’’
Another prominent Pittsfield-based troupe, Berkshire Theatre Group, is also planning a production in August, of “Godspell.’’ However, it is likely to be moved to an outdoor tent from the company’s Fitzpatrick Main Stage in Stockbridge, according to BTG artistic director Kate Maguire. A large question mark hangs over another BTG show scheduled for August, “They’re Playing Our Song.’’
“I’m using the word ‘hope’ more than I’ve ever used it,’’ Maguire said Thursday, speaking of the broader crisis facing theaters in the age of coronavirus. “I just don’t know what path this will go on. None of us do. It’s such a time of uncertainty.’’
Indeed, uncertainty abounds for theater-makers in the Berkshires, in Boston, and pretty much everywhere else. Governor Charlie Baker has not yet lifted his prohibition on gatherings of more than 10 people. “Arts and Entertainment’’ are classified as part of Phase 3 of Baker’s reopening plan, but no date is set for the start of that phase. Under the plan, gathering sizes are “to be determined based on trends’’ as the process of reopening unfolds.
Then there is Actors’ Equity Association, which represents more than 50,000 performers and stage managers nationwide. Equity has prohibited its members from live performances. Those members include, for example, Mark H. Dold, star of Barrington Stage’s planned August production of David Cale’s “Harry Clarke,’’ a one-man play to be directed by Boyd. This week Equity released four principles for “safe and healthy theater production.’’ Boyd said Thursday that she believes Barrington Stage’s plans meet all four, and she’s hoping for a green light from the union.
When we initially spoke Wednesday, Boyd seemed a bit puzzled that her decision to present a play in August had become such big news. “I don’t understand why,’’ she said. "I just did what I do: Find a way to do live theater. I don’t think of myself as an outlier. I became an outlier because no one else is doing it. I’m trying to find ways to do what matters to a lot of people. We’re going to be living with this for a long time.’’
The essential puzzle she is trying to solve, Boyd said, is: “How do you do theater in the middle of a pandemic?’’
Her answer: very, very carefully. But the bleak reality is that the specific nature of the shows Barrington Stage has planned and the extensive precautions it is taking only serve to underscore the monumental challenges theaters face as they look ahead to the all-important fall season, and beyond.
Talk to theater professionals, and many are doubtful there will be a fall season in the usual fashion, much as it pains them to say it.
“Most people are pretty sure that fall won’t look normal in any way,’’ Boston actor, director, and Front Porch Arts Collective artistic director Maurice Emmanuel Parent told me recently. “All signs point to no shows being produced in the fall in any type of traditional way.’’ Parent speculated that the recent spate of announcements of their fall seasons by theater companies have functioned as a kind of morale-boosting “imagination ride.’’
The picture is no brighter nationally. “Closing The Curtain On 2020’’ was the headline on a story in Monday’s New York Times that found that theater presenters and other performing arts leaders around the country do not expect to go ahead with their planned fall schedules. “I think 2020 is gone,’’ Anna D. Shapiro, artistic director of Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre Company, told the Times. In an interview this week with the Daily Beast, Charlotte St. Martin, president of the Broadway League, predicted Broadway will not reopen until January.
With apologies to Winston Churchill, what theater companies now face is a moral dilemma wrapped in a financial quandary inside a public-health crisis. With apologies to Joseph Heller, a grim equation is taking shape: COVID-19 equals “Catch-22.’’
For a business reliant on public gatherings in confined spaces for lengthy periods, all the choices are excruciating, every option rife with risk.
Canceling previously scheduled productions through the fall, as Stoneham’s Greater Boston Stage Company recently did, would be a financial body blow to an industry whose profit margins are slim to nonexistent even in good times. But that could well be what happens.
On the other hand, if theaters in Boston and elsewhere go ahead with their fall programming in the face of an expected second wave of the pandemic, and their patrons become ill, that would be a PR nightmare that could jeopardize not just their reputations but the relationships with audiences that are vital to any cultural organization.
And if theaters split the difference by opening shows but tightly limiting seating capacity, a la Barrington Stage? Well, then they might end up with the worst of both worlds: drastically reduced ticket revenues that don’t compensate for fixed production costs, and a diminished theater experience for actors and audiences alike.
Barrington Stage’s Boyd readily acknowledges that limiting seating capacity is not sustainable for the theater industry in the long term. “Is this a financial model that will last? No,’’ she said.
As noted, the first show Boyd has scheduled for August is a solo play, “Harry Clarke,’’ which avoids the issue of a crowded stage. As a one-act, it requires no intermission. Presenting two-act musicals or dramas with large casts, especially indoors, will obviously be a different matter altogether.
The other productions Boyd has planned for August tacitly acknowledge that. There will be a concert version of “South Pacific’’ at an outdoor venue in Pittsfield. (A full production of “South Pacific’’ was originally scheduled for the Mainstage; it will be presented next season.) Singers Marilyn Maye and Ann Hampton Callaway are slated to star in separate performances at the Mainstage in August.
“We picked these shows very specifically,’’ said Boyd. “This is not a dart-against-the-wall thing.’’ She had already postponed until next year numerous other productions that had been scheduled for this summer, including Richard Greenberg’s “The Assembled Parties,’’ Lauren Yee’s “The Great Leap,’’ Nilo Cruz’s “Anna in the Tropics,’’ Joseph Dougherty’s “Chester Bailey,’’ the world-premiere musical “A Crossing’’ (co-conceived by Joshua Bergasse and Mark St. Germain), and a world-premiere musical by the Youth Theatre titled “The Supadupa Kid.’’
According to Boyd, ticket sales for the remaining lineup have been strong. Other artistic directors have contacted her to get information about the steps Barrington Stage is taking this summer. Audience members will be required to wear masks; their temperatures will be taken at the door; there will be multiple entrances to avoid crowding; actors will be no closer than 15 feet from the front row; and seats and bathrooms will be disinfected after each show. Another thing: Before each performance, Boyd will tell audiences “the rules of the game,’’ and one of those rules will be that anyone who coughs multiple times will be escorted out, “for everyone’s safety,’’ and receive a ticket refund.
“I think we’re taking every precaution that we possibly can,’’ she said. And if there is a second wave of the pandemic, as many health experts have predicted? “If there’s a second wave, we’re going to do whatever is responsible,’’ replied Boyd. “We’re not doing this come hell or high water.’’
Her goal is to also forge ahead with her fall schedule. In early September the Mainstage will host a staged reading of St. Germain’s solo play, “Eleanor,’’ starring Harriet Harris as Eleanor Roosevelt, as well as its New Play Festival. Then, in October, comes a production of Arthur Miller’s “The Price,’’ also on the Mainstage.
Boyd hopes her decision to produce shows in the teeth of the pandemic will start a conversation among theater-makers, who are — to borrow a phrase much-used of late — all in this together.
“Maybe we’ll all get together and figure out how to do this,’’ she said. “That would be wonderful. We all can’t be dark for a year.’’