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Pandemic delivers a major blow to Boston’s fall theater season

Huntington announces layoffs and scraps plans for 2020 while SpeakEasy and New Rep postpone productions

Peter DuBois, artistic director of the Huntington Theatre Company, says the theater “remains committed to producing all the plays'' that had been scheduled for the 2020-2021 season. But the Huntington could not say when productions would start up again.
Peter DuBois, artistic director of the Huntington Theatre Company, says the theater “remains committed to producing all the plays'' that had been scheduled for the 2020-2021 season. But the Huntington could not say when productions would start up again.David L. Ryan/GLOBE STAFF/file 2016

COVID-19 delivered a succession of major blows to Boston’s fall theater season this week, as three leading companies announced lengthy postponements of performances and other drastic steps because of the pandemic.

Huntington Theatre Company is canceling in-person performances for the rest of 2020 and expects to reduce its operating budget by roughly 50 percent, lay off or furlough two-thirds of its staff starting July 1, and impose salary reductions on remaining employees.

Significantly, the Huntington, winner of the 2013 Tony Award for outstanding regional theater, did not list dates when productions would start up again. Instead, citing “the uncertainties of the coming year,” the company’s Wednesday announcement said only that performances “may resume as early as next spring.” The postponed fall productions include Oscar Wilde’s “An Ideal Husband,” which was to feature “Ally McBeal” star Calista Flockhart.

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Meanwhile, Watertown’s New Repertory Theatre said it will push back the start of its season to the end of November and now faces projected losses of more than $500,000, nearly one-third of its annual operating budget. “We will need our community’s help now more than ever to make it through this,” New Rep artistic director Michael J. Bobbitt said in a statement.

A planned production of Tony Kushner’s “Angels in America: Millennium Approaches” has been postponed until fall 2021, and “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill” has been delayed to unspecified dates in 2021. New Rep’s current plan is to begin its 2020-2021 season on Nov. 29 with “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.”

Boston’s SpeakEasy Stage Company, which was preparing to celebrate its 30th anniversary season, announced it will postpone all performances until January 2021. A much-anticipated production of Jeremy O. Harris’s “Slave Play” will be moved to fall 2021.

The bad news this week was not unexpected. Along with other theaters, the Huntington, SpeakEasy, and New Rep already had absorbed a substantial financial hit after their spring seasons were cut short in March by the pandemic. Theaters are being forced to make decisions now on their fall seasons because rehearsal and design processes need to begin well in advance of opening night.

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The trio are not the first Boston-area theater companies to scuttle or delay their fall productions because of the coronavirus — ArtsEmerson and Greater Boston Stage Company have taken similar steps — and they will almost certainly not be the last. Some companies are going even further: Last week, Yale Repertory Theatre, one of the leading regional theaters in the country for more than half a century, closed the curtain on its entire season.

The cancellations come amid growing concerns over the continuing strength of the COVID-19 pandemic and predictions by experts of a second wave in the fall. More than half of the United States has experienced an uptick in cases recently as states began to ease lockdown restrictions in hopes of restarting their economies. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there are 2.3 million confirmed COVID-19 cases in the United States, and the death toll now exceeds 120,000.

As the unprecedented public-health crisis lingers, theaters face a particular dilemma because the essence of their business is to pack the house for live performances in confined spaces for protracted periods. Moreover, the audiences crowded together in playhouses are often older theater-goers at increased risk from the coronavirus.

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Before the pandemic hit, the Huntington had been poised for the earliest start to a season in its 38-year history, with a production of Heidi Schreck’s “What the Constitution Means to Me” originally slated for July 28. Artistic director Peter DuBois said in a statement that the theater “remains committed to producing all the plays” that had been scheduled for the 2020-2021 subscription season. That would include the world premiere of “Common Ground Revisited,” Kirsten Greenidge’s adaptation of J. Anthony Lukas’s Pulitzer-winning book about the turmoil that accompanied court-ordered busing in Boston in the 1970s.

“Postponing our shows has been a difficult but necessary decision,” DuBois said. “We really miss seeing our artists and audiences, forging those connections, and creating theater together, and look forward to getting back to it as soon as it is safe.”

As for SpeakEasy, producing artistic director Paul Daigneault said in a statement that a production of “Once on This Island” will be moved to the spring of 2021 and will be co-produced by the Front Porch Arts Collective. The dates for SpeakEasy’s “People, Places and Things” (Jan. 8-Feb. 2021) “Bright Star” (Feb. 26-March 27, 2021) and “The Inheritance” (April 30-June 20, 2021) will remain the same.

Vowing that “SpeakEasy will be back,” Daigneault said: “Although the times remain uncertain, and the guidelines and protocols for re-opening are still being developed, we remain committed to welcoming you back to our theater this season.”



Don Aucoin can be reached at donald.aucoin@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeAucoin.