The plaintive question actress Jennifer Garner asked Dr. Anthony Fauci recently on Instagram Live echoed one that countless theater lovers have been asking for six months now: “When are we going to be able to sit in a theater and watch our favorite performers up on stage again?”
Well, answers began to issue forth this week from Boston-area theaters, and they are not the kind that will gladden any playgoer’s heart.
On Thursday afternoon, one of the most prominent theater organizations in Boston, ArtsEmerson, which presents shows at the Paramount Center and the Cutler Majestic Theatre, announced there will be no indoor live performances at those storied venues through June 2021. Providence’s Trinity Repertory Company, among the best-known regional theaters in the country, went even further, saying Thursday it will not produce indoor performances until September 2021.
Josiah A. Spaulding Jr., president and CEO of the Boch Center, which programs the Wang and Shubert theaters, said by e-mail: “Although we have shows booked for Jan, Feb, March, April, May, June, July and August we are thinking Sept 2021 – Maybe??” At Stoneham’s Greater Boston Stage Company, artistic director Weylin Symes said by e-mail that “the possibility of a fall surge and the realities of when a vaccine might arrive and how effective it may or may not be, have made us aware for quite some time that it is possible we may not return to traditional producing until the fall of 2021 (or later).”
Worst-case scenarios are steadily turning into reality: Most of the 20 Boston-area theater companies surveyed by the Globe said they do not envision a return to indoor live performance before March at the earliest, due to the coronavirus.
Many of them are ramping up efforts to maintain relationships with their audiences through a variety of means: online play readings or performances; outdoor “walking plays"; original audio dramas. But playhouses remaining dark that long will mean economic pain for the theater workers who have been furloughed, for those hoping to remain employed after many of their colleagues were laid off, and for the restaurants and other businesses that depend on theater-generated revenue.
In an interview Wednesday, ArtsEmerson artistic director David Dower framed the decision to suspend live performance and focus on the organization’s digital platform as an attempt to combat the ongoing uncertainty. “We were in suspended animation,” Dower said. “We wanted to know our fate.”
An elusive goal, that. Last month, in response to an uptick in coronavirus cases, Governor Charlie Baker indefinitely postponed the second step of Phase 3 of the state’s reopening plan, which would have allowed playhouses, concert halls, and other performance venues to stage indoor shows in front of live audiences. Then came remarks by Fauci and CDC director Robert Redfield that, taken together, signaled how long the road might be before daily life approaches a semblance of normality.
Fauci’s answer to Garner’s Instagram query reverberated through a theater world that has already been forced to continually reset expectations about when it might be safe to reopen. The nation’s most prominent expert on COVID-19 said it will require “a vaccine that has been around for almost a year and good public-health measures” for people to be able to “walk into a theater without a mask and feel like it’s comfortable that you’re not going to be at risk.” Fauci predicted that could be by mid- to late-2021.
He later told The New York Times it might be possible for indoor theaters to return sooner if audiences wear masks and are kept to 25 percent of seating capacity — a limit that would pose serious financial challenges for many theaters. Then, on Wednesday, came a fresh blow when Redfield told a Senate hearing that he didn’t expect a vaccine to be “fully available to the American public” until mid-2021 at the earliest.
“The calendar has gotten blurrier rather than clearer. Everything is up in the air right now,” lamented Matt Chapuran, executive director of Lyric Stage Company of Boston, one of the last holdouts in aiming to present shows in 2020 — plans that have been abandoned.
Added New Repertory Theatre artistic director Michael J. Bobbitt, who has scrapped plans to stage a musical in late November: “Without leadership in this country, with what’s happening on the college campuses — that’s going to make a huge new flareup — and the history we have with other infectious diseases, anyone who thinks we’ll be up and running sooner than later should rethink it. Everyone needs to start planning their future."
That has never been more challenging for theaters of any size. At Flat Earth Theatre, a fringe company, members won’t perform live theater "until there is an effective vaccine,” according to actress and director Juliet Bowler. When she and other Flat Earth members have conferred over Zoom in the past month about the prospects for reopening, a frequent refrain has been: “We think our shows are good. But we don’t think they’re worth dying for.”
At the large Huntington Theatre Company, director of public affairs Temple Gill described Fauci’s comments as “definitely sobering,” adding that the Huntington is sticking with its previously announced timetable, which involved rescheduling postponed shows to a point in time that, she said by e-mail, “might start as early as spring.” Erica Lynn Schwartz, general manager of the Emerson Colonial Theatre, said by e-mail Thursday: “At this time, we are at a bit of a stand-still until we have further guidelines from state and local officials. . . . We are hopeful for a return to indoor live events this Spring and are currently planning accordingly.”
Ann Sheehan, spokeswoman for Broadway In Boston, said: “We are monitoring the situation as an industry on a day-to-day basis and focused on bringing shows back to Boston with the health and safety of our audiences, performers, and staff in mind first and foremost. . . . We remain hopeful and steadfast about the return of Broadway in 2021.” Rebecca Curtiss, spokeswoman for Cambridge’s American Repertory Theater, said: “We continue to monitor the progressing science and to wait for state and local guidelines.”
Spokespersons for Cambridge’s Central Square Theater, Lowell’s Merrimack Repertory Theatre, and Boston’s Wheelock Family Theatre said they do not expect to resume live performance until March at the earliest, while a spokesman for Beverly’s North Shore Music Theatre said it is aiming for May. The small Company One Theatre is adhering to its plan to not resume live performance until July 2021, according to spokesman Tyler Prendergast. SpeakEasy Stage Company spokesman Jim Torres said the company will make an announcement Tuesday regarding shows scheduled for January and February.
To Sharman Altshuler, the producing artistic director of Boston’s Moonbox Productions, Fauci’s forecast “does make sense.” Indeed, Altshuler said, “If someone said to me, ‘When are people going to be able to go back to the theater the way we used to?,' I’d say the fall of 2021, maybe the spring of 2022.”
Discouraging though things seem, few others are yet ready to go that far. New Rep in Watertown still has a production of “Stupid [Expletive] Bird” scheduled for January, although Bobbitt made clear he is aware circumstances could change that. When asked what Lyric Stage’s first show will be in 2021, Chapuran answered: “I don’t know.”
But Chapuran — and pretty much every other theater leader in town — does know one thing for sure: “I don’t see us going straight from zero to a hundred, without some kind of stepping-up process.”