Sixteen months after it was first erected, a replica of the most famous balcony in theatrical history remains ready for its Juliet.
When the pandemic hit in March 2020 and theaters suddenly shut down, the Quannapowitt Players of Reading were two weeks away from staging Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet.”
“The set was 90 percent built, including the balcony,” said Mark Baumhardt, the group’s president.
Director Donna Corbett and the cast stayed in touch, even getting the chance to do some outdoor rehearsing – including choreographing a swordfight – last summer next to a pool owned by a member of the group.
Scheduling conflicts have also pushed it back again. Now, as theaters reopen to live audiences, the long-delayed “Romeo and Juliet” will be part of the troupe’s 85th season when it finally opens on Nov. 3.
A recent survey of the websites of the 45 members of the Eastern Massachusetts Association of Community Theatres (EMACT) showed that more than half have already planned live productions for this summer and fall.
EMACT President Ken Fisher said the pandemic has indeed taken its toll, putting many organizations in severe financial straits, fraying the bonds between the theaters and their communities, and getting people out of the habit of going to the theater, period.
“People struggled on a personal level and they didn’t have that outlet of theater,” said Fisher. “The connection between these groups and their audiences is as much about community as it is about theater.”
Fisher said that when the shock of the sudden closings started to wear off, every troupe faced the same questions: What can we do that’s safe? How quickly can we deliver on the “best practices” required by COVID-19 protocols?
Technology and ingenuity came to the rescue.
The Concord Players, established in 1919 in a town that traces its theatrical history all the way back to “Little Women” author Louisa May Alcott in 1857, were partly through the celebration of their 100th anniversary season when the lights went out. The production of “Steel Magnolias” that was to have opened when the pandemic hit will now open on Sept. 3.
The troupe quickly pivoted and took advantage of both technology and talented people such as former TV director David Atwood, who used three cameras and multiple angles last September to film a 90-minute production of Shakespeare’s “As You Like It” inside an empty theater, observing strict COVID-19 protocols.
The show was scrubbed from its usual summer location on the lawn of the Concord Free Public Library. A live production of “As You Like It” will open a run on the library lawn on July 24, marking the group’s return to live performances.
The streaming works aired on platforms such as YouTube and Minuteman Media Network, the most recent a production of the comedy musical “I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change” in May.
“It was a great way to keep our 700 subscribers and core group of 30 volunteers engaged,” said Jay Newlon, the troupe’s president.
Companies performed plays over Zoom, plays filmed onstage without an audience, and past works of their own that had been filmed.
And then there were outside-the-box ideas such as “the parking lot plays,” a series of five plays which the Quannapowitt Players staged last summer and fall, as theater-goers watched from inside socially-distanced painted pods outside the theater, a former two-room schoolhouse that dates back to 1853.
“We required masks and we even took other precautions such as allowing only one person in the bathroom at a time,” said Baumhardt.
The mission throughout: finding places of connection between the theaters and their audiences.
EMACT is conducting a formal survey of its members on two important issues: diversity, equity, and inclusion in its member organizations and the impact of the pandemic on theaters.
EMACT invited its members to participate in two recent workshops with Michael J. Bobbitt, executive director of the Massachusetts Cultural Council. Bobbitt, who is Black, has spoken extensively to performing arts groups around the state on the need for diversity and inclusion, not only onstage and backstage, but also on the boards of directors that make critical decisions on hiring and policies.
“We have much work to do to create a truly equitable community theatre space that is welcoming to all,” said Fisher in a message to his members.
One enthusiastic participant in the workshops was P.J. Terranova, the artistic and educational director of Riverside Theatre Works in the Hyde Park neighborhood of Boston, who has known Bobbitt since both were in a touring production of “Guys and Dolls.”
Terranova has made diversity and inclusion one of the centerpieces of his stewardship.
“Everything we do – including performing shows such as ‘Dreamgirls’ and ‘All Shook Up’ – is with an eye toward making sure we’re being inclusive and producing shows our audience can relate to,” said Terranova.
Terranova was heartened when Riverside returned to live performances in June with a production of the musical “The Drowsy Chaperone” by members of its educational component, The School at Riverside.
“The school never stopped,” said Terranova. “We kept pivoting, with virtual lessons, smaller in-person lessons with masks, and virtual cabaret shows on the mainstage as fundraisers. We were determined to thrive.”
Another good-news story of survival is a theater that combines two familiar New England theatrical genres: the barn playhouse and summer stock theater.
The Priscilla Beach Theatre in Plymouth, which gets cool summer breezes from the Atlantic Ocean a block away, is a barn playhouse that did indeed house livestock before it became a theater in 1937.
The theater has been home to a summer stock season every year since then with the notable exception of 2020 and will reopen on Aug. 6 with “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.”
Owner Bob Malone is a self-described “neighborhood kid who hung around the theater growing up” who bought the theater when the previous owner ran into financial problems.
The troupe performed under tents for two years while the theater was being repaired and rebuilt before reopening in 2015.
Malone has made his theater a training ground for young talent and each winter holds auditions in New York City for college students and recent grads who live in dorms on the theater’s property for the summer season.
And while the theater may no longer use talent from the community, the connection with the audience is still strong.
“The community around us is our lifeblood,” he said. “Even through the pandemic, people were reaching out to us.”
Malone was concerned that people might not come back quickly, but interest shown to date has convinced him “we’re going back to full houses right away. There’s definitely pent-up demand.”
And while optimism is the order of the day, Fisher said the final tally on the toll the pandemic took on his member theaters isn’t yet in and awaits the results of his survey.
“Some theaters are still on the precipice and that tale is yet to be told,” he said. “But I feel the patrons of community theater will make it their mission to help bring the theaters back, just like people are bringing the restaurants back.
“These are communities of people who will choose to be together again.”
Rich Fahey can be reached at email@example.com