At least for the time being, “The show must go on” is giving way to “Will the show go on?”
Welcome to the uncertain world of live performance. Again.
The local theater industry had just gotten back on its feet after a year-and-a-half-long shutdown because of the coronavirus pandemic. Then along came the highly contagious Omicron variant. And then, this week, the curtain began to rise on a spectacle no one wanted to see: cancellations.
“I don’t sense panic,’’ said Dawn M. Simmons, co-producing artistic director of the Front Porch Arts Collective, a Black theater company. “But I do sense that everybody’s Spidey sense is tingling.”
That got a bit louder Thursday when “The Christmas Revels,” a beloved holiday tradition at Sanders Theatre, announced it was canceling the show’s six post-Christmas performances.
It was another blow in a week that began with news that the American Repertory Theater had cut short the high-profile, Idina Menzel-starring “WILD: A Musical Becoming” at the Loeb Drama Center because of breakthrough infections in the vaccinated cast and crew. The Somerville Theatre, pointing to “the fast spread of the virus,” canceled remaining performances of “The Slutcracker,” which had been scheduled to run till the end of this month.
“We thought the vaccines were going to fix everything,” remarked Paul Melone, general manager and production manager at SpeakEasy Stage Company and president of New England Area Theatres, a trade association representing small and midsize nonprofit theaters. “But it seems it’s not a magic bullet. I’m not going to lie, it’s very disappointing because we were very grateful to get back to work.”
“There’s going to be more cancellations,” Melone predicted. “We’re going to have to learn to be more flexible.”
Added Michael Maso, managing director of Huntington Theatre Company: “Everyone in America is accepting a certain degree of unpredictability. Who has not had their holiday plans changed? We’re still not in control of this. The virus is. We just can’t let our guard down. That’s the important thing.”
But even with the theater industry’s guard up, breakthrough infections are occurring, suggesting that infections may be inevitable in a business where performers have to constantly speak or sing in one another’s faces onstage.
Preliminary findings from researchers indicate that Omicron may be less severe than previous variants, so the current surge may not prove to be a devastating blow in terms of public health. And of course the availability of vaccines and boosters represents a huge difference between the situation now and last year, when all of the performing arts went dark.
But at the moment, the pandemic continues, and the public mood is unsettled. Questions remain about the ultimate impact of Omicron. Officials are predicting a winter wave of new infections. On Wednesday, Massachusetts set a single-day record for new cases of COVID-19.
“The Omicron thing, it could be really big, it could be a mild annoyance,” observed Simmons. “There’s so much that we don’t know.”
Consequently, theater leaders are back in the grimly familiar position of not being sure that the productions they laboriously cast and rehearse will actually be presented on schedule.
Unlike on Broadway, a production’s run in a regional theater is usually no more than a few weeks, so losing a week’s worth of shows, or even a single performance, amounts to a significant financial hit.
The renewed uncertainty is occurring at a bad time for theater companies, not that there’s a good time. The burst of headlines and news alerts about Omicron may complicate their efforts not just to get through remaining December performances but to build marketing momentum for selling advance tickets to shows in the important, crowded months of January and February.
Many of those shows are slated to go into rehearsal after New Year’s Day. Simmons, for instance, is directing a production of “Young Nerds of Color” at Cambridge’s Central Square Theater that is scheduled to begin rehearsals on Jan. 11. At Boston’s Huntington Theatre Company, where performances of “Teenage Dick” are scheduled to run through Jan. 2, rehearsals are slated to begin next week for “The Bluest Eye.”
At SpeakEasy, which was already hiring more subs and understudies this season to enable performers to take a sick day or deal with child care, “still more understudies” are being hired for its next production, “People, Places & Things” (Jan. 7-Feb. 5), to guard against the possibility of “COVID-19 disruptions,” according to Melone.
Smaller companies, however, usually don’t have the resources to hire understudies. “When somebody gets sick, that’s canceling the show, and that’s a show you can’t get back,” noted Simmons.
Four months ago, audiences were welcomed back to live theater in Boston as long as they supplied proof of vaccination or a negative COVID test and wore masks throughout performances. But when it comes to some theater patrons, the mask requirement has been more honored in the breach than the observance, to borrow a phrase from a well-known playwright.
For example, at a Saturday matinee of “Cirque Dreams Holidaze” two weeks ago at the Shubert Theatre, numerous patrons had their masks down below their chins. The scene was similar earlier that week at “A Grinchley Christmas Carol,” by the Gold Dust Orphans. Half a dozen women in matching Santa Claus hats were entirely unmasked in front-row seats, very close to the singing and dancing performers.
As for “The Christmas Revels,” spokesman Alan Casso told the Globe Thursday that the company canceled performances scheduled for Dec. 26-29 not due to any COVID-19 cases but “because we don’t want to contribute to the general spread. … We feel it is right to be cautious as the holiday and boundless family gatherings approach.”
Scattered individual performances of other area shows across the performing arts have also been canceled in the past few weeks because of concerns over possible coronavirus exposure. On Broadway, meanwhile, “Jagged Little Pill” ended its run because of COVID-19 infections in the cast, and many other shows have scratched individual performances for the same reason.
Ilyse Robbins, director of Greater Boston Stage Company’s “All Is Calm: The Christmas Truce of 1914,” said she had to replace an actor one week into rehearsals because he needed to care for members of his family diagnosed with the coronavirus. Robbins has been on tenterhooks throughout the show’s run.
“Every day you wake up and look at your phone to see: Is someone a close contact? Is someone out? Are we having a show today? If we are, does it have to change?” she said.
When theater finally resumed after its protracted intermission, Robbins was so eager to get back to work that she has directed or choreographed five shows since August. After Thursday’s final performance of “All Is Calm,” she will take a break — and she cites the uncertainty posed by the continuing pandemic as the reason. “I am super grateful I am not doing any shows now,” she said.
The current winter anxiety is prompting nostalgic recollections about that heady period in late summer and early fall when theater professionals got back to the work they love.
“There was apprehension about getting started, but once we got in the [rehearsal] room, everybody felt great,” recalled Melone. “It felt like when you finally got to visit your family. That’s what it felt like, doing theater again.”
He maintained that the knowledge acquired about safety protocols can make theater a safe workplace. “Every theater professional I know who’s working in rehearsal right now knows about infection control,” said Melone. “It’s kind of astounding.”
As performing arts organizations try to cope with further COVID disruptions, Maso and Melone said, making COVID-19 tests free or inexpensive would be a key step. Simmons, meanwhile, suggested an infusion of targeted public funding would enable theaters to continue to pay staff rather than furloughing them, and even pay for the hiring of understudies, if shows are canceled.
According to Temple Gill, the Huntington’s director of public affairs and strategic partnerships and a member of Mayor Michelle Wu’s COVID-19 Advisory Committee, the city is working on a digital passport that would provide an easy way for people to store vaccine card information. Maso and Melone said such an app would ease the burden on front-of-house staff who now have to check paper vaccination cards. “Some consistent platform for adjudicating whether somebody has been vaccinated or not would be enormously helpful so we are not all inventing this on our own,” said Maso.
All in all, the Boston theater community might find it hard to relax this holiday season.
“The mood right now is cautious, measured,” said Simmons. “I don’t get the sense that anybody is trying make any quick and sudden moves. We’re trying to see how this lands. We’re so used to pivoting.”
But all that pivoting has taken a toll. “It feels like every place I turn it’s ‘Omicron, Omicron, Omicron,’ ” sighed Simmons. “Make it stop.”