Studying Themselves Instead Of Lines, SoFla Artists Look At Lessons From Pandemic

By Bill Hirschman

Many, perhaps most, creative artists define themselves, base much of their very self-worth on their near religious calling. Theater people, whose employment is perpetually uncertain, have always relied on an article of faith that their art form will always be there.

But on March 20, 2020, the almost impossible to imagine occurred.

Theater, which had survived 2,600 years. Gone. Lavish productions shuttered with sets surrounding the ghost light. Costumes hung limply in dressing rooms.

For many theater artists, the foundation of their sense of who they were and much of what they believed made their lives worthwhile vanished as if it had no more substance than a soap bubble.

They were forced into unprecedented introspection about the primacy of their profession and their art in their lives.

This summer, we interviewed South Florida actors, directors, designers and other artists about what they learned over the previous 15 months about theater in general, South Florida theater in particular and especially themselves. With the profession, the region and the artists deep into their return journey, we asked how they predict that things might be different or stay the same.

“I learned that theater is simultaneously fragile and indestructible,” said actor-director-educator Geoffrey Short. “I think so many of us took for granted that the theaters and the projects therein would always be there…. Sure, individual companies may come and go, but the ability to work on or around a stage has always been a part of our lives. Suddenly it wasn’t.”

As the length of the shutdown proved unknowable, the loss of traditional theater work – or even the possibility of it – unleashed a massive mind-shift for people like actor-director Jeffrey Bruce who admitted, “In over 50 years, the longest I was unemployed for was three weeks.  I was not used to doing ‘nothing.’ “

I AM WHAT I AM

The quarantine exposed personality facets that people had to face. Patti Gardner, one of the busiest actresses in the region, discovered, “I learned I’m a person who needs to be busy and productive. Being idle for any length of time is torture. I honestly didn’t know that about myself. When the industry shut down, it felt as if panic set in for me. The stillness and quiet felt unbearable. Thus, I sought out part-time work which I never anticipated doing.”

But the examination led many to discover positive facets of themselves as they created new opportunities, strove to experiment in side genres, even found secondary professions they had only toyed with, such as realty.

Not all, to be sure, but many individuals wrestling with the extreme emotional and artistic vicissitudes of the pandemic discovered inner strengths and flexibility they barely suspected they had.

“During this peculiar time, I learned a lot about myself,” actress Shelley Keelor wrote. “I ascertained that I must stick to the path that I’ve carved out for myself and worked so diligently towards. The universe spoke to me after a few months of, admittedly, a very dark time. I learned that I am stronger than I ever imagined and can pull myself out of most challenges.”

But the most common and crucial lesson, many interviewees said, was the need to better balance professional and personal lives.

Jessica Sanford wrote in an email, “I learned that I’m not defined by my professional work. When it’s completely stripped away and it’s just Jessica Sanford the woman (not the actress, not the teacher, not the business owner), I learned what was most important to me—my family, enjoying the sunshine and watching the birds fly over the lake my parents live on, having meaningful conversations.”

If that sounds like a quote from a self-help book, nearly identical feelings were repeated in various ways over and over by interviewees such as Short.

“I have spent so many years burning every candle at both ends – especially when it comes to theater. I didn’t even realize how much I was stretching myself thin until I was forced to stop everything and concentrate on those other things that may have been somewhat neglected. The silver lining of quarantine was a renewed perspective on the balance I needed in my life which, ultimately, will help me be a better theater artist and producer.”

The lesson could be simple. “We learned to embrace weekends, and holidays, and birthdays,” said actress Gaby Tortoledo, who nevertheless found performing opportunities through much of the past few months.

But she also echoed others when she said that she needed to step back from hyper-detailed focus that occurs when inside the creating process on the stage and “to value the present” of the work as a whole.

“Before the pandemic I would always be working toward the ‘next gig,’ often overlooking the value of the work I was doing at the moment. Now, every single time I step on stage there is a renewed sense of gratitude whether it’s for four people (as pandemic crowds began) or 400 people, enjoying every minute of the precious act of community that is live theater.”

While the sentiments sound drawn from a Disney movie, interviewees universally were unrestrained in admiration of colleagues’ inventiveness, resourcefulness, resilience and indomitability, sometimes expressed with a slight surprise at the depth of those qualities.

We learned, wrote veteran actress Barbara Bradshaw, “that actors are survivors… and the South Florida theater community will always support new ways to work, produce and showcase… frankly, not always successful, but always resourceful and out of the need, the need to create…” It is “a lifeforce that separates the men from the boys.”

That extended to the theater companies themselves. Some went into self-preserving hibernation. But others like Palm Beach Dramaworks, Theatre Lab and Miami New Drama — after a few months catching their organizational breath — plunged into steady streams of online readings, seminars, classes, podcasts, play development commissions and other projects. Gardner said, “I was so impressed with how many theaters truly broke their own molds, and brought thoughtful and creative ways to tell stories.”

It was proof, observed critic John Thomason, that “artists will always create art, boundaries be damned. Despite my initial misgivings about the virtual format, South Florida’s theater artists proved that a moving and transformational experience can happen without the physical nearness of traditional theater —although I will surely never prefer it to the unique synergy of a shared space.”

PUTTING IT TOGETHER

Of course, this was never more evident than how technology was commandeered, cautiously adopted and adapted, joyously embraced. Some artists never stopped creating. The efforts encompassed from technically challenged people learning to set up a studio in their bedroom for a video audition piece, and companies filming a production to distribute to quarantined supporters starving for a frustrating facsimile of theater.

Theatre Lab’s audio play with animation Ich Bin Ein Berliner celebrated the experimentation and potential expansion of the art form. New City Players produced a multi-chapter podcast Little Montgomery. Palm Beach Dramaworks filmed a fully-produced The Belle of Amherst and then provided it to its subscribers.  MNM Theatre Company sold tickets to a slickly videoed and imaginatively edited musical Closer Than Ever. Island City Stage held live performances for eager patrons and then sold videos of them to more reluctant fans – a harbinger of what many observers believe may occur with greater frequency even after theater venues reopen.

These online offerings attracted audiences of varying sizes. Some did quite well, several reportedly did not entice the numbers the producers hoped for. But all of them succeeded in keeping the companies’ image alive as still vibrant operations eager to reopen a traditional season with an in-person audience.

And while many people – mostly the artists — were jazzed about the liberating experience of creating again, a segment of core theatergoers were respectfully tight-lipped about their disappointment, and most people interviewed acknowledged that few if any such productions could begin to compete with “the real thing.”

One problem is that Zoom editions of staged readings with actors in different cities and musicals in which they might not even be recording duets at the same time is the absence of in-person collaboration.

“I think we learned that Zoom is not theater,” said veteran actress Beth Dimon who participated in some projects. “It is a Brady Bunch box. And even well done filmed performances are never as good as the real live person in front of you. And I learned that I rely on eye contact when I act and that is not to be found on a computer.”

Another reason for the shortfall is that most local artists were experimenting and still learning the skill set needed to make these projects land solidly. Much as the difference between stage and screen, effective storytelling techniques differ vastly in each genre. The artists, overjoyed just to be able to vent their emotions and exercise their craft, rarely recognized that most offerings, while perfunctorily adequate, only a few approached excellence.

Actor-director-writer Kenneth Kay used Zoom to teach, to do play readings and he “tried” to watch some readings/performances to “support” fellow thespians,” he said. But “I concluded that Zoom ain’t theater. It’s a tool. A useful tool for some endeavors, but it ain’t theater.”

But the question, asked actor Wayne LeGette and Gardner, is whether a perfected paradigm will become another part of the menu of theater offerings in the future. Certainly, some people like Dramaworks leader William Hayes believe strongly in films of their mainstage work being available for sale to theater lovers across the country in the future. While older core audiences may be lukewarm to the projects – other than it saves them a late night drive home – a generation and a half of younger audiences were raised receiving audio and video entertainment over headphones and small screens.

SIDE BY SIDE BY….

South Florida’s artists have always proudly prized the collegiality of the community—acknowledging huge asterisks. Many of the artists’ closest friendships have originated and have been fed by the essential collaborative nature of the art form.

But while the pandemic erased most in-person contacts, it only underscored the durable solidarity of the South Florida theater community. In phone calls and especially on social media, anyone could vent the special brand of pain that isolated artists dealt with, could offer profound moral support to individual crises.

“We learned that our sense of community, friendship and support goes beyond the theater scene, and we are there for each other even when — like most of this year— all hope seems lost,” said Tortoledo.

One example: To address artists’ inevitable financial burden, some projects like Theatre Lab’s initial Original Monologue Festivals and Michael Ursua’s Florida Sings Showtunes online provided a way for performers to perform and make a little money from donations. Another: The South Florida Theatre League raised $20,000 to support individual artists.

The supportive connections were especially key coping with unexpected deaths of pillars such as the iconic Joe Adler, legendary Jan McArt, musical director Paul Reekie, actor-producer Peter Librach, choreographer Ben Solmor and producer-actor Alvin Entin. Like hundreds of thousands of families, the South Florida theater family “hasn’t been able to be in the same space together as a community —seeing and feeling their loss. We haven’t truly had a chance to mourn, heal, celebrate, and remember them together,” Tortoledo said.

Adalberto Acevedo, vice-president of the League’s board, observed, “I feel like we are all war buddies now. I pray that our community is stronger than it was before, that the cloak of competition is lifted and that we can truly support each other not only as artists but as people. I hope that we no longer take each other for granted, and get out and see as much theater as possible.”

That last phrase acknowledges that the busiest people, like artistic directors, famously did not see other productions often or communicate with colleagues as frequently as they might in the past. But during the pandemic, the leaders of theaters across the region, indeed across the state, conferred at length about shared problems such as racial concerns. Several said they have turned those relationships into strong bonds spanning the three-county expanse.

But conducting relationships on Facebook and other sites also exposed cracks in the seemingly solid community. Several people raised general and knife-specific complaints about how artists were treated by theater company leaders: ranging from oppressive attitudes to long hours that ignored health to companies casting only within a small circle to racial micro-aggressions during rehearsals.

“As for what didn’t we learn… grievances that have been burbling for years in this community, whether legitimate or petty, certainly didn’t diminish during the downtime; they increased, and are now at risk of an overcorrection,” Thomason wrote.

Indeed, based on such public complaints, race became a key item on the self-examination list, including multiple seminars held by the Theatre League and conferences held on Zoom among artistic directors seeking to identify and propose solutions.

“We learned that there is a significant part of our community that is not okay with the status quo, challenging us all to rethink why we have been doing things the way we have been doing them, and whether or not it’s culturally/ethically/professionally fulfilling to continue doing them that way,” Tortoledo said.

Most people expect some changes in all these areas, but they wonder how wide-spread and lasting.

“I hope and suspect that more diversity will be present in cast and crew choices, including more color-blind casting,” Thomason said. “The community has certainly received this message by now; it’s up to the companies to show that they are listening.”

Musical director Caryl Fantel said, “Until we get back to work and regular social interaction, I’m not sure I know what we didn’t learn, although, based on what I’ve been reading, it looks like we still have a way to go to achieve better understanding and acceptance of those with different perspectives.”

“I also saw a great deal of work being done by individual artists, theater representatives and theater organizations in our region to communicate with each other and to learn how to make positive, necessary change within our community so that, when the new season opens, we will all do what it takes to be more considerate, more collaborative and more inclusive.”

There are signs: Many of the online projects these months such as Dramaworks’ online playwright programs have centered on diverse writers like Lynn Nottage and August Wilson. Some, but not many, of the titles already announced for the newly-reconstituted coming seasons across the region are more diverse in some companies. The Carbonell Awards, criticized for insufficient diversity, added four new diverse board members.

Fantel predicts, regarding all of the concerns across the board, “In response to the past year’s events, politics and social movements, I expect individual artists to recognize and assert their power to stand up for themselves and others. And, thanks in large part to valuable programs presented by the South Florida Theatre League and others, I believe theater organizations and companies in our community will have raised the bar for themselves and their teams in revising and fulfilling their missions regarding creating opportunities for inclusivity at all levels of their organizations.”

Other lessons emerged from all the self-examination: While some companies and a few artists had built financial reserves simply as a prudent precaution, no one expected a fiscal disaster that would wipe out personal life savings and decimate companies’ seven-figure reserve funds.

Martin Childers, managing director at Island City Stage in Wilton Manors, spent the first months laboring with artistic director Andy Rogow to develop a budgetary scenario, then another, then another in the ever-morphing environment. His chastened advice now: “Be prepared for everything.  Don’t assume that work will resume as normal the next day.  Put aside money, apply for everything and don’t react too quickly.”

The virus itself has been the cause of intense examination by theater managers as most venues plan to open by the fall and some already have. They juggle competing facets: some patrons’ literally overwhelming need to return, some patrons’ overwhelming anxiety about sitting next to someone coughing. Masks or no masks? Invoke income-crippling social distancing when regulations and restrictions from the CDC, state and local jurisdictions keep evolving?

There are no across-the-board answers, just angst among those having to make the decisions.

“It will be a while before people feel completely safe in any indoor space and that will be an adjustment for all theaters,” Childers said. “As extreme as the anti-maskers were in this pandemic it seem that the ‘maskers’ are going to the opposite extremes as well.  We need to use some common sense. This pandemic has left me feeling more like a policeman/health Nazi than a theater manager.  It has left me unsettled.”

Some managers look forward to easing up on the expensive precautions. Others are doubling down, like Keith Garsson operating Boca Stage out of a small theater space in Boca Raton.

“We believe all theaters should require proof of vaccination for all employees, sub-contractors, vendors, crew, cast, box office staff, ushers etc. because if one theater has a breakout it will ruin it for the rest of us. Legally, you can’t require proof from the audience but we intend to require proof for anyone who (receive a complimentary ticket) since they are not paying for a service.”

ACT THREE

The revelations and lessons provide fuel for prognostications as theaters ramp up over the next few months – as well as what theater life might be for artists a year or more hence.

With budgets significantly reduced, everyone expects more modest productions with less flashy production values. Performers don’t see that as a drawback.

“Return to good storytelling and not worry so much about all the bells and whistles,” offered Dimon. “Just get back to living breathing people in the same room, experiencing the same thing together. Stories being shared.”

Acevedo expanded: “I would like to bring a deeper connection into the theater that I create. When you take away all the bells and whistles of fancy sets and intricate staging what you are left with is people connecting with each other. It is that connection that I want to explore and I hope makes theater even more personal than it already is.”

Many are hopeful that the introspection leads to changes, ranging from more cross-culture casting to theaters paying far more attention to – and artists insisting on – more healthy environments and practices.

“We are all eager to get back to work (but) I think that everyone just might be more vocal as to what they witness during rehearsals, productions” and other issues, Bruce said.

Still, whether the discovered lessons lead to lasting changes remains. “Some theater companies don’t know how to grow through change and difficulty. Those that do will be leading us in this next era,” wrote actress-director Elizabeth Price.

But underlying the concerns is a strong dose of hope for some kind of future, rooted in the oft-uttered verity that theater’s unique gift has and will prevail as it has for those 2,600 years.

“What will be the same is our enduring desire to get together in a live setting in the same place to experience the magic of a live theater production. If absence does make the heart grow fonder,  there should be an awful lot of fondness for the return of live theater everywhere,” Short said.

That need is not just in the artists, but in the audience members who already have been willing to attend outdoor productions, return to live work inside intimate venues and are renewing subscriptions for the coming seasons.

“Theater’s been around for a while, right?” Kay said. “It’s like air: We gotta have it to live. Not just us folks who work in it, but those who attend it.  It may take a while, but it will be back. No doubt about it. Covid didn’t stop people from writing or planning or building or – in my case – rehearsing. And I am positive that there are hundreds of new plays stacked up out there just begging to be produced. “

“So, maybe we’ll see some exciting innovations in play structure or storytelling or some new technical wizardry. However, the one thing that will never change is that theater – to be theater – will and must be live!”

Our thanks to the interviewees who shared their personal stories and observations. Among them: Adalberto Acevedo, Barbara Bradshaw, Jeffrey Bruce, Martin Childers, Beth Dimon, Caryl Fantel, Patti Gardner, Keith Garsson, Anna Lise Jensen Arvelo, Kenneth Kay, Shelley Keelor, Wayne LeGette, Amy London, Elizabeth Price, Jessica Sanford, Geoffrey Short, John Thomason, Gaby Tortoledo and Tom Wahl.

 

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