By Bill Hirschman
The calendars in South Florida theater—like everything in theater across the nation — are being written in pencil—with erasers.
Regional theaters are forging through the Covid spike with no panic and limited public fuss, but with a total lack of certainty of anything—cancelling performances and even jettisoning titles altogether, postponing productions a week, a month, a year; inserting swings and understudies; sustaining an expensive commitment to precautions and calming ticket buyers by email.
And even at companies determined to open on time—or simply a week late—everyone acknowledges that carefully laid plans could change as you read this since everyone connected to a show is being tested every two or three days.
“You have to take it day by day, moment by moment,” warned Patrick Fitzwater, artistic director of Slow Burn Theatre Company in Fort Lauderdale. It just finished a run of Kinky Boots, which lost a trombone player and drummer in the last week, and musical director Eric Alsford conducted the pit orchestra from a separate room for the last three days of the run because he tested positive.
Planning, that bedrock often begun 18 months to two years ahead, “at some point is futile… becomes absurd,” said Matt Stabile, producing artistic director of Theatre Lab in Boca Raton, which just postponed its keystone annual New Play Festival from this month to an undetermined date in the spring. “We just have to see what happens and adapt and respond.”
In normal times, “every single show has an emergency but it comes with the territory and you’re like, ‘I don’t know what it’s going to be, but I’m ready for it when it happens.’ But lately every show has had six separate and unique emergencies and some happen simultaneously,” Stabile said.
At Island City Stage in Wilton Manors, scrapping and reworking plans repeatedly has been a hallmark of its strategy during the pandemic, General Manager Martin Childers and Artistic Director Andy Rogow have said often.
But now “I can (only) make all sorts of guesses until it really happens. Then I’ll say, ‘Okay, here’s how long we think they’ll be out of rehearsal. Right here’s what we’re going to do in the meantime,” Rogow said. “I think there’s certainly a 50/50 possibility that we will have to delay opening or cancel performances at some point. We just have to be prepared for that to deal with that and not be upset by it.”
Rogow said this while waiting out his own positive test as rehearsals began for its next show Armature slated for the end of the month. He has been struggling to direct by Zoom, an unsatisfactory contrivance, but fortunately his associate director Michael Leeds is the co-helming on site.
On Friday within an hour of each other, GableStage in Coral Gables rearranged much of the rest of its season and Zoetic Stage in Miami swapped out its highly-anticipated large-scale A Little Night Music later this winter in favor of the small-cast modest Side by Side by Sondheim. Painfully ironic, Night Music was deep into pre-production when Covid shut everything down in March 2020.
The problems aren’t remotely on the scale of New York where at least nine Broadway shows have closed for good prematurely, or Chicago, Los Angeles and Washington, D.C., where individual performances have shuttered, sometimes with only a few hours’ notice. The Music Man cancelled some previews when both its stars Hugh Jackman and Sutton Foster tested positive.
Fortunately, most—but not all—of the artists and staff testing positive locally have been asymptomatic, producers report. This despite the fact that artistic directors and producers stress – strenuously—that every conceivable precaution has been taken and will be taken to protect both the patrons and the artists.
THE BUSINESS OF SHOW
For many, the real fear is how the more easily transmissible but less symptom-severe Omicron variant will spook patrons who showed up in more encouraging numbers than expected for the first shows of the season.
“People were starting to come back,” Stabile said. “I think whatever we do no matter how safe it is, I don’t know if audiences are going to psychologically recover from this spike.”
Bari Newport, the new producing artistic director at GableStage, is a clear-eyed business person. Attendance was “between 83 and 85 percent through the fall for us. And we were thrilled. And we had built this whole season based on the notion of momentum. And we were seeing that happen. And it was really exciting. And then it was the second week of December when Omicron was really starting to hit. We immediately saw our box office completely drop down to having two ticket sales a day.”
GableStage delaying its next production six weeks is similar to the reasoning for the Broadway production of the musical Mrs. Doubtfire taking a nine-week hiatus: the hope that the worst of the surge will be past or nearly past by the time they open and people will feel comfortable returning to theater.
Amid the changes this week lay another worry. Covid is believed to take as much as two weeks to make itself known in many people’s health. Therefore, following the holidays, it could be mid- to late-January before the worst of the surge occurs among artists and audiences with tickets, just as several companies are booting up their first show of the new year.
ARE WE GOING ON TONIGHT?
A few snapshots of an incomplete and still changing picture:
—-The opening date for Actors’ Playhouse’s large-scale musical On Your Feet has been pushed two weeks to February 9 – March 6 in Coral Gables.
—-The opening for MNM Theatre’s Grease in Lauderhill has been moved to Jan. 21.
—-The Pembroke Pines Theatre of the Performing Arts postponed its Jan. 15 fund-raising memorial for the late Alvin Entin to an undecided date.
—-The Wick Theatre in Boca Raton postponed the opening of its production of Gypsy from Jan. 7 to Jan. 15, in the wake of several positive tests.
—-Not Ready For Prime Time, a play slated to open New Year’s Eve at the Westchester Cultural Arts Center has been postponed to March 17 – April 10, because a handful of people connected to the show including one of the writers tested positive.
—-The national tour of Summer: The Donna Summer Musical slated to open Jan.5 at the Kravis Center in West Palm Beach has been postponed to May 20-26.
—-The national tour of Hairspray at the Arsht Center in Miami cancelled its last few performances at year’s end. One significant supporting character Seaweed was portrayed by an understudy when it opened at the venue. The run cannot be rescheduled this season; tickets will be refunded.
—-Miami New Drama, which cancelled six performances of its world premiere musical A Wonderful World during the holidays and had an understudy perform a lead on opening night, managed to stay open after a ten-day holiday break by using swing performers.
—-Zoetic Stage plans to open Gringolandia as scheduled Jan. 13. But Night Music with a large cast, complex score plus costumes and set slated for March 17 is being “replaced” by the revue Side by Side By Sondheim, which usually involves three singers, a pianist and a narrator, although more can be used. Artistic Director Stuart Meltzer wrote, “This was not an easy choice, but we feel a reduced cast size is the more responsible path in keeping our audiences and artists safe.”
The most complex changes are at GableStage. “Unfortunately, the current wave of Covid cases—which are disrupting everything from airline flights to business re-openings to school attendance—has forced us to rethink our season,” Newport wrote.
The White Card, slated to open Jan. 14 will open Feb. 25. Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking, the dramatic one-character adaptation of her award-winning, bestselling memoir, will play from June 3 – June 26. Tanya Saracho’s Fade has been moved to play August 19 – September 18 and will conclude the 2021-22 season. The special event, Rubenology: The Making of an American Legend, a co-production with Abre Camino Collective, will play as planned, from July 14 – July 31.
The world premiere of the musical Me Before You, originally scheduled to run from February 25 – March 27, has been postponed to the following season, in part to devote sufficient time to the extra work needed for a new work after already investing eight months in the project. A nine-day workshop will be scheduled with the creative team and then be seen in a concert reading.
Florida Theater On Stage will try to keep its on-site calendar current, but patrons should check companies’ website before setting off in their car for the show.
Re-scheduling is a challenge. Extending a run to make up for lost shows is difficult or impossible for some companies in regional theaters. Because some companies started their season late, even cancelling their first show, the time between shows is shorter this season, making it difficult to squeeze something in between dates already set. Worse, many companies rent their performance space and must vacate for the venue’s other scheduled clients. One possibility is tacking a show onto the end of the season, but by that time the lucrative snowbird contingent has left.
The wording in announcements is calm and measured, assuring patrons that this is being done for their safety, striking a tone meant to underscore their commitment to continuing to stay a reliable and continuing source. Still, some interviewees didn’t want to be quoted or balked at some questions for fear of “unnecessarily” spooking their patrons.
HERE WE GO AGAIN
But the frustration seeps out. Marilynn Wick, executive producer of The Wick Theatre, trying to decide if and when she can open Gypsy, said, “This has been going for two years…. After everyone thinking that everything was okay again, then having to change everything again, it’s not fair to the patrons, it’s not fair to the actors, it’s just complicated.… When something happens the first time, people kind of understand, now it keeps going on and on.”
The virus is the overarching cause but there are permutations. Uncertain airline schedules are increasing anxiety whether out-of-town talent can arrive in time for rehearsals; Actors’ Playhouse’s On Your Feet has a choreographer and ten actors coming in from the New York area and a director flying in from Barcelona. Illnesses have delayed starting some rehearsals.
The stress level on stage, backstage and in the offices is significantly higher: wanting to protect the artists, the audience as well as the bottom line when audiences at best reach about 75 to 80 percent of a house. That threatens a large chunk of the 40 to 60 percent of an annual operating budget that comes from ticket sales.
The emotional toll is frustrating as well when artists and staffers are observing every facet of the precaution list, down to foregoing holiday gatherings with friends and family. “The saddest thing about it is you can do everything right” and still get a positive test, said David Arisco, artistic director at Actors’ Playhouse.
The uptick does not appear to be a result of lax precautions, according to several people at all levels of productions. Generally, people connected to the production – not just the performers—are tested two and three times a week. Some companies insist everyone has ti have been vaccinated. Many are strongly encouraging people not to gather after rehearsals and performances, even avoiding people in general, what one person called being “hermits.” Several push for N95 masks, not just cloth. The troupe of Kinky Boots only had lunch breaks eating outside and most members celebrated New Year’s Eve on a Zoom celebration.
“We followed CDC guidelines. We followed Equity (union) guidelines. We rehearsed completely in masks unless we were running it full out. Masks were worn around the wrist and put back on the minute that they would leave the stage, even in performance. We even had a couple of times where a couple of cast members went (on stage) with masks on because they forgot to take it off,” Fitzwater said.
But there was and is no guarantee because of breakthrough cases connected to the Omicron variant.
Percussionist Julie Jacobs, who missed the end of Kinky Boots’ run with a positive test, had scrupulously adhered to every precaution.
“I wore a mask everywhere. I didn’t go anywhere without a mask on. I went to Publix and Walgreens with a mask on. I walked my dog with a mask on. I got funny looks. I had been so careful not to go to a party. Not to go to a restaurant. Anywhere. And it was definitely frustrating especially this (last weekend of the run). We were isolated, getting tested three times a week. Nowhere in the building you could go without your mask on, literally, it was only as we were physically playing the show could it come off.”
Then on the Tuesday before New Year’s, someone tested positive and the New Year’s Eve show was cancelled with 500 patrons being sent home. A few days later, Jacobs also tested positive and she had to search for a replacement.
The virus has persuaded most companies like Palm Beach Dramaworks to hire understudies, swing actors and backup backstage staffers – at a considerable increase in the payroll tally – something few local companies did before the pandemic. But several companies like Miami New Drama have been grateful because they have been needed.
Arisco just sent a note to his On Your Feet cast: “If you’re an understudy or a swing, you will go on.”
The problem with large-cast shows is that if enough people test positive, you only have a limited number of people on call. And the large number of cast members increases the possibility that one person will test positive and sidetrack the entire production, which then retests everyone and wait for the results.
Cast members are nervous, more than one producer said, redoubling the need for them to be able to concentrate.
HOW TO SUCCEED IN BUSINESS WITHOUT….
The stress is equally on the administrators who are not only worried about artists and audiences, but on the continued fiscal viability of the company.
“You build your calendars 18 months out, really complicated grids even if you have your own space because (the timing of a run) involves maximizing the audience. You build so you have your rehearsal time to leading up to your opening. Then suddenly the entire puzzle gets thrown off and then you start looking at ‘Well, if this (element) goes, then it’s going to affect this, and that affects this’,” Stabile said.
Newport dug even deeper: “The trickle of ticket sales will kill a company faster than stopping (production). I mean the dirty truth of nonprofit performing arts and theater (is) actually a high percentage of ticket sales being part of how they survive…. I think (the total production costs) would totally shock people. It is a handcrafted art form that relies on manpower in real time. So there’s no way to make it less expensive.”
Speaking of the delays and reassignments, “I mean, again, these are financial decisions. That doesn’t really matter if people are sad about it; all that matters is that the organization is able to continue.”
For instance, since planning began two years ago, On Your Feet was envisioned as a major big budget complex title that Actors Playhouse originally planned to run six weeks – longer even than the month for its popular Mamma Mia!. But with a huge cast and increasing expenses, the company doesn’t want to take any chances and has not only pushed the opening out of what they hope is the maximum danger period, but reduced the run to four weeks with the ability to add a fifth if needed for demand or to fill in for cancelled performances.
Wick said, “I’ve gotta do what I’ve gotta do to protect my company and protect my patrons….. Right now, the most important thing is we keep our theaters alive for the producers, and the actors…. It’s a long hard tough decision.”
Also connected to the bottom line: Cancelled performances, cancelled titles, changed dates all require maintaining patrons’ long-term faith in the company and the venue. But most companies have developed solutions after dealing with similar headaches in the frozen-out spring of 2020.
Each company may have slightly different options for patrons—usually posted on the website—but most frequently the offers are: (a) a full refund, (b) rescheduling to a later date in the run of the same show, especially if dates are added or inserted, (c) offering tickets to another show in the season or even a future season, (d) gently suggesting that perhaps donating the ticket price might be a nice tax-deductible contribution.
INTO THE WOODS
In a story appearing here in September 2020, the word “uncertainty” surfaced over and over. Now 15 months later, the word persists.
“We’re not out of this thing,” said Geoffrey Short, president of the Pembroke Pines Theatre of the Performing Arts. “It’s just rampant—at least this month until this part of the wave dies down. Either people are going to have to get vaccinated or get sick.”
But some have come to a tentative separate peace with the future.
“Here’s the thing,” Fitzwater said. “I’m not scared anymore. I was scared at the beginning, but now going through it, I think I had everything in the book thrown at me. And if anything, I think you just have to realize, are you going to lose some performances? Absolutely. You prepare for it. And when it happens, then you just don’t freak out.”