Barrington Stage company artistic director Julianne Boyd. Photo: Bill Wright

Theater in the time of COVID-19: How area theaters and theater artists are coping during the pandemic

I asked the directors of several area theaters how the coronavirus pandemic is affecting their theaters and their staff in ways that might not be so evident to the lay public.

Great Barrington — Over the past few weeks, I had the opportunity to talk with many of our south and central county-area theaters’ artistic directors, actors and designers about how they are faring during the coronavirus pandemic of 2020. All seemed eager to convey to me how they’ve been finding unique ways to cope and thrive, creating a bulwark against the adverse effects of the shutdown.

Even facing the loss of much of their incomes and with an uncertain future, among the vast numbers of Berkshire theater artists with whom I spoke, there is a clear sentiment of positivity and generosity of spirit that’s served as a counterpoint to initial feelings of disbelief, gloom and even despair in these days of seasonal shutdowns, rollbacks and programming cancellations.

I asked the directors of several area theaters how the coronavirus pandemic is affecting their theaters and their staff in ways that might not be so evident to the lay public. Here are a few responses.

Julianne Boyd, artistic director of Barrington Stage Company, said she feels a strong commitment to the view that “live theater is important” and has been asking herself, “How can we do theater 6 feet apart?” Well, she’s showing us with several intriguing August offerings at BSC — more on that in a moment. I asked Julianne if there were any unexpected positives that have arisen as a result of the pandemic restrictions. She said: “Staff is working remotely via Zoom. Everyone’s talking with each other more now than before … But,” she added, “there is a fatigue that can set in by communicating via Zoom.” In this I believe she’s hit on something, as I have heard these same comments from others. Being in the room with someone is vastly more personal and natural. You’re not shouting into a tiny speaker, barely heard above the din of lawn mowers or traffic flow outside your window at home. Teachers everywhere are “Zooming” with their students with mixed results, although most express gratitude for having access to technology we couldn’t have imagined some few years ago.

Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center acting executive director Janis Martinson. Photo courtesy Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center

Janis Martinson, acting executive director at the Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center, when asked how her staff is coping with the pandemic said, “On a purely technical level, we are working from home, growing more digitally savvy by the day, staying in touch with our community electronically, and reaching out to performers and nonprofit partners about collaborations.” I asked Janis what are the unexpected ways the pandemic has impacted the Mahaiwe. Her response was moving: “Art often speaks to us in symbols that allow our thoughts and feelings to cohere, so it is painful that our access to art has been so constrained at a time when we are all craving ways to share experience and make sense of the surreal. As a presenting (not producing) organization, we don’t create art, but we have a reputation and a channel to arts consumers that we can leverage on behalf of artists and performing arts experts.”

Kate Maguire, CEO of Berkshire Theatre Group, had a passionate take on what the arts mean to her, her theater and its patrons: “It’s the theater’s responsibility for providing the poetic sustenance in our lives. Berkshire Theatre Festival started in 1928. That’s almost 100 years of being in the business of affirming the recognition of how deep the soul of the artist is.” Kate shared that Berkshire Theatre Group, in the midst of this persistent pandemic, is planning a unique and socially distanced schedule for August and beyond at the Festival’s home in Stockbridge — more on that in a moment as well.

Shakespeare & Company artistic director Allyn Burrows. Photo courtesy Shakespeare & Company

Allyn Burrows, artistic director of Shakespeare & Company, in Lenox sounded a cautious perspective on the summer after having canceled his entire season due to the COVID-19 pandemic. It should be no surprise to anyone reading this article that several area performing organizations have canceled their live summer seasons as well: Tanglewood, Jacob’s Pillow, Chester Theatre Company, Dorset Theatre Company, Great Barrington Public Theater and Williamstown Theatre Festival. Allyn reported: “Over these last 30 years, we’ve watched the cultural destinations evolve as economic drivers of the region and we’re proud to be part of that movement. It is deeply disappointing not to be firing up the programming we spent so much time planning for, but this remains a health issue. Until we can feel confident about being able to provide a safe environment for our patrons and artists, we have to pull up the drawbridge and make plans for the future.”

Asked how his staff was coping with and adjusting to the COVID-19 restrictions, he said: “The staff has been amazing, really strong in the face of this challenge. Our board and our supporters have been stupendous. Our audience has been enormously gracious and understanding.” I asked Allyn if he’s witnessed anything positive as a result of all of this. His reply: “One bright side of this time has been an even fuller appreciation of friendships, of community, of the everyday contact with other people. And waving — waving is coming back. I was waiting for that.” Yes, Allyn, so have a lot of people. The handshake is out, but the wave is back! Bravo!

WAM Theatre artistic director Kristen van Ginhoven. Photo courtesy WAM Theatre

When I talked with Kristen van Ginhoven, artistic director of WAM Theatre, she shared: “We are all still alive and healthy and putting one foot in front of the other. With our focus on intersectional feminism, we are fierce and tender-hearted white accomplices in the anti-racism movement. WAM was on an exciting growth trajectory that has been interrupted by this pandemic. As a small, tight-knit staff and board, we are committed to remaining connected, and continue to plan for WAM’s next decade. WAM is balancing the following three goals: to ensure WAM’s survival into 2021 and beyond with our arts and activism mission intact (this pandemic makes it even clearer how important it is to advocate for the rights of women and girls, especially those experiencing the most hardship at the moment); to ensure our valued staff can maintain their mental and financial health during this pandemic; and to support our community during this crisis by raising awareness and funds for organizations working on the front lines.”

Joan Ackermann, playwright, screenwriter, producer and founder of Mixed Company in Great Barrington, had an upbeat perspective. She said: “Mixed Company has been dark for a while now, though we’ve had plans to gear up. Oddly enough, during this pandemic, the theater has stopped feeling dark to me; it feels remarkably alive, full of animating forces ignited by its own imagination — not just echoes from the hundred and eighty productions that have passed through, but fresh new creations. I have a strong sense that well-lit, robust performances are going on in there unobserved. Live theater: It makes me smile. Will Mixed Company reopen in a year or two? It’s hard to socially distance in a 60-seat theater. But for now, I can report the theater is alive and well.”

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Actors and designers are particularly impacted by this pandemic, as, without a stage or a live audience, it’s hard to engage directly with one’s craft. However, here are a few additional thoughts from a few notable area theater folks.

Peggy Pharr Wilson. Photo courtesy Barrington Stage Company

Actress Peggy Pharr Wilson, a well-known actor at Barrington Stage Company, had a few interesting thoughts on the pandemic. She reflected: “I often think about all the empty theaters, dark with only a ghost light on stages across the world. I wonder what all the theater ghosts are feeling? Yes, I believe in ghosts and have had several encounters with them in various theaters. I bet they miss us.” In case you don’t know what a ghost light is, it’s the bare light bulb placed center stage when a theater is empty and dark, for — you guessed it — keeping the ghosts at bay.

I asked Berkshire actor David Adkins about his take on what’s going on. His response: “To be honest it’s been quite difficult. COVID has thrown a wrench into every level of our lives. And it’s terrifying to know there could be no work for a total of 11 months or more. But I know, to stay grounded as artists, we have to stay connected as an artistic community. So I’m doing a talk show for Berkshire Theatre Group called ‘Casual Fridays with David Adkins.’ The premise is ‘keeping us all together, one artist at a time.’ It’s been really fun having actors, directors and other theater notables on for short, funny and heartfelt conversations.” This is a great series of discussions David moderates with theater folks, including Jenn Harris, Michel Gil, actors from the cast of “Godspell,” and others, focusing on theater in the days of COVID-19. You can view all five episodes via the Berkshire Theatre Group website.

Anne Undeland

Anne Undeland, playwright and actress, shared: “How am I coping as a theater artist in the pandemic? Hmmm …very well, thank you. … Actually it varies by the day, by the hour — ‘Not so well,’ one moment, and then, ‘Think of the new possibilities!’, and then back to ‘Oh my God, we’re doomed!’” She reflected: “I think we’re going to have to re-imagine things: more outdoor theater, more solo work, smaller audiences. I think it’s going to be more experiential, more personal, more intimate. Maybe we’ll see the return of the Greek amphitheater, the even more ancient ritual of performing in front of campfires, dramatic rambles through the woods. I, for one, am never going to stop believing in that essential thing that happens in live performance: the bond that happens when people physically share the same space, breathe the same air, take in the same vibrations and energies. It puts our brains, hearts and spirits in utter sync. It’s a magical thing, it really is. There’s no substitute. We humans need it.”

Anne commented further: “So, what am I doing? Like everyone else, I’m Zooming! A lot. I’m part of a couple of playwriting groups and we’ve been Zooming up a storm. I’m grateful for it because it brings folks together no matter where they live — it’s been wonderful to reconnect with theater chums from all over the country. It’s great to see comrade playwrights, great to be supportive of what they’re up to, but, honestly, the writing hasn’t been coming to me very easily these days. I feel a little guilty about it and go on long walks instead. Not to be snarky, but if I hear, ‘When Shakespeare was quarantined because of the plague, he wrote ‘King Lear,’’ one more time, I shall run, not walk, screaming into the night.”

Matthew Adelson, lighting designer, wrote: “Like many of my theater colleagues, especially other designers, this has been a very difficult time professionally. I live in the world of the independent contractor, so as my productions were either canceled and/or indefinitely postponed, a huge part of my annual income disappeared. The “theater” — and by that I mean all of it (theater, musical theater, dance, opera, etc.) — exists as a form of shared intimacy between artists and a live audience. It’s been that way for 3,000 years, and it is now. Recordings, videos and streaming are all important and, right now, very necessary, but it’s not at all the same experience, and cannot be a replacement for the shared moment in time that happens in a theater.”

Carl Sprague and his marionettes. Photo courtesy Ventfort Hall

Carl Sprague, film production designer, art director and theatrical set designer offered this unadorned perspective: “Everything is totally dead. Apart from a few creative initiatives I’ve taken part in, like Great Barrington Public’s self-taped video series ‘Bear Tales: 6 Feet Together’ for which I created a marionette piece, nothing is happening for me. I’m working on some student-level films right now just to keep my blood circulating. Paying jobs are not even on the horizon. The most exciting action has been some to and fro between my agent and a new partner in L.A. I need to produce some more puppet shows! Meanwhile, I have so much overdue housekeeping that I’m far from not being busy.”

Michael Brady. Photo courtesy Great Barrington Public Theater

Michael Brady, playwright, director, coordinator for Berkshire Voices (a weekly workshop for area playwrights,) and producer of TheatreFest at Saint James Place, said: “I think of our writers’ group as a kind of mental gymnasium, a safe place to get a creative workout to test new ideas or to revisit the thoughts and images that we have explored as writers. We give each other deadlines every Monday. We were not able to have public readings this time around. I miss the intensity of working with actors for a live performance in front of an audience. I also had to cancel TheatreFest at Saint James Place, the yearly celebration of local theaters and theater artists. My hope is that we can have some kind of celebratory event in the fall and get all the tribe together: playwrights, actors, directors, techies and our audiences. That’s a carrot I dangle in front of myself when the present seems too difficult and uncertain.”

Michael continued: “For now, we have Zoom. Berkshire Voices presented a reading of ‘The Necklace,’ a new work by Alli Giguere a few weeks back, and we are considering other full-lengths. Several writers have addressed the COVID situation head on. We write what we can write. How do we cope? We cope by helping each other, by remembering what it takes to make theater happen: inspiration, hard work, technical skill, and above all, a sense of shared mission … The theater will come back. Painful rebirths are part of our DNA. Our voices will be heard again. This is what I believe. This is how I cope.”

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As for live theater programming happening in our area this summer:

Starting Aug. 5-16, Barrington Stage Company will present, in person, “Harry Clarke,” a one-person play by David Cale starring BSC regular Mark H. Dold, directed by Julianne Boyd, on the Boyd-Quinson Mainstage. Following that, BSC is planning to present the musical “South Pacific” at an outdoor venue that is yet to be determined. This concert adaptation, a preview of next summer’s full mainstage production, will feature a full cast and a live orchestra. And, in late August for two nights, BSC will offer “Ann Hampton Callaway: The Linda Ronstadt Songbook” with Billy Stritch, among other offerings.

Berkshire Theatre Group will soon announce some alternatives to its previously scheduled programs, with tents adjacent to the theaters being bandied about and pop-up entertainment in the mix as well. Please refer to the Berkshire Theatre Group website and stay tuned for more news from BTG as they shore up their plans in an ever-changing environment.

Also, Abigail Rollins, executive director of Berkshire Opera Festival, informs me that the opera festival will present “Don Giovanni” at the Colonial Theatre in Pittsfield for three performances July 22, 25 and 28. Abigail assures me that BOF is closely monitoring, and will follow, state guidelines for Phase 3 reopening to protect the health and safety of all patrons and artists.

I should mention that all of the abovementioned groups are doing everything they can to safely protect the patrons and artists in these shows. Please go to each theater’s website for additional info about safety protocols and, of course, ticketing information. Again, you should check with each theater for its specific policy.

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Historically, theater folk have always been regarded as a plucky and resilient bunch, facing many hurdles and obstacles along the path. Merely making a basic living in the theater can be a herculean feat. In the Dark Ages, actors were denounced by the church as dangerous, pagan and immoral, and many risked great harm by practicing their art.

The challenges we are facing as a result of COVID-19 are, of course, of a very different ilk, and the ways we will cope as artists, practitioners and presenters will be varied, and as the theater artists above have shared, we are already using this moment to imagine new ways to share our craft, and to learn from and along with the many, many others whose lives have been dislocated by COVID. Theater in the Berkshires (and across the U.S.) is also being challenged to be better allies in the national movement for racial justice and equality, and I know many are looking at our own histories in theater and as theaters — and how we can and must do better in the future.

I hope what you’ve read here in this article — perhaps even gleaned via your own personal connection to the theater as a patron, artist, supporter, contributor, or all of the above — is that myriad Berkshires theater institutions, actors and designers are responding to the need for in-person storytelling and the creation of art. I hope hearing their voices will help lift your spirits and lead you to believe, as I do, that theater is alive and well and already looking ahead.