Learning to 'pivot' on stage amid pandemic
Can theater companies continue to survive amid the COVID-19 pandemic?
Rochester Civic Theatre’s production of “It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play” won’t be live after all.
Initially scheduled for live performances, the production will be recorded and streamed Dec. 18, 19 and 20.
The theater company was one of the first in the state to bring live performances back to the stage with a production of "Romeo and Juliet" featuring creative blocking and masked performers . Restrictions to prevent the spread of the coronavirus capped audiences at 25% capacity. The company set up sanitizing stations, required patrons to wear masks at all times and took the temperatures of people coming into the building.
“For many of our patrons, having that shared experience, live and in person, is important,” said Misha Johnson, interim managing director.
Creating a system where that felt safe was a priority, she added.
“I think we created a setting where people could feel comfortable seeing a show in person,” Johnson said.
However, when ticket sales account for 20% of the Civic’s budget and capacity is limited to a quarter of what the space will hold, the company suffered a steep loss in revenue.
Much of the box office staff has been laid off. Those who do remain work about four hours a week. Johnson, like the rest of the Civic staff, has been reduced to part-time hours.
Some help has been forthcoming for the Civic, other arts organizations and artists.
The Civic received CARES Act funding to hire Northern Sun Productions to record and produce “It’s a Wonderful Life” for streaming.
At Commonweal Theatre in Lanesboro, the professional theater company has received support from donors surpassing a fundraising goal of $25,000 to make up for lost ticket revenue this season, said Jeremy van Meter, development director for Commonweal.
“It’s unbelievable the way people have stepped up monetarily for us,” he said.
Commonweal’s truncated season featured only livestreamed performances this year. The company is presenting an original radio play, “A Driftless Christmas,” which will be available to stream on the Commonweal website starting Dec. 4.
Figuring out ways to produce shows for a remote audience and learning what shows adapt well to the format has been a creative challenge van Meter said, but added that while it was a necessary adaptation, he understands it hasn’t been ideal.
“The thing we miss most at the Commonweal is the face-to-face interaction with our audience,” he said.
Next year’s season has been selected and will be announced sometime in the next week, van Meter added.
The shows have been specifically selected to adapt for streaming if remote performances are still necessary well into 2021.
The first show calls for a one-person cast, the second, two actors, and the third show can be produced with three or four cast members, van Meter said. For now, it’s unclear which, if any, of the planned shows will be live.
“We’ve gotten good at the ability to pivot,” van Meter said, adding that another year of lost ticket revenue would be difficult to weather.
“We do have a pretty significant hurdle to cross for our season next year.”