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The Play's Not the Thing

Theater in the Age of Corona

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Both sets are still sitting up there in either theater. The costumes are still hanging in the green rooms." Although this reads like a scene from a dystopian movie script, this is how Berkeley Repertory Theater abruptly shut down two productions in March. Susie Medak, the organization's managing director since 1990, says that doing so was, "an experience unlike any that I've ever had before."

The performers in Culture Clash (Still) in America didn't know that their last performance was going to be midweek on March 11. The artists and technical staff worked on School Girls; Or, The African Mean Girls Play for five weeks, but then it didn't open for previews. Working on a production and never having an audience was profoundly sad for the company.

Medak explained that, "We all work toward deadlines and goals in this organization so the thought of getting to the end of this and not being able to have an audience for it was agonizing."

Shotgun Players shut down their production of Henry V six days before their week of previews. Founding Artistic Director Patrick Dooley groaned with a mix of frustration and melancholy when I asked him to revisit making that decision.

"The actors had their costumes," he said. "The set was completely finished. You could still smell the paint." But as the news got worse and worse, he realized that, "the play we had been building in the winter was not reflective of the world we were living in now." The company decided to "set it on fire and push it out to sea."

Going to the theater is an experience a group of people share together. As a theater columnist, I'd attended at least one play per week for the past three years, until the beginning of March. In my approach to writing reviews, I often included anecdotal information about the audience's response to any given play, to document that specific outing. I wrote about the man sitting next to me during a production of Macbeth who repeatedly asked his wife what was happening before finally nodding off. I mentioned the sound of women's voices choking up during the nostalgic 1960s musical A Walk on the Moon. And, on the night of the 2017 Paris attacks, Ayad Akhtar's Disgraced provided the audience with an intense and unifying feeling of catharsis. We were out safely in public on a night when Parisians couldn't be.

Josh Costello, Aurora Theatre Company's artistic director, put it this way, "I believe that a community needs hardware stores, fire stations, doctors. And it needs theaters and artists and storytellers. That's how humans understand the world. Storytellers have a role to play in helping us to understand this moment and what's needed and expected of us."

Aurora's production of Joe Orton's Loot didn't open as planned on April 9. The production would have been the first play that Tom Ross, the former artistic director, directed after having stepped down. Costello says it was a very emotional decision to cancel.

But the company was able to pay the actors and designers for two more weeks of rehearsal. In a generous display of loyalty, over 75 percent of the people who'd bought tickets for Loot and the remaining two shows of the season donated their tickets back. Aurora, like all theaters, are coming up with strategies to navigate the impending financial disaster of having canceled shows for the rest of the year.

Michael Moran, Ubuntu Theater Project's executive and artistic director, developed online programming that helped the company generate revenue for operational costs. Ubuntu started three platforms: Keep Theater in Oakland, Zoomed In and Ubuntu in Conversation, with the addition of offering online classes. Moran says that it felt like a nimble way to respond. "It doesn't take us out of the long-term crisis of just, 'When will we be able to congregate as a theater again?'" he said. But these weekly conversation series and readings helped them enormously in the first nine weeks of grappling with Covid-19.

Cal Shakes Online, on the other hand, is available for free. Eric Ting, the Artistic Director at Cal Shakes, says that they're still paying artists for their participation in the online platforms but that the compensation "fails in comparison to what kinds of income we would have been able to provide had we had our season." The spine of the online programming is a weekly 10-minute short video called Run the Canon. Cal Shakes' resident dramaturg Philippa Kelly has been giving her perspective on 37 plays by William Shakespeare. The series will end on Christmas week with her thoughts on the romantic comedy Twelfth Night.

Ting says that Run the Canon, along with the supplemental platforms Direct Address and Mystery Shakespeare Theater 1592, are catching on. But the pandemic has provided Cal Shakes with a different opportunity, "to reimagine our organization as a civic institution that uses art in the service of the greater good." That means, to a certain extent, partnering with other arts organizations around the Bay Area. At a glance, it looks like the lightweight chairs in use at their outdoor amphitheater could easily be rearranged to accommodate social distancing events. Ting wishes it were that simple.

"You could probably get it down to a moderate number, of around 100 seats spread out, and feel comfortably distanced from one another," he says. But there are a number of safety protocols that have to be implemented around the auditorium and around what it means to produce theater. "How do you protect your actors, the house staff and crews?" Ting says that the cost of maintaining restrooms in the Covid-19 era is "significantly higher than anything we've ever budgeted for in the past." But by far the biggest challenge is going to be producing for a fraction of the audience base, with its attendant diminished revenue stream, while the cost of production stays the same.

Shotgun Players and Ubuntu Theater Project are both considering similar alternatives. Shotgun is preparing for the future now by holding its annual fundraising event online. This year Sassafras started on May 15th and ends with a virtual event on May 30th featuring performances by local artists. Dooley believes that producing shows with smaller casts might be one way to start again. He's currently working with a couple who live together. "I'm in the early stages of talking with them about something they can create and have ready to go when the shelter in place is lifted." He's also talking with BART about setting up a little drive-in theater outdoors in the Ashby parking lot across the street from the Shotgun theater.

Ubuntu already has drive-in plans of their own for September. Lisa Ramirez, an associate artist, will perform a theatrical adaptation of T.S. Eliot's "The Wasteland" in the parking lot of their venue at 1501 Martin Luther King Jr Way. Moran explains, "The thought is that audience members will be able to, obviously, drive in and never have to leave their car. And the sounds will come in through their phones or cars."

Berkeley Rep is hoping to go back into rehearsal in late December or early January with a very small show. "However, if we don't think we can do this safely, and in a way that makes economic sense, and in a way that protects our audiences and also our staff, we're not going to do it," Medak says. In which case, they'll adjust the dates.

During 9/11 and the Gulf War, when Loma Prieta happened and the Oakland hills burned, during every one of those episodes, people called Berkeley Rep and said, "Please stay open. Please don't close." Medak believes that patrons are continuing to subscribe to Berkeley Rep in the meantime because, "they're saying there's a point at which they know that the world will be what they think of as normal again, what we constitute in a community is normal."

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