On stage in the age of COVID: What will the rest of Flock Theatre’s and the Katharine Hepburn Center’s year look like?
This is the first in an occasional series focusing on how arts organizations in southeastern Connecticut are responding to the coronavirus pandemic and what the future might look like for them and their audiences. Today, we feature Flock Theatre, which is based in New London, and the Katharine Hepburn Cultural Arts Center in Old Saybrook.
A production with a socially distancing Romeo and Juliet? Derron Wood can’t imagine it. Flock Theatre, where Wood is executive artistic director, was set to perform the romantic Shakespeare tragedy this summer as part of its 26th annual Shakespeare in the Arboretum in New London.
But, with COVID-mandated restrictions in mind, Flock has canceled its outdoor performances of “Romeo and Juliet” and “Much Ado About Nothing” and its indoor production of “Jane Eyre” and will present them online instead, using editing to bring together individual Zoom performances.
The reason for that decision has to do with the fact that, while organizers could socially distance audience members in a park, ensuring that, say, everyone has a 10-by-10 square for their blankets, staying six feet apart isn’t as easy for the actors.
Flock is consequently considering an option that would allow performers more space: staging ancient Greek comedies or dramas. Those play on a much larger scale, and Flock has performed them before with giant puppets. Those puppets never have to be within six feet of each other, and the chorus in a particular show can be presented in various ways.
“You can perform those in an aesthetic that supports the text, and it is socially distant and comfortable,” Wood says.
Because of the performance style and strong visual images, he says, that “could be directed and crafted in a way that provides a large level of safety within the working environment for the actors. Is there going to be NO risk? No, there's going to be risk, but are we able to safely follow the work guidelines laid out by the governor and the CDC and things like that? Yes.”
Three years ago, Flock presented Aristophanes’ “The Birds,” a riotous comedy, and still have all the masks they built. Depending on the performance window that’s available, Flock could try to do a Greek tragedy as well.
If Flock does go ahead with those performances, other issues then come under consideration, with state guidelines leading the way: What are the safety protocols for, say, the box office table or the porta potties? Should Flock present shows with no intermission so there’s less of a chance of a line at the porta potty?
It’s uncertain yet where Flock can perform. Wood notes that Connecticut College has postponed outdoor summer activities on campus, so the Arboretum might be out of the mix. Flock is in the initial stages of seeing if Wilcox Park in Westerly, where it has performed before, and Mitchell College, where it is the resident theater company, are possibilities.
If Flock does perform inside Mitchell’s Red Barn, for instance, there is a way that could keep audience members and actors at an appropriate distance and safe, Wood says.
“We wouldn't be able to fill it with large houses, but we’re a group that performed the O'Neill play for an audience of 26 (inside the Monte Cristo Cottage). I don’t see us going back into the small venues anytime soon, but I could put 26 (theatergoers) in the Red Barn and could do a type of theater performance (there),” he says.
Wood says Flock is developing a one-person show festival, which won’t run into the same issue of actors social distancing since there will be a single performer onstage.
Asked about the financial impact of the pandemic on Flock, whose budget is close to $200,000, Wood says, “It’s a huge hit … When we look at canceled education gigs, lost revenue from plays and different things like that, since March 13, into what I’m projecting through September, because I can’t see too far into the future (beyond that), but I’m predicting we’re looking at about over $80-90,000 loss, which for a very small organization like ours is huge, absolutely huge.”
Even if Flock does do some performances this summer, there is no sense, in this new world, of what revenue they might generate.
Flock did get a PPP loan, and Wood is looking at other grants.
“My main focus is on keeping my guys working, keeping us working and doing what the arts do — socially communicate.”
Katharine Hepburn Cultural Arts Center
With so much still unknown about performance venues reopening, the folks at the Kate have been preparing for a variety of different scenarios.
Asked about the impact of social distancing on the venue when it eventually opens, Executive Director Brett Elliott gave this example: “In one of our many phases of thinking about the future and planning, we have started a house map that adjusts to what that would look like. In a not-very-large room, to make that happen, it takes us from about 250 seats to approximately 65.”
And the 65 would be if everyone were kept six-feet apart and were an individual versus, say, a married couple that could sit next to each other.
The Kate is a presenting organization, not a producing one; it brings in performers (usually for a one-night performance) but doesn’t create shows.
Because of what the Kate does, a variety of things could happen once it gets the green light to reopen in socially distanced form.
“Maybe there's an act that wants to play two or three nights that would be the equivalent of a full house, and we can renegotiate with them and make it beneficial for both of us,” Elliott says.
Or, he says, “Maybe there's a local singer-songwriter who wants to see 40 people a night, and maybe there's a version where that does work. But right now we don’t know.”
The Kate folks have had some conversations with officials about the possibility of holding events outdoors, although nothing has been approved or finalized on that yet.
What all this indicates is that, as Elliott says, they are discussing all sorts of ideas.
As far as finances go, the Kate tends to pay deposits on shows when it books them, so the venue has six figures paid out now on shows that were supposed to be coming in and that are now being rescheduled. And there will be more deposits due for the fall.
“So that’s a challenge on top of refunding tens of thousands of dollars in tickets and trying to keep the staff paid. It’s a unique (situation) when things get out of whack ... but we’re doing our best, we’re trying to make good choices,” Elliott says.
He is working about four to eight weeks ahead, so ticket buyers can expect a hard answer on whether the show they bought tickets to will be held, postponed or canceled no less than four weeks before the scheduled date.
“The thing I want to stress is we’re trying to do our absolute best by every single one of our ticket holders and our patrons,” he says.
Elliott says about the COVID-caused upheaval, “This is temporary. We are going to figure this out, and then we figure out how to rebuild.”
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