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With most theaters dark due to COVID-19, one stage group finds a way to perform at East Lyme park

East Lyme — When actors ran through scenes from Noel Coward’s “Private Lives” at McCook Point Park on Thursday, it was very much a COVID-19-era rehearsal.

Cast members projected their crisp comic dialogue through clear face shields. When two characters were supposed to dance, the actors stood an appropriate social distance apart and mimed as if they were in each other’s arms in a ballroom-dance embrace. As those two later crooned a tune with the lyrics “still hand in hand,” they reached toward each other, but their hands were never close to touching.

"Private Lives" is the latest production by Theater Under the Shell, or TUTS, which has been staging plays outdoors at McCook’s band shell the past four summers. But, because of the pandemic, the 2020 show almost didn’t happen.

It wouldn't have been surprising if it had, in fact, been scuttled. After all, since COVID-19 forced a lockdown in Connecticut in mid-March, live theater in southeastern Connecticut has been pretty much nonexistent. Goodspeed Musicals canceled its scheduled 2020 season, as did the Ivoryton Playhouse. The Eugene O’Neill Theater Center’s usual summer live shows aren’t happening. Flock Theatre won’t be doing its Shakespeare in the Arboretum, although it is developing plans to perform Aristophanes’ “The Birds” starting in late August at a different site.

The first back on the boards is TUTS, under the leadership of director/producer Joyce Beauvais. Starting Wednesday, the group will offer public performances of Coward's 1930 comedy in which a divorced couple ends up staying next door to each other at a hotel — with their brand-new spouses on their respective honeymoons.

It’s a whole new COVID-19-ruled world for stagework. Beauvais, who lives in Niantic, said, “We’re getting very creative — it’s a very romantic, kissy play, and there’s none of that (here). So there’s a lot of blowing kisses and hiding behind a screen to make love — Noel Coward-style making love, so kissing and hugging.”

She added, “I’m so creative as a director, especially with comedies. I’d love to give them a lot of physical comedy to do, and I can’t do it! All my skills are about keeping them apart while making them be romantic.”

One reason organizers felt that doing the show might work during the pandemic is the site itself; it’s outside, of course, high above Niantic Bay, and it boasts a large lawn area where audience members can keep distanced. (In past years, crowds have varied in size from 85 to 120.)

“We felt we could do it safely. There's so much thought that went into it for months and months and months. We thought yes, then we thought no. Every day, we didn’t know,” Beauvais said.

The event passes all of Gov. Ned Lamont’s criteria “and then some,” she said.

Avon resident Mike LaChance, who plays Elyot, said that acting while adhering to the new safety protocols “has been different, I’ll tell you that. When you're acting, especially when you're trying to do some comedy, using your face is really important, and you've got to try to over-exaggerate all your other movements. ... You’re aware of the situation, you try to stay as far apart from each other as you can. Ultimately, you want to put on a great show and for everyone to be safe. … I’m nervous but excited at the same time.”

He feels safe and said Beauvais has gone “above and beyond” to make sure the group follows proper protocols, and the cast and crew are well aware of it all.

What is the future of theater?

While this production will make it to the stage under very specific circumstances, Beauvais is concerned about theater beyond this one instance.

“I don’t know when we’ll do theater again,” she said. “I write mystery theater, produce them, direct them, and run acting classes. I have no idea when, if ever, that will come again. But this we can do, so we're doing it.”

Beauvais has been active on the theater scene in southeastern Connecticut since she moved to Connecticut in 2013 (first to Chester, then Niantic), including creating Shoreline Drama. Beauvais grew up in Lexington and Belmont, Mass., and was 7 when she got her first job as an actress, in a TV commercial. She majored in theater at the Boston Conservatory and spent 29 years in New York acting, producing, directing and being a food stylist for film, TV and print. She later ran the dinner and jazz club Chez Beauvais in Manhattan for five years.

Beauvais joked that, after it seemed that TUTS wouldn’t perform at McCook’s this year, “I was all set to have a quiet summer where I didn’t work, which I’ve never done since I was 7 years old, and that was at least 150 years ago.”

She announced on Facebook that TUTS would not be doing a McCook’s production, but fans bemoaned that decision and encouraged organizers to find a way.

So they did. While the locale where the group usually rehearses, the Niantic Baptist Church, is closed until mid-September, Beauvais thought of another space, an unused storefront, where they could practice.

The decision also was made to do a different play — one with four main characters (and one cameo) instead of six characters — and to reduce the size of the crew from 12 people to three. Beauvais said that everyone is working harder because there are fewer people involved. In addition, because of the late start, the rehearsal and preparation time is much shorter; the first rehearsal was June 14 last year, and it was July 6 this year.

'The times were so similar'

Beauvais noted that when “Private Lives” premiered on the West End in 1930, people were suffering through the Great Depression. The play served as a diversion, helping theatergoers escape the Depression for a couple of hours.

“If you read the whole history, the times were so similar to what we're going through that it seemed appropriate. They even talk about the smallpox epidemic in the play — it’s something we can relate to,” Beauvais said.

Beauvais usually gets a fee for producing and directing these annual shows, she said, “because it’s such hard work. But I wanted to give this as a gift to my community because it was the community’s response to me when I said we wouldn't have it this summer that made me say, 'I’ve got to find a way.' It’s the community that made me do it. I mean, I didn’t make me do it. It’s just a work of love, and we’re doing the best we can.”

She adds, “I am a perfectionist. That is NOT what you're going to see on the band shell stage. It’s going to be representative and as good as we can do short-staffed, short-handed, but I think it’ll be polished enough that it will seem like every other year in its own way.”

Deborah Mott, portraying Amanda, and Michael LaChance, portraying Elyot, dance during a scene while maintaining social distancing during a rehearsal of Noel Coward's play
Deborah Mott, portraying Amanda, and Michael LaChance, portraying Elyot, dance during a scene while maintaining social distancing during a rehearsal of Noel Coward's play "Private Lives" on Thursday, July 23, 2020, at McCook Point Park in Niantic. The cast is performing wearing face shields and practicing social distancing. (Dana Jensen/The Day)

If you go

What: “Private Lives”

Performed by: Theater Under the Shell

Where: The Niantic Bandshell at McCook Point Park, Atlantic Street, Niantic

When: 6 p.m. July 29-Aug. 5

If it rains: Performance is canceled

Suggested donation: $20

Visit: Theater Under the Shell's Facebook page

Organizers say: Bring chairs, picnic; social distance and wear masks

Presented in conjunction with: East Lyme Parks and Recreation, East Lyme Senior Center, Crescent Point



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