In photo: Tom Templeton, Jenn Bullington and Robert L. Hegemen, left to right, rehearse a scene from “It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play” in 2015 at Schenectady Civic Playhouse.
Duncan Morrison had a little time on his hands, so despite the COVID-19 crisis that has crippled the entertainment industry, he decided to become the new president of the Schenectady Civic Players.
"I thought I could come in and shoulder some of the responsibility for others who had been running the show," said Morrison, an actor, director, stage designer and a member of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, a 140,000-member professional union of stage technicians, artisans and craftpersons. "My work has dried up and who knows when it will return. So I'm letting some others step back, relax a little and eventually come back again."
Morrison, who took over just last month, was referring to his most immediate predecessor as SCP president, Mark Stephens, and the vice-president Cristine M. Loffredo.
"They've been doing a lot and I'm just going to give them a chance to breathe," said Morrison, who has been a regular contributor at the Schenectady Civic Playhouse for two decades. "It's been a hard couple of months. Mark is the one that came up with term, 'the Great Intermission.' This year has really tested everyone's imagination."
The theater world came to a halt in mid-March due to COVID-19, and area troupes and performing venues have responded in different ways over the past five months. Some have developed a number of virtual performances using Facebook Live and their own YouTube channel, and others have just about totally shutdown, waiting for a time when they can return to normal, whatever that "new normal" is.
At the Schenectady Civic Playhouse in the Stockade section of Schenectady, Morrison and his crew are already looking ahead to next spring.
"We're hoping to put on a full stage production next May, however we have to remain flexible because we don't know what the circumstances are going to be like," said Morrison, whose professional career often involves working behind the curtain at places like Proctors and the Palace Theatre in Albany. "We'd also like to do something in March that could be done live or maybe filmed for our YouTube channel. We're working on the idea of the American voice, and putting together 20 minute dialogues from people like Samuel Clemens, Will Rogers, Langston Hughes, James Baldwin and others. We might also do that in virtual form because people just might not feel comfortable coming back to the theater yet."
For Capital Repertory Theatre artistic director Maggie Mancinelli-Cahill, there is some silver lining in the dark cloud that has enveloped the theater world.
"We did our entire new play series virtually, and while I can tell you there is very little good to say about this time period, we have discovered that play readings and developmental work can be done virtually," said Mancinelli-Cahill. "And instead of flying people in to do a show, we can do it virtually and hire people in Los Angeles or Atlanta, like we did for 'A Distinct Society.' It's not live entertainment in a theater, but it's something we can do that is educational and entertaining."
At Curtain Call Theatre in Latham, founder and artistic director Carol Max is waiting until she can do it the way she knows best; with patrons in their seats.
"We want to do theater the regular way, the way we know it and love it," said Max, whose conservative guess for her venue to be hosting an actual show is September of 2021. "Most of our audience is of a certain age, and we are set in our ways. So we can wait. The Greeks were doing theater 2,500 years ago, and people will be doing theater in another 2,500 years. We're just taking a little sabbatical, and when they tell us we can go ahead, we'll be ready."
Broadway went dark at 5 p.m., March 12 earlier this year, and at the same time announced it would be back on April 12. Proctors' CEO Philip Morris came out with a similar announcement that same day but COVID-19 has proved to be a much tougher nut to crack.
"The entire industry is in this same kind of turmoil, and even if they come up with a vaccine things will take a couple of months to unfold," said Morris. "We won't be having any performances on our main stage for at least the next four months, and we won't until we can establish a safe place where actors and audiences can feel comfortable. We're going to meet all the protocols."
Proctors isn't totally dark.
"We've had blood drives, we opened up with the City Mission for a clothes giveaway, and we're working with the Empire State Youth Orchestra, which should be able to start rehearsing on Sept. 14," said Morris. "We're also hosting BOCES up in the Addy five days a week, you can visit the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame exhibit we have up in Saratoga at Universal Preservation Hall, so things are going on, and we're working on getting the Greenmarket in here in November."
At the Schenectady Light Opera Company, president Matt Dembling said his organization will be using a three-prong approach to stay connected to the community.
"We'll be offering a variety of classes held via Zoom where participants can get immediate feedback from instructors, we'll have ticketed events that patrons can attend virtually, and additionally each week we are offering free content that can be viewed on our social media sites," said Dembling. "This keeps us creating and lets the community see that while our building may be closed, the company is still very much alive."
Home Made Theater in Saratoga Springs will be producing virtual events, while Confetti Stage did put on one outdoor performance in the gardens of Ten Broeck Mansion in Albany. The Albany Civic Theater has currently postponed its season and hopes to produce a show in the spring of 2021. At Capital Rep, however, despite COVID-19, there will be theater of some kind.
"I don't think 'normal' is going to be described the same way for a while," said Mancinelli-Cahill. "So we'll be on YouTube, we'll be on public access TV and we can do Facebook Live events. What I do love about this situation is just how loyal our subscribers are. They are really important to us, and we wouldn't be able to open at all if it wasn't for them. They're holding on to their accounts. They've been wonderful."
In the Berkshires, Barrington Stage Company was all set to become the first theater in the country earlier this month to produce an Actors' Equity performance indoors before Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker squashed the idea.
'They did a great job of changing their auditorium by removing every other row of seats and putting in more exits and entrances," said Mancinelli-Cahill. "It was going to be a one-man show without an intermission, but the governor stepped in at the last minute and said absolutely no indoor shows. They were able to move outdoors, but that wasn't in the cards for us. We have a new theater that we're moving into, so we're going to wait and do some things virtually."