CT theaters remain closed, but the art form is evolving during pandemic as artists innovate
With Connecticut’s theater seasons deferred for what is anticipated to be a devastating 18 months, thousands of actors, costume designers, stage,sound and lighting technicians are out of work. Some have resorted to the default non-theater jobs they do when they’re between gigs, though one of the more common fallbacks for “resting” actors — waiting tables in restaurants — has had its own pandemic problems.
Here’s how a range of local theater artists are doing in the interim, while rolling with multiple punches: less work, less security, an uncertain future.
The Actor: Auditioning online and painting houses
Mike Boland has been a steadily working actor for over 20 years. In Connecticut alone, he’s worked at most of Connecticut’s major theaters.. He was in major national tours of “West Side Story” and “Twelve
Angry Men.” Last year he had a recurring TV role as a prison warden on “The Blacklist.”
This year, Boland says, he’s barely had any auditions (and all auditions happen on video now). He was going to be in two shows for the Greenwich Theatre Company, where he’s an artistic associate, but those were lost to the COVID shutdown. Yet he’s still able to balance his creative side with a need to make a living.
“I’ve been writing a lot. Last summer I did three developmental readings of a play I’d written, with big names in the cast. It’s a love story, a comedy, about the impact that the original ’Rocky’ movie had on me.” Boland’s used his imposed hiatus from acting to adapt the play into a screenplay. “(I can just keep writing. That’s my discipline right now. That and a lot of ice cream; I’m going to go from a Gene Hackman type to a Charles Durning type”)
For money, Boland’s gone back to doing what he’s also done between theater jobs: painting houses. “It’s always been my fallback. I’ve painted a lot of houses over
the last 40 years. If you do [theater] long enough, you’re sort of conditioned for the highs and lows. During the pandemic people started calling me. They know me as a working artist with no work, so they’re like ’Call Mike, let’s support the arts.’”
The Director: Reconfiguring ’A Christmas Carol’
Rachel Alderman is an associate artist at Hartford Stage, where one of her regular responsibilities is the staging of the seasonal staple “A Christmas Carol.”
“It’s an interesting time. There’s anxiety, uncertainty, grieving. We’re in the arts because they bring us together. Now we have to get creative to make that happen. How do you take the energy and warmth of a room, something you can’t replicate, and adapt that in a way that keeps to your organization’s mission and goals? How do you stay connected and use your skills as an artmaker?”
Alderman is using hers to revamp “The Christmas Carol” in a new online version, scheduled for December, that seeks to “capture the essence of our community.”
Other aspects of Hartford Stage carry on. Alderman notes that “our educational programs didn’t stop” when the theater was shuttered. Like several other local theaters, Hartford Stage has created a live outdoor show for the Hill-Stead Museum in Farmington. The theater is also continuing with its theater-themed online talk show “Scene & Heard.”
“We’re really quite busy,” Alderman says. “There are new landscapes to be explored. But that doesn’t replace what we came here to do. When we had to announced that our season was canceled, it wasn’t so much that we were disappointed, because we understood. The feeling was more like grief.”
Alderman realizes she’s one of the lucky ones. “I know a lot of people whose gigs all got completely canceled. I’m fortunate to work. I don’t take it for granted.”
The Political Theater Leader: ’We Can’t Go Back’
Godfrey Simmons became the artistic director of the community conscious, social-issuesladen HartBeat Ensemble on Farmington Ave. at the beginning of this year. He was on the verge of announcing his first HartBeat season in mid-March, just as theaters started closing down. He delayed the announcement: “It doesn’t make sense to announce
’Here’s what we were going to do,” he says. “Now, none of that stuff is going to happen for a while. It’s not happening in the fall. It’s not happening in the spring. There’s no way of knowing.”
That uncertainty has led to special challenges. “We have to program in a way in which we can pivot, and be OK financially and artistically. We have to build in the concept of ’We can cancel this.’” Hartbeat announced a new season this week.
Simmons wears other hats besides artistic director. As a teacher, he’s figuring out how to conduct acting classes virtually. As a playwright, he’s noticing a lot of theaters commissioning new works, “smaller pieces” that may be adaptable to different media. As an actor, he’s been performing online, including “things I did a year or two ago that are just showing up online. I’m trying to stay busy. I’ve been fortunate to be asked.”
Simmons feels that such widespread rethinking and reworking of what theater means will ultimately be good for the art form. “We can’t go back to what we did before. What’s the new world for American theater? I think it’s Black and brown and probably queer. We have to do something critically about what theater looks like.”
The Playwright: Writing for a crowd of cars
“I had this idea where people can stay in cars and watch a show,” says Adam Szymkowicz. So he wrote “The Parking Lot,” pitched it to various theater companies, and got several offers to stage it. It’s being done in Las Vegas by the Majestic Rep and in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, by the Mirrorbox Theatre. A production in Szymkowicz’s home state of Connecticut has hit some
snags but will likely happen later this year.
“I thought, ’I really want to still do a play. How can I, and have it be safe?” “The Parking Lot” is set in a parking lot, which is also where the audience parks. The theatergoers hear the show through the FM radios in their cars. It features two characters who live together, who can be played by two actors who live together. “It’s a relationship play,” Szymkowicz says. “They’re asking ’Should we stay together?’”
Szymkowicz, who grew up in Colchester and now lives in East Haddam, had two of his newest plays set to premiere in the spring. Both were canceled. “I lost 10 productions in the last few months,” he says. “I had 50 last year, and it looked like it would be more this year, but it’s been maybe 15. It totally sucks, and there are a lot of people in that situation. Playwrights can’t do much, and actors can’t do anything. We’re all going nuts.”
The Choreographer: Dancing in the driveway
“Every day since we closed,” Darlene Zoller declares, “I’ve been dancing.” Seven days a week around noon, Zoller — a co-founder of Playhouse on Park in West Hartford and the artistic director of that theater’s resident dance troupe stop/time dance theater — leads an online dance workout via FaceBook Live.
“I’m still sane from dancing,” Zoller says. “The theme of my show is ’I’m better when I’m dancing,” as in the Meghan Trainor pop hit that often gets played during the workouts.
She’ll hit the 200-day milestone in early Octo
ber. “The first day, we just wanted to connect with people. I have to have a purpose, or I don’t get up in the morning. Now, people are logging on regularly. We’ve gotten to know each other. It’s become a thing unto itself. It’s also a chance to reach people beyond the scope of the Hartford area.”
The Kid Show Creator: Dresses and masks
Bert Bernardi has staged original comedy shows, most of them for audiences of children, for decades through his Pantochino theater company. When theaters and schools shut down, he donned a wig, bejeweled glasses and a garish dress and took to the webwaves as the nattering know-it-all Victoria Sautee. The Australian-accented busybody hosts a comical yet honestly educational program called “Learn Stuff.”
“It’s a character I developed years ago, on the spur of the moment,” Bernardi says, acknowledging a debt to Australian comedian Barry Humphries’ iconic Dame Edna Everage.
“Learn Stuff” began its second season Sept. 8 with shows livestreamed on Facebook, then rerun on YouTube. A loyal audience has developed, who admit that they’ve actually learned stuff. They buy Victoria Sautee T-shirts.
In the outside world,
unlike a lot of small theaters, Pantochino has been attempting to continue producing live shows, despite all the obstacles.
The company presented dozens of “curbside shows” all summer, by appointment in people’s yards. “We played for as few as two kids, and for as many as 50 spread out over two lawns.”
This past summer Bernardi was able to mount a full production of the musical “The Drowsy Chaperone” for the Pantochino Teen Theatre. “(Eighty-five percent of it is two people onstage by themselves, plus one man in a chair off on the side. Still, it was a challenge.”) Pantochino won’t be doing shows in the fall.
Bernardi will continue to find ways to work live.“(A lot of theater friends are doing video, but that’s a whole other medium. I’m not afraid of the work, but I just don’t like editing things”) So far, it’s working out.“(Our company meets every Friday night. We’re always working. We’ve never been busier”)
The Designer: Tidying the studio
Brian Prather is the resident designer at TheaterWorks, and also designs sets for regional theaters around the country. Given that the process from designing a set to getting it built can take as much as eight
months, he hasn’t actually stopped working on assignments that haven’t officially been canceled. But he’s gotten used to projects being delayed, then indefinitely postponed.“(There’s a show I’m supposed to be doing in Florida in January”) Prather says, “and
I’m laughing as I say this because it’s so unlikely that it will happen. Some theaters have tried to keep people busy and working, but that’s hard when you can’t say you know when you’ll reopen.“(As long as they tell me a show is still happening, I’m still working on it. It’s a weird head space to be in”)
“(There are definitely phases I went throug”) during the current downturn, Prather says.“(The first phase was ’What can I still do in theater?’ The second phase, I started reading books, because I’m used to a 10-12 hour workday, and now it’s only four hours; I can spend time on things for me. The last phase, which I just entered into recently: making pickles”)
The theater opened its new season this month and Prather will be consulting on all TheaterWorks’ streaming shows until the theater space can reopen.“(So many patrons are calling TheaterWorks asking how we are. I hope audiences understand how hard we are trying to make our way back to them”)
Christopher Arnott can be reached at carnott@ courant.com.
Darlene Zoller, with her housemate Tori Mooney, in the driveway where she dances online every day.
Hartford Stage is offering a new original online“Community Christmas Carol”instead of the original.
A Pantochino Productions“curbside”comedy show, done in private lawns by appointment.
A world in chaos: TheaterWorks designer Brian Prather’s disassembled set models.
Bert Bernardi has kept creatively busy during the coronavirus with the ridiculous remote-learning series“Learn Stuff with Victoria Sautee.”
The Pantochino Curbside theater company sprung up for outdoor summer entertainment during the COVID crisis.