Cre­ativ­ity con­tin­ues

CT the­aters re­main closed, but the art form is evolv­ing during pan­demic as artists in­no­vate

Hartford Courant (Sunday) - - Arts & Living - By Christo­pher Arnott

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.

PLAY­HOUSE ON PARK

Dar­lene Zoller, with her house­mate Tori Mooney, in the drive­way where she dances on­line ev­ery day.

T. CHARLES ERICK­SON

Hart­ford Stage is of­fer­ing a new orig­i­nal on­line“Com­mu­nity Christ­mas Carol”in­stead of the orig­i­nal.

PANTOCHINO PRO­DUC­TIONS

A Pantochino Pro­duc­tions“curb­side”com­edy show, done in pri­vate lawns by ap­point­ment.

PRATHER BRIAN

A world in chaos: TheaterWor­ks de­signer Brian Prather’s dis­as­sem­bled set mod­els.

PANTOCHINO PRO­DUC­TIONS

Bert Bernardi has kept cre­atively busy during the coro­n­avirus with the ridicu­lous re­mote-learn­ing se­ries“Learn Stuff with Vic­to­ria Sau­tee.”

PANTOCHINO PRO­DUC­TIONS

The Pantochino Curb­side theater com­pany sprung up for out­door sum­mer en­ter­tain­ment during the COVID cri­sis.

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