Can the curtain go up? Theater during the pandemic

  • Daniel Elihu Kramer, producing artistic director of the Chester Theatre Company, at his Northampton home. He says the company will stage three plays outdoors this summer: “We couldn’t take another summer of not working.” STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Daniel Elihu Kramer, artistic director of the Chester Theatre Company, at his Northampton home. He says the company will stage three plays outdoors this summer: “We couldn’t take another summer of not working.” STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Daniel Elihu Kramer, producing artistic director of the Chester Theatre Company, at his Northampton home. He also teaches theater at Smith College and regrets that his students have been forced to do their work online. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Daniel Elihu Kramer, producing artistic director of the Chester Theatre Company, at his Northampton home. He also teaches theater at Smith College and regrets that his students have been forced to do their work online. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Daniel Elihu Kramer, producing artistic director of the Chester Theatre Company, at his Northampton home. He also teaches theater at Smith College and regrets that his students have been forced to do their work online. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • James Barry, at right, during a performance of “The Night Alive” for Chester Theatre Company in 2019. He lost a number of acting and directing gigs last summer when the pandemic arrived.  Photo courtesy James Barry

  • A scene from an earlier stage of “Moving Water,” a multidisciplinary production by the theatrical ensemble Serious Play. The Northampton group had to cancel its performances last summer. Image courtesy Sheryl Stoodley 

  • With its practice space in Eastworks shut down last summer, Serious Play moved rehearsals and production discussions outside. Image courtesy Sheryl Stoodley

  • Amanda Miller is seen in Double Edge Theatre’s 2020 summer production, “6 Feet Apart, All Together.” The Ashfield ensemble will put on a new show this summer. Double Edge Theatre

  • A screen shot from a rehearsal of Chester Theatre Company’s online version of “King Lear” last August. It was a worthwhile project, says CTC director Daniel Elihu Kramer, “but no substitute for live theater.” Image courtesy Chester Theatre Company

Staff Writer
Published: 3/24/2021 9:26:30 AM

Some things just don’t translate that well to computer screens.

For a year now, actors who would normally share a stage with each other and a live audience have been, like most other artists, largely reduced to performing online. And with that, all the sights and sounds one associates with theater — movement, music, imaginative stage sets, drama and physical interaction — pretty much fall by the wayside.

“Theater really is about sharing space and a moment in time,” said Daniel Elihu Kramer, producing artistic director of the Chester Theatre Company and also a professor of theater at Smith College. “There’s an intimacy to it that you just can’t reproduce online.”

Like theater companies and ensembles across the country, Chester Theatre Company had its 2020 summer season wiped out by the pandemic. Actors such as James Barry, who has performed in several past productions, saw their gigs disappear, and with them a substantial part of their income.

New Century Theatre, a mainstay in the Valley for nearly 30 years, announced last November that it was permanently closing. Serious Play, another local ensemble that had planned to stage a production last summer, postponed those plans. Theater departments in local colleges have struggled to work with students in an online format.

“I feel really bad for my first-year students in particular,” Kramer said. “It’s a real challenge for them to have to learn like this.”

Cautious optimism

But in 2021, there’s some cautious optimism that live theater, with various safety protocols in place, can return with outdoor shows this summer and that, with continued vaccination for COVID-19 and an easing of state restrictions on public gatherings, indoor productions might resume more widely in the fall.

Chester Theatre Company plans to produce three plays this summer at the Hancock Shaker Village just west of Pittsfield, under a huge tent on the organization’s grounds. Kramer says tickets will be sold in blocks to families, couples and other “pod” groups who will be seated 6 feet apart from one another, and attendees will be required to wear face masks.

Otherwise, the plays will be presented as they’ve always been with the company, he noted, though to minimize the risk of infection among staff and actors during rehearsals, they’re staging small productions: a one-person play, a two-person play and a four-person play.

But putting on a new season is imperative, whatever form it takes, Kramer said: “We felt like we couldn’t wait another year. We couldn’t take another summer of not working.”

Barry, who most recently appeared in Chester Theatre’s “The Night Alive” in the summer of 2019, says he lost a number of acting and directing jobs last summer, including with Chester Theatre. He’s worked on Broadway — he’s a guitarist and songwriter who played Carl Perkins in the nationally touring show “Million Dollar Quartet” — but last winter he also planned to make some extra money by waiting tables.

Then the pandemic closed down the restaurant business as well as the theatrical world. “I got shut out twice,” he said with a rueful laugh during a recent phone interview.

Barry, who lives in the Berkshires, is using this down time to study for a master of fine arts degree in playwriting at Smith; his wife, actress Tara Franklin, teaches theater at the college. Barry also took part in Chester Theatre’s online production last summer of Shakespeare’s “King Lear,” an experience he says he enjoyed but wasn’t a substitute for performing live.

“I loved the creative aspect of it, but [online theater] can’t match the immediacy and the emotion of being on stage,” he said. He does hope, though, that he’ll have opportunities to act this summer. So far, he’s slated to appear in two of Chester Theatre’s plays, “Tile and Deed” in June and “Tiny Beautiful Things” in August.

The 2020 struggle

Gabriel Harrell, a recent graduate of an MFA program in directing at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, said much of 2020 was a struggle, both as a student and as a teaching assistant.

“The theater that thrills me, that I can’t stop thinking about after the fact, literally involves sharing air space with a group of people,” Harrell said. “It’s not that I don’t appreciate the work that theater and performance artists are making available online ... it’s just that it rarely touches me in a way that live theater can…. The collective moment isn’t there.”

Sheryl Stoodley, longtime director of the Serious Play ensemble in Northampton, said her group had to cancel its plans to present part of a work in progress, “Moving Water,” last summer. They were also shut out of their practice space in Eastworks for a time, though members have since returned there, wearing masks and keeping several feet apart. Last summer, the ensemble also did some work in their backyards, Stoodley notes.

“Moving Water” is a meditation on climate change and growing water shortages, relying on a mix of acting, movement, music and video. Even before COVID-19, some of the work had been done online — a key musician who’s part of the production lives in Oregon — so the ensemble was able to continue with some virtual rehearsals. But economic problems brought on by the pandemic also meant two actors had to leave the project, Stoodley said.

“I feel terrible for actors who have been hurt by the pandemic,” she said. “It’s been a very tough year all around.”

Serious Play, though, hopes to premiere “Moving Water” this summer in a series of socially distanced performances at the Northampton Arts Trust building — and with luck, tour the show a bit more in fall.

In West Springfield, meantime, the Majestic Theater, which had originally hoped to reopen in January, now says doors will reopen in June to finish the run of “The Pitch,” a play that had begun late last winter and had to be closed down in March. A summer concert series has also been scheduled for July and August, and a new series of plays is slated to begin in September, according to the theater’s website.

In Ashfield, Double Edge Theatre plans to stage its traditional “Summer Spectacle,” a production incorporating music, dance, acrobatics and broad storytelling in multiple outdoor locations on its rural property — something that can’t be done online. The ensemble did a socially distanced show last summer, called “6 Feet Apart, Still Together,” and will present a new show with built-in safety protocols in July and August.

Jennifer Johnson, a longtime member of the ensemble, said the company “learned a lot” last year about staging a play under safe conditions and will use that experience in shaping this summer’s production. That not-yet-titled show, like last year’s, will likely be presented entirely outdoors and not use Double Edge’s one indoor setting, a restored barn.

Double Edge is also presenting a smaller outdoor performance, “Howling at the Moon,” from June 2-6 in collaboration with Larry Spotted Crow Mann of the Nipmuc Nation.

Johnson said one great takeaway from last year’s Summer Spectacle was simply this: “[Attendees] were so happy to have somewhere to go and something to see.”

That sentiment likely holds true for 2021 as well.

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com


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