How do you do theatre when it’s next to impossible for people to gather safely? It’s a question that has vexed theatremakers worldwide as they’ve searched for ways to make ends meet and satisfy their urge to create despite the raging pandemic that has stifled stages worldwide.
Countless companies have tried to answer it in numerous ways. Still, for Keith Garsson, artistic director of the theatre company formerly known as Primal Forces, it just wasn’t worth putting in the work for something that couldn’t possibly wait up.
“We didn’t feel like we would get any satisfaction out of anything less than traditional standard pure theatre,” he explained.
“The phrase we used was, we’d rather have nothing than settle for less.”
It’s an admirably self-assured view, and Garsson’s recent choice to rebrand his company as Boca Stage also reflects his confident outlook. However, Primal Forces felt like a fitting moniker for the days when they were frequently changing locations. Now that they have settled in Boca as frequent Sol Children’s Theatre tenants, Garsson instead wants to establish his company as the primary theatrical force of its particular locale.
But while Boca Stage is not slated to theatrically reemerge until this November, when Andy Rogow of Island City Stage felt a similar itch to return to producing in-person theatre, he went ahead and made it happen last November.
“We opened primarily because there was demand from the audience. We always had audience members willing to come. And then, of course, we offered to stream as well, so that people uncomfortable coming to the theatre could still “attend,” he explains.
“So we started in person in November, and that was when cases were still coming down originally, though we did very truncated performances…. It’s always been to half a house. Audience members were required to wear masks the entire time. And they were all small productions, no more than a cast of three. We purposely chose small shows so they would be safer to rehearse…. we had testing regularly, so we made the protocols as safe as we thought we could.”
The endeavor was still riskier than most other professional theatres in the area dared venture, but Rogow seems to have safely pulled it off as far as COVID was concerned.
“Never had, not one case. No audience member, certainly no cast member or production member.”
Thinking Cap Theatre has taken a more moderate approach, having had no in-person programs since the start of the pandemic. But they did jump into virtual programming around six months in with an original work called Meet the Gettes, which celebrated the Suffrage Centennial Celebration. They performed it for Thinking Cap patrons as well as a few schools in the area.
“That was part of a new series we created called History in Action that will continue in the future with different programming, not just suffrage material but also historical material that can be dramatized,” artistic director Nicole Stoddard elaborates.
“And then we did a full-length virtual production of one of our 10th anniversary season shows. It was a queer play called Laced that’s part of the National New Play Network. We did that because it was a very timely piece, a political piece set on the eve of…the 2016 election at a queer bar in Tampa. So we did a lot of partnering with local and national organizations to get that off the ground and do a virtual run of that in late October and early November.”
Thinking Cap also utilized the virtual realm to offer a series of playwriting workshops and an educational Play Readers series. Thus, Stoddard found a welcome way to hold onto her enthusiasm for the theatre despite this year’s difficulties.
“We always talk about art and theatre as having the ability to heal people and to help us process things. I think teaching in a moment when theatre can’t happen in conventional ways forces you to reflect on why you do it and why you should teach people about theatre, and why students should want to study more whenever the pandemic allows us to teach and practice and attend the way we would have in the past…I think we’re all creative as humans, and it could be cathartic for people who don’t see themselves as artists to explore theatre, and that’s something we have been able to do virtually that’s been successful,” she reflects.
And though Stoddard appreciates the opportunity virtual programming allowed Thinking Cap to reach people outside of Florida, she remains skeptical about its ability to maintain audience attention.
“I think there’s also plenty of patrons that either had a bad experience with something virtual early on and just said I’m gonna wait till theatres reopen, or who had just done a lot of virtual programming and were burnt out.”
She doesn’t plan on abandoning it entirely, though.
“The pandemic has taught us that it’s important to have good digital archives so that you can have the streaming option, but how much of it we will continue to do I don’t know… we don’t know how much exactly we’ll do virtual, but we will have some…. We’ll see how it goes with people’s comfort levels and what houses look like as we start to work to get back towards some average numbers with in-person attendance,” she says.
As far as next season, they have just formally announced that their production of Fefu and Her Friends by María Irene Fornés, originally slated to be performed shortly after the shutdown, will instead be opening early this November. Thinking Cap also has plans to write an adaptation to Oscar Wilde’s fairy tales that they’d initially intended for the 2020-2021 season.
“They’re pieces we felt very strongly about seeing through and doing, and we’re doing it under the auspices of a different kind of sort of theme of reopening,” she explains, but her plans for the productions haven’t been untouched by the pandemic.
“It’ll have some components that they would not have had had we done it under normal circumstances in 2020, so it’ll be some of that programming with added features with internships and with audience development that we hadn’t initially planned in association with those pieces.”
Meanwhile, while Island City will still have distanced and masked seating in place for the last production of their current season in June, they plan to operate at their total capacity of about 60 people when their next season commences in October. Though they may still ask their patrons to wear masks depending on the moments’ CDC guidelines, Rogow suspects that audience members may feel more comfortable maskless in his relatively small theatre than they might in, for example, the 1,500 seat Broward.
“Our audience knows they’re in a small community, so people have confidence that everyone around them is vaccinated, “he reflects.
Especially given the specific demographics of Island City Stage, which focuses on LGBTQ stories and attracts a presumably left-wing and vaccine-trusting crowd, that confidence is probably pretty reasonable. The companies’ somewhat niche audience has also turned out to be an incredibly supportive one.
“We had a very successful fundraising year because our donors didn’t want to see us disappear. They understood the challenges we would have, the costs…so we had a lot of support this year actually,” Rogow says.
Though Island City’s small staff meant they didn’t have as extensive of operating costs throughout the pandemic as many larger organizations, the fact that they own their own space rather than work out of a performing arts center meant that they were still responsible for paying a monthly lease.
But though none of their pandemic productions were profitable between the reduced audience capacity and added video costs, as Rogow expected, they still find themselves in “an excellent position” going into their 2021-2022 season. And it’s shaping up to be a pretty exciting one.
“We did not cut back in terms of production size or anything like that. We’re doing more larger cast shows. We decided to come back in a big way. Because that’s what people are missing…what you only get in a live performance. You don’t want to see one or two-person shows all the time,” he comments.
And despite one significant setback Thinking Cap suffered at the beginning of the pandemic, when their third-party ticket service never paid them the money they were owed for some of their early 2020 programs, they too are coming out of it in a relatively good place.
“I think we’re better off than we were before the pandemic in some ways because we’ve cut down all of our costs, and we’ve been smart about the funding that we have received,” she muses.
“The company survived the pandemic because of funding, not because of ticket sales… we’ve had individual donors, and we’ve had some funding organizations that have made it possible for us to cover operating costs. The funding that we’ve gotten has been a blessing because it’s helped offset that deficit, but otherwise, we’re ok for the moment… It hasn’t been easy or luxurious, but it’s been enough that we’ve been able to stay afloat, so for that, we’ve been grateful,” she says.
The pandemic didn’t take a huge financial toll on Boca Stage either, since they had very few expenses while shut down. They were also lucky enough not to lose too many subscribers in the shuffle. Nevertheless, Garsson made an effort to communicate to them that:
“You’re safe, your subscriptions are safe, everything’s good, we’re not canceling or anything, please be patient, and we will be back next year. And over 95 percent of them said fine,” he says.
And, to ensure that his patrons will be safe when they return to the theatre as well, he is planning on requiring that his entire staff be vaccinated.
“Actors, designers, box office, cleaning crew, everybody,” he specifies.
While the company does not have the legal authority to demand that everyone in the audience is vaccinated, Garsson is considering encouraging them by having a welcome back gala for his subscribers that only those who have had their shot can attend. And he’s approaching their upcoming season with a forward-looking back-to-business attitude.
“We have to finish the show that got shut down because of the pandemic…and life will pick up from where we left off. So there’s absolutely no value in what might have been, and what we lost and everything like that,” he explains.
The world we are returning to is a somewhat different world than the one we left, one that has newly started to reckon with some systemic social injustices publicly and Stoddard is excited about how Thinking Cap can contribute.
“Our mission has always been from the very beginning…to program plays that depict the diverse world in which we live…We have a body of work, and it’s been our mission for over a decade, so it’s illuminating that, and seeing what we can do to help galvanize all these different kinds of audiences and artists…I think we see an opportunity now for Thinking Cap to harness the momentum of all these years and be a leader in unifying audiences of different kinds, appreciating all different kinds of theatre. The pandemic has made experimenters out of all artists, and where experimentalism might’ve been seen as fringey, or lesser quality, or any number of things that people who are anti-experimentation might want to call it. I think that the dire need for diversity onstage and offstage and all the different things diversity encompasses means that,” she says.
And though she isn’t entirely sure that the enthusiasm of the moment will last, she is cautiously optimistic.
“For the moment, there’s a lot of positive change, so I think we focus on that and see where it takes us,” she muses.
Rogow also thinks that some of these changes will stay and has some intriguing ideas about where we should best direct our focus.
“I think by nature it has to. I think we’re becoming more diverse as a country. I think that our awareness is certainly greater. I do think there will be some lasting change. I think there needs to be more concentration on how we develop the new artist or patron. Diversity in cast and staff only works if you’re bringing in diverse people if you’re bringing in a diverse audience. And it’s hard, once people are past childhood… we need to concentrate on, how do we get more diverse kids into theatre, how do we get them into going to theatre, how do we get them into doing theatre…so they feel comfortable coming into the theatre, so it becomes a familiar space,” he says.
Exposing children with different backgrounds to theatre earlier could also be a stepping stone for a more diverse next generation of theatremakers. Unfortunately, while Garsson is enthusiastic about including diverse performers, he has found himself limited by his area’s talent pool.
“Obviously if I need somebody to play Martin Luther King, that should be a person of color, if I need someone to play Gloria Steinem, probably should be an older white woman, but that is so rare, almost any role we cast for can be played by pretty much any race. But the turnout from diverse candidates is so low. It could be because we’re in south Palm Beach, and the demographics are very much different from, for example, south Broward and Miami….but it is tough to get a nice pool of talent across the whole spectrum… I’m not saying there are no black actors, but everybody’s saying, a lot of these poor actors, they’re not getting cast, I don’t know how to reconcile that with the turnout at my auditions,” he says.
And he’s had similar experiences when looking for qualified candidates to fill technical roles.
“Of course, I would be thrilled to consider diverse candidates. But, unfortunately, there isn’t a whole lot of them. I had a hard enough time getting any lighting person… I’ll take somebody from the planet Jupiter if they can light a show,” he quips.
But he’s also opinionated about the value of exploring works that focus on previously underrepresented demographics.
“Genie and I naturally gravitate toward American black history because these are great stories. But, moreover, they make for great drama onstage. I mean, who wants to see a play about some white guy who invented hydroponics? That sounds exciting,” he comments wryly.
“But a play about one of the greatest blues singers of all time, alright… these are great stories, great moments in history, and, let me put on my producer hat for a second, these kinds of shows sell. We have many snowbirds here, many folks from New York, Chicago, Washington, the northeast. These folks love stories from African-American history. So it’s a little surprising and a little sad to me that there isn’t more…We don’t have to do the same old plays over and over again,” he reflected.
Ultimately, though, a play’s artistic merits will always matter more to him than any social considerations.
“You don’t do a play just because you have good intentions, because you think it will be good for people. You have to do it because you think it’s an amazing play,” he says.
Well, it sounds like all three companies have plenty of outstanding plays in the works for this season, perhaps even having emerged reinvigorated for the artistic “intermission” the pandemic necessitated.
“Taking some time off helped us clarify our attitudes, it helped me, I think, having a break, really allowed me, to focus on what we do best, for moving forward, what is it that we can best provide for our community, and what is it that our patrons relate to most,” Rogow reflects.
He is, though, somewhat unsure what to expect as far as ticket sales once reopening commences.
“Starting in September, there’s going to be a tremendous amount of stuff happening. Theatre’s going to be open, all these kind of in-person events, networking events, all these things are going to start back up again, so then it becomes overload…and I do have to worry a little about if people have become comfortable watching Netflix, and say you know, it’s gotta be an amazing show that gets me out of the house, so I can’t predict, whether we’re going to have this surge of people buying tickets, or whether because it’s going to be kind of moderate because people’s habits have now changed,” he reflects.