Performing arts groups plan in an uncertain era
In a normal year, early October would find area theaters and performing arts venues abuzz, welcoming audiences to their first shows of their performance season, while casting, auditioning and rehearsing for shows to come.
Of course, this isn’t a normal year -- New York’s response to the coronavirus pandemic has barred the public from large entertainment venues since March, with no definitive word about a timeline for reopening. Some traditional touchstones -- Geva Theatre Center’s annual production of “A Christmas Carol,” for instance -- had to be called off.
“There’s no sign from the governor or from local state or health agencies about opening any kind of venues,” Blackfriars Theatre artistic and managing director Danny Hoskins noted. “I don’t think anyone wants to be the one who says ‘let’s open it all back up’ and then the (COVID-19) numbers get out of hand.”
But the buzz is still there, as performance companies have been far from idle amid the pandemic and pause. They’ve been offering content online, everything from “Couch Concerts” to theatrical tutorials to, in the coming months, full shows. Some have been active in civic engagement amid the demonstrations over the deaths of Black men in police custody here and elsewhere. Some have offered classes and camps and podcasts. And pretty much everyone has been devising plans for the year to come -- in some cases, multiple plans, contingent on whether and at what level venues may open.
“The spirit within the theater right now at the moment -- we’re so happy to be back producing,” said Geva artistic director Mark Cuddy. “We’re working with actors, directors -- it’s just been so long. We’re really excited.”
Geva is among companies that have announced their 2020-21 seasons, starting with online shows -- in Geva’s case, a series of radio plays by Black playwrights -- with other shows tentatively planned to be back in the theater, with the understanding that, depending on circumstances, that may not be possible and they may have to either reschedule or retool a show for online. The recent KeyBank Rochester Fringe Festival, with 12 days of all-virtual performances across the whole spectrum of creative arts, showcased the possibilities of that format.
“While it’s awkward for both the performers and the audience, it’s what the landscape offers at the moment,” Dark Blue Mondaze founder Gary Dewitt Marshall said. “I don’t see it really going away.”
Even if a safe and effective vaccine were to be developed and distributed, even if sooner rather than later, things aren’t likely to go right back to “normal” as if the virus had never been. Any reopening would likely come in stages, with part-capacity attendance allowed. And some patrons aren’t going to feel comfortable coming back until that vaccine is in place, and maybe for a while after. Some entities, like Bristol Valley Theater in Naples, are considering making virtual offerings of all their future shows available to patrons.
Meanwhile, at least one company has been even busier amid this unconventional year than ever before. OFC Creations signed the deal for its new venue in Winton Plaza in Brighton about the time the pandemic set in, and staff toiled to renovate the site, including a 260-seat theater, in time to conduct several weeks of summer theater camp there once the state gave the OK for summer camps.
“I think having a project to do when nothing was happening was a little bit calming,” said OFC Creations artistic director Eric Vaughn Johnson.
Following is a partial overview of what selected performing arts groups are planning in the short and -- with the understanding that the future is unclear -- longer term.
Blackfriars Theatre had to cancel its originally planned 2021 season at its 795 E. Main St. theater in Rochester but has set up a revised, six-show subscription season, according to artistic and managing director Danny Hoskins -- shorter shows with no intermission, to reduce the transmission risk. The season has been announced to subscribers but not to the public yet; it will be released at some point in the future. At this point, there’s too much uncertainty to set anything in stone, Hoskins noted: “Every day it feels like there’s something new that’s happening,” he said -- and a performing arts webinar during Fringe with medical and legal experts didn’t raise hopes for venues reopening anytime soon, maybe not until next summer or fall, he noted.
Still, he noted with determination, “We will have programming through the year.”
Blackfriars has been active over the past months online: offering a book club Thursdays (now on hiatus), a summer comedy series featuring Unleashed! Improv (to return in October), ongoing short “Couch Concerts” Tuesdays featuring performers in Blackfriars’ orbit singing a show tune from home (hence the “Couch”), an all-ages conservatory on Zoom (with another planned for November/December) and more.
And coming up is Blackfriars’ main annual fundraiser, the “Season Soiree” fundraiser gala, to take place online Nov. 21 in support of the theater’s educational programming. (Ticket buyers will be sent a link.) A lineup of five musicals being considered for the 2021-22 season will be revealed, with attendees buying voting chips to cast their votes for their favorite show and the winning show to be presented that season.
Bread & Water
“Bread & Water’s plans are basically in flux,” artistic director JR Teeter said via email. “We recognize that it is unlikely that Covid-19 will allow the governor to reopen theatres anytime soon so we are trying to find ways around the pandemic that are beneficial to our audience.”
Teeter himself is currently writing “Requiem for Daniel Prude,” a play being designed for Zoom using material garnered from interviews, public documents and other public domain materials centered around the death of Daniel Prude at the hands of Rochester police officers in March. “I hope doing this sort of story with a social conscience is something we can do more of and connects to audiences in Rochester as well as those outside the area,” Teeter said.
Bread & Water plans to launch various workshops, gallery events and other smaller-scale events (possibly online writing workshops), Teeter said, as a way to “fill the artistic void we are experiencing” and “connect with our audience in new and different ways.”
Also coming up: The First and Final Word Play Competition, in which the plays will be written, directed and performed over the space of 24 hours, with a single rule: The play entrants write can only have a single word of dialogue, either uttered once or by multiple characters. According to the B&W website, the finalists’ plays will be performed at a workshop Sept. 11, 12 or 13 at the Bread & Water Theatre, 172 W. Main St., Rochester.
Once restrictions are lifted, Teeter said, Bread & Water hopes to present some of the plays that were intended for 2020-21, the company’s 20th anniversary season, including Brecht’s “Mother Courage and Her Children” and Ibsen’s “Master Builder.”
Bristol Valley Theater
The Naples-based Bristol Valley Theater has an advantage that some of its counterparts doesn’t, in that its prime theatrical season isn’t until summertime, so there’s a bit of a buffer -- and the hope that by the time the 2021 summer season rolls around, theaters may be able to reopen.
“We have the luxury of time,” BVT executive artistic director Karin Bowersock said.
But since there are no guarantees, BVT staff are hedging its bets and planning three different modes as they plan for the summer season, to be announced later this fall. It could be a normal, indoor season inside the 151 S. Main St. venue like always; it could be all outdoor productions; it could be all online. (And, Bowersock noted, they’re pondering offering the virtual option for all performances anyway, even when shows return to the venue, for patrons who might not feel comfortable coming back inside right away.)
In the meantime, along with planning for the 2021 season, Bristol Valley has been staying active this year offering assorted online content: a cabaret show, a playreading series of new works, a broadcast of a filmed version of a popular 2019 BVT production (the Henry VIII play “The King’s Legacy”). Plus they’ve stepped out of cyberspace to hold a drive-in concert in Middlesex.
Coming up next, as part of the Donald and Skippy Raines Fall for the Arts Series is a fall favorite, “Mystery Radio Theater,” featuring four old-time mystery shows from the Golden Age of Radio presented live, with streaming to run Oct. 16 through Nov. 30. Ticket-buyers will receive a link and password; they can be purchased individually for $5 each, or $15 for all four.
Dark Blue Mondaze
Dark Blue Mondaze, which focuses on performances with strong social-justice themes and which targets underserved communities, soon will be offering a “Boutique Theatre Series” via Zoom, rebroadcasting a number of DBM’s original productions followed by a Q&A session with the cast. The productions include “12 Dollars,” “Monologues on Clarissa Street,” “The History Man,” “The Smudge Stick Experience,” “Blue for Mister Charlie” and “Holidaze Harmony.”
Down the road, founder Gary Dewitt Marshall hopes to, through his Theatre Association of New York contacts, offer Dark Blue Mondaze productions to other theater companies in the state to offer their own subscribers -- shows of the sort companies might like to offer but may not have the demographics in their own communities to mount. “It’s a way to sort of pollinate the marketplace with some of the kind of plays and material that the communities are longing for but the talent pool maybe is not always there,” he said.
In the meantime, he views this time of pause through a lens of opportunity.
“I believe that artists will find that there’s nothing else that they can do, and see this as an opportunity to create,” he said. In terms of the creative community, “There are those like myself who see this as an opportunity more than it has been a drawback.”
Coming up this fall, Geva has scheduled “Recognition Radio,” an audio play festival featuring four plays written and directed by Black artists amplifying diverse Black stories, with dates to be announced soon. The first is to be released Oct. 27, artistic director Mark Cuddy said.
Following that, several shows tentatively have been scheduled for January through July 2021 on the Wilson Stage in the theater at 75 Woodbury Blvd. in Rochester:
-- “Where Did We Sit on the Bus?” (January/February) -- a one-man hip-hop autobiography by Brian Quijads, set to a live, looped soundtrack, about growing up Latinx in a world that categorizes everyone in black and white.
-- “The Real James Bond … Was Dominican” (February/March) -- a one-man show created by Christopher Rivas, about his discovery as a .007-obsessed boy that international man of mystery Porfirio Rubirosa, the inspiration for Ian Fleming’s iconic Bond character, was Dominican like him.
-- “Wine in the Wilderness (April) -- a play by Alice Childress that explores gender and class issues as well as race, set in Harlem during the 1964 race riots.
-- “Yoga Play” (May/June) -- a comedy by Dipika Guha about a new CEO’s wild plan to save corporate yoga giant Jojomon from a scandal-sparked fiscal freefall. According to Geva’s website, it’s “a provocative new comedy about confronting cultural appropriation and searching for authenticity in a world determined to sell enlightenment.”
-- “Ring of Fire” (June/July) -- the musical biography of Johnny Cash, featured more than two dozen of the Man in Black’s hits.
Over the summer, Cuddy said, Geva mostly turned its attention to community engagement, trying to be an ally for people protesting after the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis and, more recently, the revelations about the March death of Daniel Prude in Rochester. Located near Martin Luther King Jr. Park, a frequent site of protests, Geva opened its lobby on Saturdays to allow demonstrators to come in and use the restroom and pick up bottled water and granola. The theater canceled its annual gala, even an online version, set for the summer -- it just wanted the right time amid everything that was happening, Cuddy noted.
The question they’ve tried to address: “How can we be an ally -- especially being a predominately white institution?” Cuddy said. “We’re just trying to do our part as best we can.”
“I was completely convinced that by the time we got to September/October we were going to be ready” for in-person live shows, said JCC CenterStage artistic director Ralph Meranto. Instead, while some functions at the Louis S. Wolk Jewish Community Center of Greater Rochester in Brighton have reopened -- like its fitness center, which opened last month after the state gave gyms the OK -- the Hart Theatre at the JCC remains empty of audiences. Meranto said JCC staff looked at other auditorium space it has available, but the number of audience members they could accommodate under the state's capacity limits would be too small to support in-person shows.
So Meranto and JCC have put together a season of fairly flexible shows, most currently set to be presented online though with the possibility to pivot to in-person should that become possible. First up is the online “Gloria: A Life,” which makes its regional premiere Oct. 10-25. The story of major women’s movement activist Gloria Steinem and her contemporaries, featuring a multi-ethnic cast of seven, was a natural for the centennial year of women’s suffrage -- “I didn’t want to be literal and do anything about Susan B. Anthony that’s been done before,” Meranto said -- particularly since Steinem is a part of the Jewish community. The shows will include a talk-back in with audiences are encouraged to tell their stories.
The rest of the season includes “Stars and the Moon: The Songs of Jason Robert Brown” (Dec. 5-31), with the three-time Tony winner’s songs brought to life by frequent JCC performers Janine Mercandetti and Canandaigua native Carl Del Buono; “The Matzo Ball Diaries” (Jan. 16-24), in which people’s true stories of food, culture and community are interwoven into a storytelling event; and “You’ve Got a Friend: The Music of Carole King and James Taylor” (Feb. 6-14), featuring Kelly Izzo Shapiro, Sarah Eide and Jon Lewis presenting the music of King and Taylor on the 50th anniversary of King’s “Tapestry” and Taylor’s “Mud Slide Slim” albums.
And set for May 8-23 -- with the hope of being live in the theater -- tentatively comes a performance of “Little Shop of Horrors” in memory of onetime JCC artistic director Herb Katz. That was Meranto’s first JCC show, in 1987, with Meranto as Seymour and Katz as Mr. Mushnik; this time, Meranto steps into the Mushnik role.
Also tentatively placed on the schedule are concerts by the David Bromberg Quintet (Feb. 28) and “The Music of Cream” (April 13), and a virtual performance of “Sweat” by Lynn Nottage, about factory workers facing hard times in modern America, on Nov. 1.
Details: tickets: jccrochester.org
The pandemic “stopped us right in our tracks,” OFC Creations artistic director Eric Vaughn Johnson said, coming right in the middle of a run of “Mamma Mia.” OFC canceled the rest of the run and the season, with Vaughn Johnson and staff concentrating on online Zoom theatrical classes for students and renovating the new theater.
Then came word from Albany that summer camps could open: “That was the best news ever for us, because summer camps are our bread and butter,” Vaughn Johnson said. It was also daunting, since schools hadn’t come out with reopening guidelines at that point -- “we were really going into this completely blind” as far as devising a safe environment for the kids, which they did, with masks (and face shields during singing), sanitation, small groups, tiered entrances and exits. Over the course of three months, some 500 kids took part, Vaughn Johnson said. Then in September, OFC worked with a group of teens to present “Little Women” to be filmed in the theater by a professional video company to send to the participants and their families.
As for the future? Vaughn Johnson says he hopes for some kind of, even limited, reopening, noting that New Jersey recently opened live theater to 30% capacity -- and that OFC’s box office continues to field frequent calls.
The 2020-21 season will start with an online offering, the musical “Songs for a New World,” featuring four performers playing an array of characters crossing centuries and situations. They will be performing it in the theater, to be streamed online -- it offers people a peek at the new venue, Vaughn Johnson said. Performances will stream online at 7:30 p.m. Oct. 9 and 10; tickets for streaming are available at www.OFCCreations.com
Following that show, OFC has a number of shows and events planned for the theater, limited to 50 attendees at shows with no at-door ticketing. Coming up are “Frank’s Rat Park,” featuring Frank Torchio singing the songs of Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and others of the era (Oct. 16-17, 7:30 p.m.); “Seth Rudetsky’s Big Fat Broadway Show” (Nov. 7-8); “Remembering Elvis: The King’s Holiday Tunes and More!” featuring Elvis tribute artist Patrick Johnson (Nov. 28-29); “A Golden Girls Christmas Carol, The Musical,” featuring the same team from OFC’s sold-out “The Golden Girls Musical” (Dec. 4-31); “Miss Richfield 1981: 40 Years on the Throne!” featuring an acclaimed drag performer (Feb. 12); and “Joe Posa as Joan Rivers” cabaret show (April 9). There’s also an Empanada Night coming by Nov. 6, with music, beverages and empanadas,
The Penfield Players have tentatively rescheduled the next show for spring 2021, a production of “The Art of Murder,” winner of the 2000 Edgar Award for Best Mystery Play. It’s about a renowned artist who plans to murder his art dealer, and his wife who may or may not be in on it with him. Originally scheduled for spring 2020, it’s currently planned for late April of early May. (Another show is tentatively planned for November 2021, the chilling play “The Haunting of Hill House” based on the Shirley Jackson novel.)
“The board will determine in January whether we can go ahead with our spring show, given the availability of the Penfield Recreation Center and current CDC guidelines on social gatherings,” Penfield Players secretary Elizabeth Saunders said via email.
Studio Z Performing Arts Conservatory currently is registering students for fall and spring classes, offering graduate-level instruction to youth in such areas as acting, directing, design and “Shakespearean Stagecraft.” While Studio Z’s usual site for classes, Asbury First United Methodist Church in Rochester, isn’t available to them currently, artistic director Judy Zanin said they’re talking with OFC Creations about possibly utilizing their new venue in Brighton.
Zanin said she soon will announce a full play, possibly for November -- with a mind toward something that either doesn’t have a large cast or which easily allows for double-casting actors, in order to have fewer kids working and rehearsing together.
So far this year, they’ve been offering instruction over Zoom. “The kids were great and very resilient,” Zanin said. “We were very lucky in that situation.”