The reopening of live theater perches anxiously on the cusp of a reintroduction of in-person performances in 2021, awaiting signals that audiences can feel safe sitting in the same indoor space. Long-suppressed desire for the collective experience of art remains at war with lingering fear of contracting an illness that can turn the lining of one’s lungs to the consistency of concrete. But spring is here, summer looms nearer and presenting venues need to make decisions, pronto.
Some theater companies and venues have already made a commitment to a summer or fall season, though few as yet have released performance dates or show titles. Many theater operators flatly state that they can’t break even mounting shows when seating in the house is limited to one-third capacity, as is currently allowable in New York State. So, they’re waiting for infection rates to go down and vaccination stats to go up, so that the governor’s reopening plan can move into its next phase.
There are hopeful signs at the government level. On March 25, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio unveiled a plan to get Broadway and Off-Broadway reopened by this autumn. The City is about to open dedicated vaccination sites on Broadway for the theater industry, with a mobile vax unit dedicated to Off-Broadway workers, as well as planning pop-up Covid testing sites near major theaters.
The very next day, March 26, Governor Andrew Cuomo trumpeted the launch of the Excelsior Pass: an app built on IBM’s Digital Health Pass platform that can confirm a wannabe audience member’s negative PCR or antigen test result or proof of vaccination. It’s being described as similar to a mobile airline boarding pass, with a secure, scannable QR code for use at points of entry. The Excelsior Pass Wallet app is already downloadable for both Android and iOS; several large venues including Madison Square Garden and the Times Union Center have already agreed to its use; and 13 labs in the state have already pledged rapid delivery of COVID test results to the State Department of Health’s electronic reporting system.
So, it’s beginning to look as if, one way or another, going out to see a live show will be a reality again by this fall, if not sooner. In the meantime, venues with access to outdoor performance spaces, where seating arrangements are more flexible and big investments in ventilation infrastructure aren’t required, enjoy a distinct advantage. Among the event promoters who have already announced outdoor gatherings this year, one of the first out of the gate (appropriately enough) is not a theater company, but a local sports institution: Horseshows in the Sun, a/k/a HITS-on-the-Hudson. The HITS Saugerties Spring Series gets underway on May 26 and runs through June 13, with three weeks of top-tier equestrian competition. Summer and fall series are planned as well.
Also quick off the mark is the 153-acre Kaatsbaan Cultural Park in Tivoli, and the programming for its ambitious Spring Festival, scheduled for the weekends of May 20 to 23 and 27 to 30, involves much more than dance. Highlights will include two world premieres from the American Ballet Theatre; performances by the Mark Morris Dance Group and Martha Graham Dance Company; an interdisciplinary site-specific music and dance commission; music and poetry performances by Patti Smith honoring Bob Dylan’s 80th birthday; book-signings; works by Hudson Valley sculptors positioned throughout the landscape; and panel discussions with various culinary arts celebrities.
Street festivals seem, at first glance, obvious events to make an early comeback, though the inebriation factor can put a quick dent in efforts to keep people socially distanced. Happily, the folks behind the O+ Festival have announced that Kingston’s signature collaboration between medicine and the arts will indeed be back this year, with “O+ygen” as its theme. The scheduled dates are October 8 to 10, and submissions from artists wishing to participate will be accepted from mid-April to May 19.
Several festivals normally unfolding earlier in the year, such as Beltane at Stone Mountain Farm in Tillson and the Rosendale Street Festival, have not yet made any public announcements about whether they’re happening in 2021. Nor has the New York Renaissance Faire, hosted in late summer at Sterling Forest; its voicemail message still expresses regrets about having to cancel in 2020 and says, “We are looking forward to a great 2021 season.” Stay thou tuned.
One major highlight of the summer arts season in the mid-Hudson is Bard SummerScape, and this year it’s back for its 31st incarnation, with the Bard Music Festival spotlighting “Nadia Boulanger and Her World.” Running July 8 through August 22, it will take advantage of the outdoor spaces on the campus of Bard College and (for the first time) the landscape of neighboring Montgomery Place to present a full season of live music, dance, opera and performance. SummerScape 2021 opens with the world premiere of a new commission from choreographer Pam Tanowitz and composer Jessie Montgomery, I was waiting for the echo of a better day. Says Fisher Center artistic director Gideon Lester, “SummerScape has adapted to current circumstances without downsizing the breadth of its programming.” An announcement of the full schedule is promised for April.
It isn’t real summertime without some Shakespeare under the stars, of course, and at least one regional provider of Bardic deliciousness has confirmed that it’ll be back in 2021. The Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival has one more “farewell season” to go in the tent at Boscobel before relocating to its new permanent home on a site next to the Garrison Golf Course that was recently gifted to HVSF by philanthropist Chris Davis. While specific performance dates have not yet been announced, the slightly scaled-back summer 2021 HVSF season will feature two productions, performed sequentially rather than in rotation: The Most Spectacularly Lamentable Trial of Miz Martha Washington by James Ijames, directed by Taylor Reynolds, followed by Shakespeare’s The Tempest, directed by Ryan Quinn.
In the summer of 2020, the only live theater game around was Bird-on-a-Cliff’s annual outdoor Shakespeare production at the Comeau Property in Woodstock. Picnickers’ blankets and beach chairs were carefully spaced out by markers on the lawn as they enjoyed performances of Reed Martin and Austin Tichenor’s three-actor farce, William Shakespeare’s Long-Lost First Play (Abridged). As this company was so far ahead of the curve, it’s reasonable to expect that it will be back again in 2021, although no titles or dates have yet been announced.
Another Ulster County-based theatrical entity favoring Shakespeare is New Genesis Productions, a theater school for youth based at the Little Globe Theater in West Shokan. In-person instruction will go forward this year; an eight-week spring program in Youth Musical Theater is already fully booked. In July and August, the Summer Shakespeare Intensives will focus on “Shakespeare’s Fairies” for 5-to-7-year-olds, A Midsummer Night’s Dream for “apprentices” aged 7 to 10, The Tempest for “journeymen” of 11 to 13 and Twelfth Night for “young masters” of 14 to 18. Master class veterans will perform Hamlet for the general public from June 4 to 13.
New Genesis isn’t the only local stage venue whose focus has been on education in recent months. Bridge Street Theatre in Catskill has dedicated its space this spring to hosting dance residencies, with future stage productions as yet unscheduled. At Vassar College, students are back, but there has been no word yet on the subject of whether the campus’ theater spaces will host a Powerhouse season. The most recent website update, announcing the cancellation of the 2020 season, said, “We look forward to welcoming you back to the Vassar campus and to the theater, in the summer of 2021.” We hope to hear fresh news soon, but we’re not holding our breaths.
SUNY New Paltz’s Department of Theatre Arts has been mounting student productions this semester, without an audience, and streaming them over the Internet. Asked how soon that was likely to change, department chair Ken Goldstein tells HVOne, “We’re having a meeting this Wednesday as a faculty to wrap our heads around that question. We’re following developments on the federal and state level… We’re going to finish this season as we’ve started it: virtually. Our conversation will touch on this fall and the following spring.”
Also heading into a board meeting this week is Shadowland Stages in Ellenville, which has been streaming filmed productions old and new since the pandemic shut things down. The group has also used the enforced downtime to work on a “comprehensive strategic plan for the next 15 years,” according to artistic director Brendan Burke. Diversification of income streams for the future will include more focus on education, as well as making the Art Deco-styled former vaudeville theater available for outside events such as conferences. “This week, the space is being rented for a music video shoot,” Burke informs us.
As for a return to live performances, “There is a 100 percent chance that we will be programming” in 2021, with an announcement promised in April; but many variables will influence the decision of how and when that programming manifests. “We originally wanted to decide by March 31 whether we would have a season or not. But we might have to decide project-to-project through the summer and fall… We know more exponentially day by day,” says Burke. If state guidelines don’t permit selling tickets for a full house by August, “Outside is a possibility we’re considering. We have an outdoor location that we are viewing, considering and planning around, in the greater Ellenville area.”
Shadowland and New Paltz’s Denizen Theatre are two regional venues that have been particularly hampered by their commitment to casting Actors’ Equity members in their shows. “The requirements to get a union contract have been pretty difficult” during the pandemic, according to Burke. “Vaxxing the talent is key to everything.” Denizen’s founder/artistic director Harry Lipstein agrees, saying, “There are still no clear guidelines from Actors’ Equity.”
Not knowing far enough in advance how many audience members can legally be admitted to Denizen’s already-tiny space makes it nearly impossible to program a season, Lipstein says, and he’s not yet ready to divulge what projects are in the works for 2021. But the need for social distancing didn’t stop Denizen from exercising some creativity at any point. “Early on, we were in rehearsal of a two-hand play by Neil LaBute that would’ve been a world premiere: If I Needed Someone. It was just as the pandemic was coming on. So, we decided that it was not the right time. We decided to discontinue it for the health of the audience and the people in it. A week later, Broadway closed.”
Fortunately, the playwright took a liking to the little black box in the Water Street Market and agreed to come back in the summer with a new world premiere, site-specific for an outdoor production, titled True Love Will Find You in the End. “Neil wrote it for us specifically,” Lipstein relates. “We applied for the rights to do it, only to find that Equity had no mechanism to even approve the play.” Ultimately, LaBute rewrote and redesigned the piece to be performed virtually and interactively, “like a radio play.” It was unveiled at Denizen in October 2020, before an audience of “eight people max, sitting six feet apart on opposite sides of the theater.” With nothing else going on in the theatrical world, The New York Times showed up and gave it favorable notices, and the run was extended six weeks into November. “It was a major success for what it was.”
Lipstein is not sanguine about audiences getting over their reluctance to sit in close quarters anytime soon: “Our habit patterns have been altered.” But he also believes that eventually, “Live theater is going to come back in a fury, because we so need these stories.” He’s projecting late summer or early fall as the likeliest time to begin a new season indoors, although an outdoor playreading series in the Water Street courtyard is under consideration. Projects are in gestation, including commissions for two new works from playwrights John Pielmeier and Elizabeth Heffron. “We’re innovating and working with a number of designers as we speak,” Lipstein says.
So, which community theaters in our area are truly ready to commit to live performances this summer? Lou Trapani, director of the Center for Performing Arts at Rhinebeck, says that venue is “going to wait until September” for indoor performances, but it has a temporary outdoor stage already constructed for summer theater. “We’ll have picnic-style seating, with up to 200 allowed on the lawn.” He expects As You Like It to kick off the Center’s traditional Shakespeare Festival in mid-June, followed by The Language Archive by Julia Cho. Other likely offerings include productions of Billy Elliot: The Musical and “a new play called Oedipus Rx.”
Finally, we find that the Woodstock Playhouse has audaciously released actual dates for its 2021 summer season, with tickets to go on sale by mid-April and rehearsals beginning in June. The theater used its downtime to upgrade its air circulation system to MERV-13 filters, says executive director Randy Conti, and “All staff, cast and crew will have to be vaccinated by the time we begin.”
According to Conti, if all goes well, Fame will kick off the Woodstock Playhouse season on June 11 and run through the 27th. Evita will follow from July 2 to 18, interspersed with Saturday matinées of Charlotte’s Web on July 10 and 17. After these will come Blithe Spirit from July 23 to 25 and Sweet Charity from July 30 to August 15.
Yes, theater fans, there are stagelights at the end of the tunnel, and opportunities not far away to be moved once again by the magic of stagecraft, in the company of other humans. To quote Randy Conti, “We’re all in need of social interaction once again. Live theater was meant to be live, not streaming.”