The COVID-19 pandemic has wreaked havoc on the performing arts, with organizations forced to cancel shows and close their venues. But while theaters are empty and there has been no word from the state on when shows can go on again, Fairfield County’s performing arts organizations have no plans to quietly sit on the sidelines and meekly cede their home-quarantined audiences to “Tiger King.”
“We can’t have live symphony concerts anymore,” said Russell Jones, president and CEO of the Stamford Symphony. “So, what’s the next best alternative? We put up the Stamford Symphony Channel.”
The new channel is on the symphony’s website and features recorded performances plus solo serenades, informal practice videos and interviews featuring symphony members, and a children’s section to help the next generation of musical talent learn their craft.
Jones insisted the channel should not be viewed as a second-best substitute, but as new entity that gives the audience more depth and understanding of the distinctive individuals that collaborate in the creation of symphony performances.
“People are beginning to discover the personalities of the individual musicians,” he said. “They have lives off the concert stage. Some of them have the most amazing instruments with amazing histories. Some of the string instruments are hundreds of years old.”
Jones pointed out that “40% of our audience comes from outside Stamford,” enabling distant patrons to stay in touch. He added that the online component could continue after the symphony resumes live performances.
“Who knows what next year will look like?” he asked. “We might have audiences worldwide next year if we record or stream concerts next year because we can’t get back into the Palace Theatre yet. We could record our concerts as much as the authorities will let us and with all the health and safety and social distancing rules, but we could be sending out music around the world. And that’s really cool for a small orchestra like us that up till now couldn’t do international tours.”
Another organization taking the online route is the Brookfield Theatre for the Arts, which hosted a May 21 live streaming version of Shakespeare’s “Henry V.”
“Director Jane Farnell cut the script down to about 45 minutes and made it pertinent to today,” said Lou Okeller, the theater’s president. “And we’ve been rehearsing by telephone and Zoom and other methods.”
The theater also serves up weekly live-streamed events every Thursday evening at 7:30, with offerings ranging from readings of original scripts to audience participation.
“We recently did one where we invited people to recite their favorite monologue or poem,” Okeller said. “We’re going to be doing one coming up where it’s kind of going to be like a virtual audition type of thing.”
The Ridgefield Theater Barn has taken audience participation out of the virtual world and into the real version via its “Ghost Light Session” initiative that invites audience members to take a ghost light — the bare electric light stand that remains illuminated when a theater is unoccupied — and create original performance videos using the item as a prop.
“It’s been fascinating,” said Pamme Jones, executive director. “We’ve gotten people from all over the place — not just people who are associated with the theater and not even people who are in our immediate area. They read stories, they tell stories, they share all sorts of different things.”
Another Ridgefield theater company, Thrown Stone, postponed its 2020 season due to the pandemic and moved its scheduled shows to next year. Jonathan Winn, co-artistic director, noted that his organization was somewhat luckier than other performing arts venues in dealing with the financial aspects of the pandemic.
“We’re in a very unique situation because we don’t have a space,” he said. “We thought it was our biggest liability, it turns out to be our biggest asset — we don’t have lease and our overheads are very low, we have some storage.”
Thrown Stone is making its online presence known with “Acts of Fate,” an invitational series of performances based on original essays linked to the theme of moments that create great change.
“We’re not just looking for any excuse to do theater by Zoom, but for real opportunities for people to connect,” Winn said.
But Winn is concerned on what he will be facing when his postponed season is being readied for next year’s audiences.
“If there’s more disruption in terms of some of the things that we’ve heard about — box offices having infrared thermometers and socially distancing people within the auditorium — well, that’s just not our brand,” he insisted. “We are all about intimate spaces. And if we can’t be intimate, we will have to figure something else out or postpone again. We hope it doesn’t come to that.”
Still, a few regional performing arts venues are planning to be back in front of an audience in the near future. Valley Shakespeare Festival is moving forward with “As You Like It” for a Sept. 3-6 run at Shelton’s Veterans Memorial Park. Tom Simonetti, the festival’s creator and executive director, is focused on balancing public health concerns while staging his show.
“We’re working with Actors Equity and also the city of Shelton,” he said. “Obviously with our audiences, we want to keep them safe so everybody will be wearing a mask — no matter what, we will have masks available. We will have stations set up throughout the audience where people can you know sanitize their hands, and we will have gloves available if people feel that they need those. Anything that the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) is basically requiring, we’re up there ready to do it for our audience, including keeping them six feet away from our performance area and making sure that all audience members or families are six feet apart.”
To further aid public health concerns about lingering crowds, Simonetti is editing down the five-act play to a compact 70-minute version for this presentation and limiting the pre-performance picnics that were a tradition for his company’s annual Shakespeare in the park offerings.
“It’s a big part of coming to the park,” he said. “But sadly, this year it would either be shortened or taken away, depending on how things are going. But by the time we get to September, things can change.”
Bridgeport’s Bijou Theatre is also planning to welcome an audience back with a June 27 production of “The Music of Sade: No Ordinary Bank.” But Gary Peterson, the venue’s executive director, admitted this could be subject to change.
“I don’t know if I’ll be able to do that or not,” he said. “I suspect it may be midsummer or fall. Like everyone else, we’re just I’m just trying to read it out and see — day to day and week to week, the information changes. I’ve rescheduled a lot of the shows to the fall, but who knows if we’ll be able to do them then?”
With a mix of auditorium and cabaret-style seating, the Bijou can accommodate 190 patrons for a show. But Peterson wondered if he could reconfigure the venue to meet social distancing protocol without losing too much of his audience.
“I’m not sure, to be honest with you,” he said. “I’ve seen some of the models and I don’t know how we can work with, say, a 50% crowd or something to that effect. We’ll try the best we can.”
Still, Peterson added, adversity in not uncommon in his profession.
“As you know, it was a tough business before this happened.”