A collective gasp at the climax of a play, the thundering applause at curtain call, or a pregnant pause before a standing ovation all help make the live theater experience.
But that all disappeared when COVID shut down everything two years ago.
And now that patrons have slowly begun coming back to see live shows, theater is not the same — for staff behind the curtain or those in the audience. With new protocols and viewing options, actors and arts administrators have had to expand their skill sets and learn to adjust and take on new tasks. Theatergoers have also had to adapt to new rules, but are also being offered new ways to see productions.
One big change for staff has been the enforcement of coronavirus protocols. Keeping an eye on rising COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations is now part of the job. Most theaters now require masks to protect other theatergoers and the employees. Without a citywide mask mandate, staff at each theater enforce those rules. Staff are also often still checking patrons’ temperatures as they enter.
At Everyman Theatre, located in Baltimore’s Bromo Arts District, Kate Appiah-kubi, the coordinator who manages a large community of ushers, has had to help them adapt to the changes.
“Patience is really the key for me,” Appiah-kubi said about working with nearly 300 active volunteers. Appiah-kubi also had the responsibility of informing her team when shows have been canceled due to the coronavirus. It’s important for each volunteer to feel informed and empowered when they arrive at the theater, she said. The last-minute cancellations can be disruptive but unavoidable.
Joseph Ritsch has also had to learn to be more patient and flexible as producing director at Rep Stage, a regional professional theater based at Howard County Community College. A new memorandum of understanding from Equity, the actor’s union, requires testing twice a week for every actor. It’s unpredictable if a production will even take place on any given day.
“We have to wait until that weekend sometimes, to know if the show is happening or not,” Ritsch said.
Ron Legler, president of the Frances Merrick Performing Arts Center, has also faced similar issues at the Hippodrome Theatre. The Hippodrome works with the Broadway League, a national trade organization that gives guidance for each Broadway performance. Financial assistance from Broadway Across America, the touring company for Broadway shows, allowed the Hippodrome to work with doctors and researchers on best practices for filtration and air quality at the theater.
Along with turning theaters into coronavirus watchdogs, the pandemic caused them to shift toward new ways for people to see productions.
Before the pandemic, many regional theaters had never offered recordings of their performances online, though some used recordings for educational purposes. Quarry Theatre, which has no permanent home, was looking for ways to carry on with productions and reach audiences during the pandemic. The theater’s artistic director, Ryan Clark, wrote and conceived a production, “The Discourse Project,” where actors filmed monologues from their homes. It was exclusively produced on video and Clark and his colleagues learned video editing and led virtual rehearsals.
Quarry focuses exclusively on original works, which Clark says has been helpful post-pandemic during such a large industry adjustment. Theater fans are looking for new bodies of work after being stuck inside for two years.
“People are craving live theater and some people are starting to get a bit tired of looking at screens,” he said.
The fallout from the pandemic has also resulted in more partnerships between theaters looking for ways to be more cost-effective. Quarry Theatre will produce an original opera, “Forever Yours, Lincoln,” this fall at Voxel Theater, a black box space in downtown Baltimore and a theater newcomer. It began as a project of Figure 53, a popular Baltimore-based software company that created apps allowing theaters to control lighting and audio.
Baltimore has seen collaborations like this in the past, such as when ArtsCentric, which begins its 10th anniversary season in July, partnered with Center Stage in 2016 for a production of “Dreamgirls” for a week-long, sold-out performance. More theaters may make partnerships like these a priority as budget constraints created during the pandemic continue.
The institutions that educate the next generation of theater workers have also had to adapt.
Joseph Ritsch works with students in Howard County Community College’s entertainment technology program to earn a certificate in theater and video production. He learned the value of the program during the COVID-related changes theaters have undergone. Students have had a lot of disruptions to their education and returning to the theater has been beneficial for them, he said.
Clark, a professor of theatre and media performance at Stevenson University, has been learning new skills alongside his students. At Stevenson, students are given a liberal arts education that has always included media performance or acting for the camera. Educating future actors to be nimble and adaptable is key as companies have begun expanding their offerings for remote viewing and live streaming, he said.
Charisse Nichols, director of brand marketing at Baltimore Center Stage, said the arts are not immune to the struggles presented by COVID closures. Most creative organizations are seeing budget shortfalls because they couldn’t operate during the pandemic. It could take years for theaters to recover from the losses they are incurring right now, several in the industry said.
“In the same way that restaurants and businesses struggled to regain their prowess, the arts are doing the same,” Nichols said.
Theaters are working hard on innovation and engaging people in new ways because they will need patrons to buy tickets, fill seats and volunteer at shows.
Baltimore’s theater scene is vibrant and diverse, but without reinvestment and creative partnerships, its future is unclear, those who run theaters say.
Clark from Quarry Theater believes that empowering artists to think outside the box and create new original works is “the wave of the future.” When there is a concerted effort to bring fresh voices into the theater, fresh audiences will follow, he and others said.
But those audiences need to be more than just people in seats, Nichols said.
“A full house means so much more than ‘we bought a ticket,’ it means, ‘we bought your future,’” she said.