By Kimberly Dijkstra

For more than 30 years, the Nashville Shakespeare Festival has been bringing the bold and brilliant works of William Shakespeare to the Mid-South Tennessee community, following through with its mission to educate, entertain, and enrich the lives of its audiences.

Executive Artistic Director Denice Hicks has been with the “company run by artists” for most of its history and is more committed than ever to make Shakespeare and theater in general available to everyone.

“It’s a family-friendly, dog-friendly, all-accessible, no barriers festival every summer,” Hicks said about the annual Shakespeare In the Park productions, offered free-of-charge as a service to the community.

A number of disasters have hit Nashville in the past year – from a devastating tornado and record flooding last March to a shocking bombing downtown on Christmas morning – all while the COVID-19 pandemic rages on. Yet residents, and the theater community in particular, have proven resilient.

“The local professional theater community is pretty tight,” Hicks said. “It’s a very friendly and mutually supportive community [and] we do our best to support each other when we need it.”

Nashville Shakes, as it is affectionately known, was fortunately able to complete a successful winter season before making the decision to shut down due to COVID. Hicks canceled a show scheduled to tour in between seasons, then held out hope that a smaller scale reading could take the place of the festival before ultimately deciding for the first time in 33 years to not do a summer show.

“It was a really hard decision,” she said. “We had to make a lot of decisions for our company, for our audience, and for our artists to be sure that safety was the absolute top priority.”

In addition to full-time staff and seasonal contracts, the festival hires a number of young volunteers, senior citizens, and serves a very diverse community.

As COVID raged on, Hicks carried on with the 13-year tradition of leading a public reading of a Shakespeare play the first Saturday of every month. Instead of at the downtown library, readings have shifted to virtual attendance.

“The Zoom readings work effectively the same way they do at the library – we read round robin so everybody gets to read,” she explained. “I have loved being able to serve some of the elderly that couldn’t quite make that trip anymore. Now they can get back to participating.”

Hicks and her team have also held virtual classes and workshops for students where they've learned a variety of skills, from the Suzuki method to writing and presenting their own sonnets. Following the workshops, the instructors coach the students individually and help them improve on all of the skills they've learned.

Another positive that has come from the downtime created by the shutdowns is the official launch of a partnership with a black-owned theater called Kennie Playhouse Theater, led by Founder/Artistic Director Kenny Dozier.

“Kenny and I have been talking for a couple of years about how do we collaborate,” Hicks said. “2020 gave us the opportunity to really plan and figure out how to make it work.”

Together they did a virtual co-reading of “Sweet Water Taste” by Gloria Bond Clunie and will present August Wilson’s “Jitney” and Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night” at Shakespeare In the Park this summer. 

“We’re really hoping the message is that we’re not doing an August Wilson play for the black community, we’re doing an August Wilson play for the whole community, and we’re not doing Shakespeare for any particular community. It has always been our mission to serve everybody,” Hicks said.

Shakespeare was, after all, “the people’s playwright.”

“The messages in [his works], the relationships, the stories that he tells really transcend cultures and I’m always striving to have people understand that,” Hicks said. “It may be a challenge, but it’s worth it.”

Hicks and the Nashville Shakes board have been grateful for the time to reassess and re-envision their practices. They have recently renewed work on a five-year plan and are back on track with a new, more inclusive, more equitable agenda that involves an ongoing partnership with Kennie Playhouse Theater.

“I’m really looking forward to everybody getting together again and creatively solving problems together and then sharing them with our wonderful community.”

Opening day is set for August 12, 2021. Hicks plans to follow all CDC guidelines, with sensible additional precautions, and have a fully vaccinated cast, crew, and staff. But this opening day much more than just an opening day, it’s renewed optimism after facing much adversity.

“Last spring was probably the most beautiful spring we ever had,” Hicks said. “There’s this sense of yes, things are hard, but look at how much beauty there is and look at how willing people are to help each other.”

For more on The Nashville Shakespeare Festival, visit nashvilleshakes.org.

With additional reporting by Waldo Cabrera

 

By Kimberly Dijkstra

May 21, 2021 — The Argyle Theatre at Babylon Village, Long Island’s newest professional theater, was steadily making a name for itself when the COVID-19 pandemic hit. Just about to cross the two-year mark and opening a production of Cabaret, the countrywide shutdown of non-essential business came as a devastating blow to father and son co-owners Mark and Dylan Perlman.

“The sole goal [was] perseverance and survival and being able to say, okay, COVID-19 is obviously going to put a big dent in our plans and we’re going to be closed for X amount of time,” said Dylan. “We will be back and The Argyle Theater will survive and thrive once again. That has been the goal throughout this year and it hasn’t been easy.”

Compared to other theaters with longer histories or wider subscriber bases, The Argyle was in a unique situation. They didn’t want to fade into obscurity just as they were growing their fanbase. Fortunately, the Perlmans were able to continue running The Argyle Academy of the Arts, educational programming for kids and adults, and pivot to hosting online streaming events.

“By offering virtual programming, we were still able to engage our students and our audience,” Dylan said. 

The theater also gave kids a safe place to learn and express their creativity.

Their experience hosting concerts, comedy shows, and other limited engagements in addition to their year-long roster of musicals uniquely positions The Argyle for reopening, as New York State mandates allow.

“As the restrictions loosen up and as we see the vaccine rollout proceed, we will likely be looking to book one-off events, whether it be comedy shows, concerts, or bringing in our former performers for a Broadway night,” Dylan said. “I think those will be the things we utilize to ease our audiences back into the theater and theatergoing experience.”

Though schedules are not settled yet, the Argyle never took down the set of Cabaret, so there is no doubt what their first post-COVID musical will be.

Also looking forward to saying “Vilkommen” to The Argyle are the businesses on Main Street.

“We’re an integral part of that downtown,” Dylan explained.  “All the foot traffic we create, all of the restaurants and shops that really benefit from the theater being there.”

“We, and those in our situation, are economic engines of our communities,” continued Dylan. “It’s so important for we, meaning we as a community, as a society, to prioritize getting theaters and venues back up and running.”

“I do think the mood is up. The mood is positive,” Mark said, reflecting the words on the Argyle marquee:

Stay The Course. Stay Tuned.

For more on The Argyle, visit argyletheatre.com.

Additional reporting by Waldo Cabrera.

By Kimberly Dijkstra

April 30, 2021 — Established in 1949 in bucolic Bellport, The Gateway Performing Arts Center of Suffolk County celebrated its 71st anniversary amid a global pandemic. With such a long history of bringing live entertainment to Long Island, The Gateway has seen its share of highs and lows and COVID is another challenge it is prepared to work through.

Under the leadership of Executive Artistic Director Paul Allan, the theater has been creative about weathering this storm.

“We started a drive-in movie series by constructing a 40-foot-tall by 20-foot-wide outdoor movie screen and we started screening movies six days a week,” Allan said.

The summer movie series was a hit with audiences and culminated in the first-ever Drive-In Movie Gala in September, a two-night fundraiser hosted by Hollywood icon Isabella Rossellini. The exciting event also featured virtual appearances and performances by Gateway alumni Sally Struthers, Julia Macchio with her father “The Karate Kid” Ralph Macchio, and Renee Taylor, known best for The Nanny.

The Gateway School for the Performing Arts remained open, holding many of its classes outdoors. The students were able to put on a virtual performance of “The Addams Family.”

“They did the presentation on the main stage, but there was noon in the audience,” Allan explained. “We filmed it and Zoomed it to the parents.”

By fall, The Gateway had to start rethinking their wildly popular Haunted Playhouse attraction. The challenge was to provide scares in a COVID-safe environment.

“We wound up coming up with an outdoor drive-through haunted trail experience that was unique to the area and fairly unique in the country” said Allan.

“The Gateway’s Forgotten Road” was a hit. It provided families with fun and safe scares during actual scary times. The drive-through haunt even drew national attention, appearing on CBS Sunday Morning.

An announcement by New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo allows for entertainment venues to open at 33 percent capacity with a maximum of 100 people indoors beginning April 2. The Gateway seats 500.

“We’re not sure how quickly the audience is going to feel comfortable being in a theater with 100 people, but times are changing really fast,” said Allan, who hopes to put on a smaller-than-usual-scale professional show to test the waters. “To fulfill the expectations of our subscribers…it might mean pushing a show to the fall, maybe a shorter run. I think everyone is going to be very understanding of how we’ll need to shift around the schedule to accommodate the times.”

When the professional actors return depends on state guidelines, as well as Actors Equity union rules regarding actor safety.

Though many factors are up in the air, Allan maintains a positive outlook for the future.

“My gut tells me there’s going to be an explosive interest in seeing live events,” Allan said. “And we want to be ready to give them a show when they’re ready to come out and see it.”

For more on The Gateway, Long Island’s oldest professional theater, visit thegateway.org.

 

Additional reporting by Waldo Cabrera.

By Kimberly Dijkstra

May 6, 2021 — Halfway between Orlando and Miami resides Riverside Theatre in the coastal town of Vero Beach. The independent nonprofit is notably considered “America’s largest small town professional theater.” Containing a 692-seat main stage, a 250-seat secondary stage, and a campus filled with other modern facilities, Riverside attracts audiences from far and wide to their quality productions and education opportunities.

“Local to us means the state of Florida,” joked Jon Moses, managing director and COO.

Not only do audiences regularly travel up to 100 miles to Vero Beach to see the latest large-scale musical production or newest edgy play, artists and performers travel from all over to work there.

When the COVID-19 pandemic struck early last year, like many in Florida, Moses and his team looked to Disney World as a model for their response. Disney closed in mid-March and Riverside followed suit. They had just opened “La Cage aux Folles” and had another show in rehearsals when Moses announced they would close and regroup two weeks later.

“We have an older audience and individuals were becoming concerned,” Moses said. “We were following the audience’s lead, we were following the lead of the staff and the artists, and that was first and foremost, and still is, in our decision making.”

Riverside has been an important amenity to the community since it opened in 1973 and had no intention of abandoning them during a challenging time.

In May of 2020, Moses was granted permission by the city to operate under the state’s restaurant guidelines.

“When we’re not using the second stage for shows, we have comedy, and it’s all table seating like a restaurant,” Moses explained. “We have servers, we have our kitchen. It runs like a restaurant.”

They spaced out the tables and chairs and maintained a 50 percent occupancy rate and have been consistently offering comedy shows every weekend since last May.

In addition, Riverside kept audiences engaged by introducing “Live in the Loop,” free outdoor concerts with food and beverage service on Fridays and Saturdays. A creative application of modern technology allows patrons to place their order and pay from their seats, eliminating the need to wait on crowded lines all together.

Like many theaters, Riverside has also expanded upon its social media presence with a series of videos, from behind-the-scenes and flashback clips to interviews with artists and thank-yous for the viewers.

Riverside has been a success story in the theater community due to its planning and adaptability during the pandemic. The three-year financial plan devised by the board and top donors allowed them to keep their entire staff.

“We did not let people go because of COVID, and we continued to work towards this next season,” Moses said.

The 2020-21 season has been postponed until January 2022. In the meantime, sets continue to be built and other elements continue to be worked on so that Riverside will be ahead of the game when they fully reopen.

Though they felt fortunate to keep their jobs during the pandemic that created so much unemployment, the Riverside staff felt some amount of guilt.

“The entire staff has gone through various phases of mourning,” Moses said. “They kept their jobs, but so many of their friends lost their jobs and they had to live with that.”

The emotions the pandemic has brought on are varied and countless, but Moses does see theater returning to normal. As the president of the Florida Professional Theatres Association, he has kept in close touch with others in the community through Zoom meetings.

“I can tell you that Florida theater is hanging on really strong,” he said. “They’re gearing up. They’re ready to get back.”

For more on Riverside Theatre, visit riversidetheatre.com.

With additional reporting by Waldo Cabrera.

By Kimberly Dijkstra

April 29, 2021 — For over 20 years, Boise Contemporary Theater has been a driver of arts and culture in Idaho. The black box theater, led by Artistic Director Benjamin Burdick, is committed to telling stories that resonate with the community and highlight the human experience through contemporary works.

Poised in March of 2020 to stage the world premiere of “The Show on The Roof,” a musical that examines Boise’s social and political turbulence in 1955, Burdick and his team had to make the difficult decision to postpone the production due to the emerging COVID-19 pandemic. 

At the time, there were only a handful of cases in Idaho. With the majority of the cast coming from New York, an early COVID hotspot, Burdick sought advice from friends and contacts in the medical world.

“My biggest nightmare was that we would somehow be a location of some sort of super spreader event,” Burdick said about management’s decision to shut the theatre. “While it was disappointing for the actors, artists, and staff, everyone understood.”

He added, “Patrons also understood, and frankly, I think they were relieved that we made the call.”

Weeks later, Idaho Governor Brad Little mandated the closure of non-essential businesses, but Boise Contemporary was ahead of the curve. 

Like many other theatres in American, BCT turned to virtual performances. 

 

“We tried to do a Zoom reading. It was just terrible,” Burdick recalled. He wasn’t pleased with the medium, so he scrapped the experiment telling the performers he wouldn’t put them in a position where they wouldn’t look their best.

ACT then partnered with The Idaho Botanical Garden. In June, July, and August 2020, the theater staged three readings on the garden’s gorgeous 15-acre property.

“It was outdoors, it was a beautiful setting, and as soon as we put the tickets on sale for each of those shows, it was sold out within the day,” Burdick explained. “There was already this real desire to see art and theater and gather safely.”

In the fall, they conducted their first-ever audio play, a one-woman show called “Ann” in celebration of former Idaho Governor Ann Richards and the centennial of the 19th amendment. They plan to release a filmed version of this show and audiences are geared up for another outdoor summer reading series.

Boise Contemporary Theater is located in downtown Boise in the BODO district surrounded by opera, ballet, and philharmonic venues, forming the creative lifeblood of the city. 

“There’s a large artistic community here – a great pool of really talented actors, and also writers, and filmmakers, and poets, and musicians,” Burdick said. 

This creative community is part of a symbiotic relationship with downtown businesses. ACT often hosts “after show events” at local restaurants, often flooding the place with theatre goers. 

Burdick would like nothing more than to get back to that tempo of life. 

“The hardest part of reopening is making all of these contingency plans, and the uncertainty,” he said.

One thing is certain, “The Show on the Roof” will rise! It’s an important piece of Boise history that highlights battles fought by and the perseverance of the LGBT community with song, dance, and humor. 

ACT’s goal is to open the show when the in-person capacity is near 100 percent. Burdick explained, “it deserves to be seen by as many people as possible.”

For more on Boise Contemporary Theater, visit bctheater.org.

With additional reporting by Waldo Cabrera.

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