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Susan and Jeffrey Quinn, the husband and wife team that have for the past 35 years run Lakewood Theater in Madison, never thought they’d have to consider something like the fact that staging musicals might be unsafe, because of how far virus-laden respiratory droplets might hurtle out of a singing actor’s mouth.
That’s just one of the countless dilemmas Lakewood and nearly every theater company statewide has had to face over the past three months. One of the first things to be halted during the state’s response to the virus was gatherings of 50 or more people — meaning that every theater and other performing arts venue in Maine has been effectively closed since March 14.
There’s no definitive date as to when such gatherings can resume, though Gov. Janet Mills’ guidelines on reopening indicate that such a thing might be able to happen again on Aug. 1, if there are no further setbacks.
For the most part, summer seasons statewide have been outright canceled. Theaters have been scrambling to pay the bills and come up with contingency plans for a number of scenarios for the fall — from no fall season at all, to reduced capacity, to more performances in a shorter period of time.
“It’s the great unknown,” said Bari Newport, artistic director of the Penobscot Theatre Co. in Bangor. “There are some scenarios that are quite grim. The idea of opening at all is really very daunting.”
Financial stability is the most pressing concern for many companies. Newport, with her board and staff, had planned for a 2020-2021 theater season with a budget of $1.8 million. Over the past two months, they have revised that figure to around half that amount, and are hoping that donations and grants will carry them through to the point where they can resume normal operations.
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“It’s been incredibly heartening to see that our patrons and donors have really stepped up to help out,” said Newport, who is only working 20 hours a week in order to cut payroll costs, with half of the rest of their 15-person staff furloughed entirely. “But we’re still looking at a very scary situation.”
PTC is one of the few theaters statewide that qualify for one of the $50,000 grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, funded by the CARES Act, though Newport said they won’t hear about whether or not they’ve been awarded the grant until July. In the meantime, she and her staff are applying for grants, loans and other funding options nearly around the clock.
In addition to the play “Becoming Dr. Ruth,” which was supposed to open on April 23, PTC had to cancel its summer musical, “9 to 5,” ticket sales from which Newport said can generate up to 30 percent of its yearly revenue. But for about two months between July and September, there are no mainstage productions. PTC hopes to open its 2020-2021 season on Sept. 10, with a production of the comedy “Maytag Virgin.”
At Lakewood Theatre, which along with the Ogunquit Playhouse is one of the oldest “summer stock” theater companies in the country, their entire season typically begins in late May, and runs through September. In its 122-year history, the company has only missed two other seasons — in 1943 and 1944, at the height of World War II.
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“We’ve had to rearrange half of our season,” said Susan Quinn. “We don’t want to have to have the conversation about ‘Will this shut us down for good?’ I don’t think so, but I don’t know. This old girl has seen a lot in her time. It’s certainly not going to be a normal season this year, or next year, most likely.”
Quinn said that, provided the state will lift restrictions on gatherings of over 50 people in August, her theater is planning on having an abridged season, with performances beginning Aug. 6, with heavily reduced capacity in its 400-seat auditorium. Luckily for Lakewood, the company has an additional revenue stream in the form of the in-house restaurant operated by Quinn’s daughter — but it’s still tricky business.
One thing Quinn says likely won’t happen soon is the return of musical theater. The four shows the company has planned for August and September are all plays, as she believes musicals are simply too dangerous to stage, with there being evidence that singing propels respiratory droplets much farther than simply talking.
“We’ve heard the droplets can travel 16 feet while singing, instead of 6 feet while talking,” said Susan Quinn. “That’s a real concern, these days. It’s just not a risk we think we should take. And none of our plays have any major love scenes. If something turns into a hug instead of a kiss, I think our audiences will understand.”
Finding unique and safe ways to have rehearsals and performances is something Julie Lisnet, one of the founders of Ten Bucks Theatre Co. in Bangor, has been thinking about since the virus first hit. Each July and August, the company offers a Shakespeare Under the Stars production, in three outdoor venues in eastern Maine, including Indian Trail Park in Brewer, the Orono Amphitheatre, and Fort Knox State Historic Site in Prospect.
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Given the comparative safety of holding performances outdoors instead of indoors, right now, Lisnet said the company intends to go ahead with their planned performances of “The Taming of the Shrew,” as long as the state will allow it. Lisnet said most rehearsals will be held outdoors, and that all three venues provide ample space for keeping people 6 feet apart — though Lisnet said she’s worried about how the portable toilets will be managed safely.
“This has given us an opportunity to rethink how we stage things,” said Lisnet. “‘Shrew’ is typically a very physical show, so we’re talking about how to choreograph socially distant fights. We’re thinking something like a Keystone Kops-style fight. Very broad, very slapstick-y. I think it has the potential to be very, very funny. And who knows — maybe we’ll all wear masks. We’ll do whatever we need to do to make sure we’re all safe.”
Without the ability to perform outside, however, figuring out how to plan a season and how many people can actually be inside a theater is still a work in progress. Mark Rubin, artistic director of Mad Horse Theatre Co. in South Portland, has been busy thinking about all the different ways things could change, and planning for each of them.
“We have to have multiple contingencies in place. Right now, we’re planning on four shows, starting in October,” said Rubin. “But what if that can’t happen? Do we push it back to January? Do we do three shows instead? Do we try to do something like all three shows, done in a very short period of time? We just don’t know what’s going to happen, so you try to prepare for all the eventualities you can think of.”
Mad Horse, along with Ten Bucks, operates a small theater of its own, with Mad Horse leasing a 50-seat space in South Portland, and Ten Bucks leasing a 100-seat space in the Bangor Mall. Neither have paid staff, so the only bills to be paid are rent and utilities. As long as those costs can be covered, they can at least float by — though maintaining audience engagement is the other key factor.
“The entire company checks in with each other every month to brainstorm ideas about how to stay in touch with our audience,” said Rubin. “We’ve had virtual parties to raise some funds, and the response was fantastic. It still doesn’t cover the lost revenue from shows, but it is a positive sign that we can make that kind of ask, even in this time, and get that kind of response.”
A silver lining to all the uncertainty is that innovation is not only possible — it’s necessary. In Belfast, Midcoast Actors Studio was opening a production of Henrik Ibsen’s “An Enemy of the People” when the pandemic struck in March. That show ended up being performed as a reading on Zoom, and in the ensuing weeks, the company put together recordings of old-time radio plays, with actor’s parts recorded individually and then edited into a podcast, and also offered monologue readings on Zoom.
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The pandemic has also given the Midcoast Actors Studio board more time to plan things like their eventual move into the former Waldo County Courthouse, which they plan to transform into a performing arts space.
“We still plan on doing that whenever things get back to some semblance of normal,” said the company’s artistic director, Jason Bannister. “One silver lining to come out of this, at least for MAS, is that since we don’t have rent for a space currently, we have no costs. We’ve been able to do a lot of work with our board, and we’ve written many grants.”
Operating close to the bone, with a tight budget and anxiety about the ability to survive, is nothing new for most theater companies, regardless of their size. Outside of Broadway or London’s West End, theater is rarely a money making enterprise.
“It’s been that way from the beginning of time. Watch ‘Shakespeare in Love.’ All artists are beggars,” said Newport, of PTC. “We’re not in it to make money. It’s an inherently risky thing.”
The pandemic, however, has only heightened that reality — and in many cases, has strengthened the resolve to carry on. Quinn, from Lakewood, said she and her husband are reminded of a line from the beloved play “Noises Off,” as they navigate the challenges and uncertainty of keeping a theater afloat during the coronavirus pandemic.
“We’re like Myra Hess, playing through the air raids,” said Susan Quinn, referring to a line from the play about the English pianist who gave concerts during the German air raids on Britain in World War II. “We’re just going to keep on going. What else can we do? It’s a cliche, but the show must go on.”
Watch: Janet Mills outlines her plan to reopen