‘It’s a really big hit’: Bay Area theater companies struggle to cope amid COVID-19 shutdowns

The American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco, and other theater companies, have closed their doors for now in wake of the coronavirus. (Photo courtesy of A.C.T.)

The impact of the coronavirus is having a devastating effect on Bay Area theater companies, with cancellations, postponements, and a general sense of anxiety sending waves of uncertainty throughout the industry.

Under orders from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and local municipalities enforcing shelter-in-place edicts, one theater organization after another has been shuttered, with closures affecting top professional companies and community theaters alike — while representatives on all sides say that staying in business is going to be a monumental challenge in the weeks and months to come.

In San Francisco, the American Conservatory Theater has canceled its remaining performances of “Gloria” and “Toni Stone.” The Berkeley Repertory Theatre has gone on hiatus through April 15, canceling “Culture Clash (Still) in America” and “School Girls; Or, the African Mean Girls Play.” Both companies have pledged to make recordings of these productions available to ticket holders.

Dozens of other companies, from San Francisco Playhouse to San Jose’s City Lights Theater, have canceled or postponed shows.

At Berkeley’s Aurora Theatre, the company had just begun rehearsals for Joe Orton’s “Loot” when the shutdown order arrived. In an interview earlier this week, Artistic Director Josh Costello said there was no choice but to comply, although letting the cast, crew, director and designers go was painful. “It’s a really big hit,” he said, “and what I’m most worried about is the artists. It’s not like they can find jobs at other theaters right now.”

Shuttering also meant canceling a rare revival of “Loot,” which has been seldom seen in the Bay Area. Costello said that actor Danny Scheie had traveled to England to visit the Orton archives and had researched an uncensored manuscript of the play. He and artistic director emeritus Tom Ross had been poring over it, says Costello. “It was going to be the first time in America that this dialogue was heard,” he said. Now, Costello’s not sure when — or if — Aurora will return to it.

City Lights Theater in San Jose sends “virtual hugs” to fans on the company’s website.

Marilyn Langbehn, executive artistic director of Contra Costa Civic Theatre in El Cerrito, faced a similar hard decision with her company’s new production of Kenneth Lonergan’s “The Waverly Gallery.” The show’s tech rehearsal was March 8; within the next few days, she was forced to cancel the show’s opening night.

Like Costello, she’s unsure if the production can be revived. Her venue, she explained, has events on the schedule fifty weeks a year, with children’s classes and drama camps filling many slots; the next open date was May 1. “Now everyone’s playing Tetris to see what can be done,” said Langbehn. “If there’s a way to salvage it, we will.”

Patrick Dooley, founder and artistic director of the Shotgun Players in Berkeley, was readying a new production of Shakespeare’s “Henry V” when the orders came down. The show was 24 hours away from its first performance, and he says reviving it post-shutdown is unlikely. “It’s a large cast,” he said, “and maintaining salaries and costs, and keeping people here who have plans for the summer would make it next to impossible.”

Susan Evans, the director of the Town Hall Theatre in Lafayette, echoed Dooley’s concerns. Her company was six performances into Chekov’s “The Cherry Orchard” when the shutdown came; the remaining six performances were canceled. “It was a huge blow, financially and emotionally,” said Evans, “and it’s really not something we can go back to.”

Theatergoers are often unaware of what goes into a production — we see actors onstage and occasionally meet the director. But productions depend on scenic, lighting, and costume designers, fight directors, house staff, box office managers and more. “Waverly” has a five-member cast, notes Langbehn, but the production reflected the work of more than 40 people.

A message to patrons on the Shotgun Players’ website.

Each director said that theater closures are making the future uncertain. “It’s such uncharted territory,” said Langbehn. “We’re all making it up as we go.”

Dooley agrees. There’s a lot of anxiety in the theater community these days, he says; this year’s AB 5 legislation, which affects gig workers including those in theater, has added a layer of complication. Losing a single production can break individuals and companies. “When you cut salaries back, you know people are going to leave and get other jobs,” he said. “I used to wait tables — now restaurants are closing, too.”

At Shotgun, he’s planning to cut design expenses, “put the resources where we can, do simple, spare productions.” Shakespeare turned to writing sonnets when the Globe Theater closed during the bubonic plague, notes Dooley, who said he’s contemplating  a recording series with Shotgun actors reading those works.

What can theater lovers do? Donate preordered tickets back, or make one-time cash donations; consider subscribing to next season now. And, as Langbehn says, “When this is over, come back.”

While each director said their companies are considering streaming, web casts, and recordings in lieu of live performances, at least one said that small companies are much less likely to obtain streaming rights.

And streaming, they said, always remains a second choice. “In the short term, maybe,” said Evans. “But it can never take the place of live theater. Live theater is a communal experience. If you take half of it away, you’ve lost a big chunk of it.”

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