Connecticut Theaters Taking Different Approaches to Their Seasons

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David Arrow in “Kennedy: Bobby’s Last Crusade” that streamed in a filmed version at Playhouse on Park.

Alex Mongillo in “Fully Committedd” which both stremed and had a limited audience at MTC in Norwalk.

Artistic Directors and Producers Talk About Theater Now and in the Future.

By Karen Isaacs

Theaters are anxious to resume, and most artistic directors say that people want to see theater, but safely.

Right now, several theaters in Connecticut are trying different approaches to fulfilling these needs. Those that are doing so are relying on digital streaming of productions or a combination of live performances with a limited audience and streaming.

Music Theatre of Connecticut, or MTC as it is usually called, is a small established theater in Norwalk. It was one of only three theaters in the east (and maybe nationwide) to receive permission from Actor’s Equity to resume productions. According to artistic director Kevin Connors that involved jumping through many hoops that dealt with rehearsals, safety, air exchange and more. Plus MTC had to comply with all of Connecticut’s Phase 2 regulations.

Yet recently, I actually sat as part of an audience and saw a live actor perform in front of me. Fully Committed is a one-person play and only 25 audience members were allowed at each performance. Audience members had to abide by a number of rules. When you received your electronic ticket (no paper tickets permitted and no paper programs) depending on where you were seated, you were given a specific time to arrive. Temperatures were taken at the door, and an usher escorted you to your seat. Restrooms were only available before the show (it was a one act show), and you were escorted so that just one person at a time was using the space. No soda, wine or snacks were available. Despite wearing masks, you were asked not to congregate with other audience members, even at a social distance inside the theater. Even when the show was over, you were individually escorted from the theater.

But it was worth it. There is something about the energy of an audience that adds to the theatrical experience.

The show, which ran for eight performances over two weekends, was also live streamed to viewers who purchased tickets.

Next up for MTC is another one-person play, Kennedy: Bobby’s Last Crusade (Oct 23 to Nov. 8).

Playhouse on Park in West Hartford, another smaller theater, is currently presenting Kennedy: Bobby’s Last Crusade using two options for audiences. Patrons can purchase online streaming access or attend one of  two public screenings – one was at Dunkin’ Donuts Park in Hartford and the other at Ingersoll Pop-Up Drive-In in Newtown. The show runs through Sunday, Oct. 4.

TheaterWorks, a slightly larger theater, has gone the subscription route. Artistic director Rob Ruggiero has put together a year of theater; each month something different streams; when it becomes possible, there will be performances with an audience as well. The season includes productions of five plays or musicals, as well as the popular Xmas on the Rocks and a workshop series of new plays and musicals by Black and Indigenous People of Color. In addition, subscribers will have access to interviews, talkbacks and “surprises.”  The first event is a staged reading/workshop of a new musical, At the River I Stand through Saturday, Oct. 10. It deals with the 1968 Memphis sanitation works strike which is where Martin Luther King gave his “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech.

October’s offering will be a new play, Russian Trolls: A Workplace Comedy. During November, The Who and The What by Pulitzer-Price winner Ayad Akhtar will be available

While Yale Rep and Hartford Stage cancelled their 2020-21 seasons, Long Wharf is also going the subscription route. It had previously announced an initiative titled, One City,, Many Space that promised a wide variety of works with multiple collaborators , many from the New Haven area. Included will be the “New Haven Play Project” which is described as a multidisciplinary film about immigrants which premiere on Friday, Sept. 25. There is also an HBO supported “New Works Festival,” a podcast series and an IGTV “channel.”

A Contemporary Theatre – Connecticut, better known as ACT-CT, in Ridgefield is also going the live plus streaming option for the musical The Last Five Years which has just two cast members and a small orchestra.

Artistic Director Daniel C. Levine said the production will feature people already affiliated with the theater. He will play the male lead; he has extensive Broadway musical credits. The female lead is Katie Diamond, executive director, who has appeared on Broadway in Jersey Boys among other musicals. The production crew includes members of the theater’s board of directors who include a NYC lighting designer and a technical director.

The total audience for any performance is capped by both Equity and Connecticut’s regulations. Levine hopes that the state will be in stage 3 which he thinks will allow 50 people in the audience. The Equity agreement only permits ticket sales to the theater’s capacity of 180; this is a combination of audience members and those live streaming. Levine has said that ticket sales have been healthy.

While Goodspeed is not producing anything, they are continuing with the three online events that began in March. GreatSpeed is a biweekly event on Tuesdays that presents moments from a past Goodspeed production and interviews. In the (home) office which streams on alternate Thursdays has Producer Donna Lynn Hilton discussing and interviewing the creative teams involved with new musicals. In the Spotlight is a podcast with a new episode every other Wednesday. Classic musicals, both old and new are discussed.

Westport Country Playhouse has promised fall events and we can expect other theaters to develop ways to interact with their audiences.

One benefit for audiences is that streaming access to many of these are lower priced than in-person tickets.

Update: ACT-CT has said it will have a limited audience for The Last Five Years, but details haven’t been announced.

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