Sunday, September 26, 2021

Life & Style

Connecticut Theaters Exploring All the Options for Summer Productions

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David Maiocco will perform as Liberace in a performance at Musical Theatre of Connecticut in July. Photo courtesy of Musical Theatre of Connecticut

David Maiocco will perform as Liberace in a performance at Musical Theatre of Connecticut in July. (Photo courtesy of Musical Theatre of Connecticut)

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On July 24, Ali Stroker will take the stage at the Westport Country Playhouse. Photo courtesy of Westport Country Playhouse

On July 24, Ali Stroker will take the stage at the Westport Country Playhouse. (Photo courtesy of Westport Country Playhouse)

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Westport Country Playhouse’s acclaimed production of Man of La Mancha from 2018 will be offered in HD video from the end of August through the beginning of September. There will be add-on events including a talkback on Aug. 30.

Photo courtesy of Westport Country Playhouse

Westport Country Playhouse’s acclaimed production of Man of La Mancha from 2018 will be offered in HD video from the end of August through the beginning of September. There will be add-on events including a talkback on Aug. 30. (Photo courtesy of Westport Country Playhouse)

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Raissa Katona Bennett will perform the music of Jerome Kern at Musical Theatre of Connecticut. Photo courtesy of Musical Theatre of Connecticut

Raissa Katona Bennett will perform the music of Jerome Kern at Musical Theatre of Connecticut. (Photo courtesy of Musical Theatre of Connecticut)

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Tonya Pinkins, the Tony Award winning veteran of nine Broadway shows, numerous Off-Broadway shows, and daytime dramas, will be performing at the Westport Country Playhouse. Photo courtesy of the Westport Country Playhouse

Tonya Pinkins, the Tony Award winning veteran of nine Broadway shows, numerous Off-Broadway shows, and daytime dramas, will be performing at the Westport Country Playhouse. (Photo courtesy of the Westport Country Playhouse)

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Thrown Stone in Ridgefield will be offering site specific world premiere performances at a variety of venues including The Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum. Photo courtesy of Thrown Stone

Thrown Stone in Ridgefield will be offering site specific world premiere performances at a variety of venues including The Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum. (Photo courtesy of Thrown Stone)

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Brought to the Playhouse stage by director Mark Lamos in 2018, Man of La Mancha features a Cervantes who has not yet finished his manuscript for Don Quixote. Cervantes sits in jail awaiting trial during the Spanish Inquisition mulling the great odyssey  of the questing knight tilting at windmills and battling for the love of the fair maiden Aldonza. Photo courtesy of Westport Country Playhouse

Brought to the Playhouse stage by director Mark Lamos in 2018, Man of La Mancha features a Cervantes who has not yet finished his manuscript for Don Quixote. Cervantes sits in jail awaiting trial during the Spanish Inquisition mulling the great odyssey of the questing knight tilting at windmills and battling for the love of the fair maiden Aldonza. (Photo courtesy of Westport Country Playhouse)

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Westport Country Playhouse’s acclaimed production of Man of La Mancha from 2018 will be offered in HD video from the end of August through the beginning of September. There will be add-on events including a talkback on Aug. 30. Photo courtesy of Westport Country Playhouse

Westport Country Playhouse’s acclaimed production of Man of La Mancha from 2018 will be offered in HD video from the end of August through the beginning of September. There will be add-on events including a talkback on Aug. 30. (Photo courtesy of Westport Country Playhouse)

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Madison Lyric Stage will offer its season under a specially designed tent outdoors at the Deacon John Grave House in Madison. Photo courtesy of Madison Lyric Stage

Madison Lyric Stage will offer its season under a specially designed tent outdoors at the Deacon John Grave House in Madison. (Photo courtesy of Madison Lyric Stage)

Cole Porter wrote the lyrics, “Another Openin’, Another Show” for Kiss Me Kate, and that could be the theme song this spring and summer for Connecticut theaters.

Slowly, it seems there is a light at the end of the tunnel, along with growing confidence that it is not another train, bring with it the potential of a wreck, coming this way.

The way theater will be presented this summer continues to expand.

TheaterWorks in Hartford, West Hartford’s Playhouse on Park, and Ridgefield’s Thrown Stone Theater are exploring what are called site-specific productions, where the production’s content has a relationship to the site where it is performed.

Others, including Madison Lyric Stage and Goodspeed on the River concerts, are opting for performances held under tents outdoors.

Indoor theater and indoor performances are returning to the Ivoryton Playhouse, Branford’s Legacy Theatre, and Music Theatre of Connecticut (MTC) in Norwalk.

Westport Country Playhouse plans to stream both new productions and past productions.

And, all of it may change over the course of the season. Change, after all, has been the consistent challenge for all of these theaters during the past 16 months.

A Complex Calculus

The calculus of determining which path to follow is complex. Consideration must be given for the finances as well as the comfort levels of the audience, cast, and crew.

The questions that must be answered include: How do audiences feel about returning to the indoor performances? What do audiences want in terms of COVID precautions? Should plans for virtual or outdoor productions this summer be changed and brought back inside? What are the new guidelines from Actor’s Equity, the American labor union representing live theatrical performances, and the other theatrical unions? Is it economically feasible if capacity indoors is limited?

One thing is clear, audiences seem eager to return.

Goodspeed Musicals is one of several theaters that have surveyed audience members. Donna Lynn Hilton, artistic director, said a recent survey showed that, overall, people were clearly anxious to return and were waiting for the theater to reopen. Some mentioned they missed the habit of theater-going.

Michael Baker, managing director at Westport Country Playhouse, said that most patrons have indicated a reluctance to return to indoor performances unless case counts are sufficiently low. After working with consulting epidemiologists, they have determined that for Westport that means 25 percent capacity if the rate is 20 cases per 100,000 and declining; 50 percent capacity for 10 cases per 100,000 and declining; and 100 percent capacity if the rate is 5 cases per 100,000 and declining. As of mid-May, the rate in Fairfield County was 8 cases per 100,000 and declining.

As for pent-up demand, Artistic Director Dan Levine of ACT-CT points to the recent benefit concert production of Into the Woods with the Ridgefield Symphony. Not only did they sell out, but there was a 200-person waiting list for tickets.

While it’s clear that audiences want theater to return, it’s equally apparent that comfort levels and expectations about safety precautions vary tremendously. Hilton mentioned that Goodspeed’s survey showed respondents “all over the map in terms of safety guidelines.” So Goodspeed, as well as many other theaters, are looking to the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention and state guidelines for help.

Planning Underway

While venue operators continue to take the pulse of patrons’ enthusiasm and comfort levels, planning is underway for the remainder of the spring and the summer season.

Thrown Stone Theatre in Ridgefield is one of several theaters that have planned outdoor productions this summer. Jonathan Winn, founder and co-artistic director, said subscribers have been enthusiastic about their plans for site-specific productions, but they have been keeping them informed and even have a published a “Get Ready” page on their website.

MTC in Norwalk, one of the very few Connecticut theaters that did have limited in-person audiences this past year, says that subscribers have been understanding and trusting. Perhaps due to the vaccine rollout, the last show of the season, Tru, garnered the largest in-person audience of the year.

MTC and other theaters are grappling with audience logistics, regardless of whether productions are inside or outdoors. For the most part, intermissions have been eliminated and concessions (wine, soft drinks, water, and snacks) also have been eliminated.

In addition, patrons have been given specific time windows to arrive and to be seated to limit overcrowding before shows begin.

At MTC this past year, ticket holders were scheduled to arrive based on their seat location; ushers guided them individually to their seats and when the show ended, ushers guided patrons out of the theater with those closest to the exit leaving first.

For the summer concert series, MTC will follow the same procedures including temperature checks. But there will be a new outdoor bar, open one hour before curtain.

Goodspeed and others with outdoor venues are also often staggering admission times, and eliminating intermission and concessions. Seating at the Goodspeed concerts will be spaced out.

Madison Lyric Stage started initial planning a year ago, right after the shutdown. Marc Deaton, artistic director, realized that the usual venue, the Grave House on Boston Post Road in Madison, was a historic home with small rooms and would not be practical.

He moved the MLS 2020 fundraiser to a tent on the Grave House grounds and decided then and there that the 2021 season would be outdoors. Each year MLS presents three shows: a musical, a drama, and an opera. Deaton had concerns about the play, Boys in the Band, because of the interactions required among cast members. But, he said, the fact that all cast and staff members are vaccinated has alleviated those concerns.

Even with the tent, MLS audiences will probably be limited to 55. Audiences will be required to wear masks.

Venturing Back Inside

The Ivoryton Playhouse is reopening its historic theater on Thursday, July 8. For the first show at least, the audience will be asked to wear masks and maintain social distancing, a prerogative that many businesses open to the public have implemented. Jacqui Hubbard, executive director, says she feels “that once they (audience members) are used to coming back for theater we can start to move closer together.” Ivoryton has movable seats, which makes adjustments easier.

MTC in Norwalk will continue performances inside this summer for a cabaret series of concerts. These begin Saturday, June 19. During 2020-’21, audience members were limited to 25 per performance. It is expanding this summer to 50 per performance. Social distancing will be a minimum of three feet from each pair of seats; tickets are sold in pairs. Audience members are masked and while performers aren’t, they will six feet or more from the nearest audience member.

Westport Country Playhouse is one of those theaters that has changed some of its plans; while its season of plays will be offered as virtual performances, the theater also will be presenting indoor concerts.

Goodspeed is planning a September production and MTC is planning a complete season. Other theaters including Playhouse on Park hope to be indoors by late September.

Branford’s new Legacy Theatre is also presenting productions inside the theater. Right now a musical, Just Desserts: A Musical Bake-Off is running through Sunday, June 27. It is also presenting the new musical Joan Joyce, about the iconic Stratford softball star on the weekends through the end of the month. These two shows are followed by Oedipus Rex from Tuesday, July 27 to Aug. 27 and concluding the season with The Last Five Years, from Sept. 1 to 26. In addition, a full schedule of Broadway concerts is being offered at Legacy

Online and Streaming Remain Popular

Westport Country Playhouse plans to stream two past productions including its acclaimed Man of La Mancha as well as two new productions and several Script in Hand evenings, which are readings of works, both well-known and new.

Other theaters are combining outdoor or indoor performances with streaming. Thrown Stone Theatre in Ridgefield will offer its production of The Suburbs streaming, as will TheaterWorks with its Connecticut River production of Walden.

Ivoryton will offer a virtual option for the opening show, Murder for Two. Hubbard said the theater will see how it is received before planning additional recordings.

Experimentation Continues As Well

Three Connecticut theaters are experimenting with unusual venues for their productions.

Thrown Stone Theatre’s The Suburbs, three world-premier short plays, will each be presented in a different location: Keeler Tavern Museum and History Center, Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum, and West Lane Inn. Audiences will walk from one to the other (about a mile) during the run, from Aug. 27 to Sept. 12. For tickets and information, visit thrownstone.org.

Playhouse on Park is moving to Hartford’s Bushnell Park for Kill Move Paradise from Sunday, June 20 to Friday, June 25 and online from Wednesday, July 7 to Sunday, Aug. 1. The play is about four black men who find themselves “stuck in a cosmic waiting room in the afterlife.”

TheaterWorks is collaborating with Riverfront Recapture to present Walden, a live, immersive theatrical production at Riverfront Recapture’s soon-to-be developed park located north of downtown Hartford, just south of the Windsor border. It runs Saturday, July 24 to Sunday, Aug. 22. The play is about a NASA botanist who after returning from a year-long Moon mission finds herself with her estranged twin sister and the twin’s climate activist boyfriend. It will be streamed Aug. 15 to 29.

Music And More

Goodspeed is one of the theaters that has turned to concerts in order to keep audiences engaged. The outdoor concert series last summer and fall was a success, Hilton says. The concerts were nearly sold out, but best of all for any theater, a large portion of the audience was new to Goodspeed.

“One of the reasons for the eclectic line-up of programming this summer,” Hilton says, “is to offer a little something for everyone and to attract more people unfamiliar with Goodspeed.”

Westport Country Playhouse is offering concerts inside the theater this year. The series begins on Saturday, June 26 with Tony-award winner Tonya Pinkins with Brad Simmons, followed by Larry Owens’s Sonheimia on Saturday, July 17, and ending with An Evening with Ali Stoker, the Tony-winner, on Saturday, July 24.

Many theaters offer camps and classes during the summer for children teens. ACT-CT in Ridgefield is focusing on educational programs. A camp for younger people will be outdoors or under a tent while older students in the conservatory program will be inside. Safety protocols will be followed and all staff are fully vaccinated.

Elm City Shakespeare may have canceled its annual production in Edgerton Park, but it will offer two outdoor camps. There is a two-week program for ages 7 to 12 and a five-week program for teens. These will be available in Westville and East Rock starting Monday, July 5, with scholarships available. More information is available at ElmShakespeare.org. From Aug. 13 to 15, it will host the first-ever Youth Shakespeare Festival in Edgerton Park. The company will mount (and remount) as many as five productions from its wide range of education programs over the past year, uniting students from across the region, with the possibility of a few surprise guests.

Further Away

The Berkshires is a popular destination for vacationers and theater lovers with a multitude of performing venues, antique shops, and recreational activities. This year, the cultural venues from the Boston Symphony at Tanglewood and Jacob’s Pillow dance venue have restarted programming in various forms.

The four major theaters—Williamstown Theatre Festival, Berkshire Theater Company, Shakespeare & Company, and Barrington Stage Company—are, like theaters in Connecticut, offering a mix of indoor and outdoor performances. Williamstown is presenting all its productions outdoors at various venues around the scenic town. Berkshire Theatre Group is using a tent. Shakespeare & Co is outdoors, something is has offered for years on its beautiful outdoor grounds. And Barrington Stage has productions inside and also under a tent.

The Union’s Cautious, Controversial Approach

Theaters often deal with multiple unions, but the most important one is Actor’s Equity (AE). During the pandemic, AE has told members only to audition/work on productions that have received AE approval of the venue’s safety precautions. That has caused controversy due to the fast-changing ups and downs, and constantly shifting recommendations, during the pandemic. There were also variations in different geographic areas, in the desire among members to work.

Guidelines have also varied by the type of contract AE has with the theater. Some theaters have contracts where the vast majority of the cast are members, and other contracts allow theaters to use one or two AE performers.

Right now, what these guidelines will be going forward is open to conjecture. For all of the confusion caused by this, Hilton and other venue operators readily acknowledge that AE has a major responsibility to protect its members and their working conditions.

Goodspeed still plans to open South Pacific in September, but it is in a “holding pattern,” Hilton says. Contracts can’t be issued until AE approves the safety plan, which won’t happen until no sooner than 30 days prior to the start of rehearsals in mid- to late July.

Other theaters will be announcing plans for the fall and beyond in the next months.

Most theaters agree that many of these changes, such as making productions available virtually, will continue into the future. As Managing Director Michael Barker of Westport Country Playhouse said, “We plan to continue to film and stream any live theater we might add this fall and going forward into the future—it’s an enormous enabler of access, and definitely something we want to keep even after the pandemic is in the rear view.” It is unclear to some if the various licensing companies will continue to allow it or if it will be cost effective.

Details of the Performances & Concerts

• Goodspeed Musicals (Goodspeed.org): In tent. Goodspeed by the River Concert Series; Thursday, June 10 to Sunday, Aug. 1. Check website for specific performers and dates.

• Ivoryton Playhouse (IvorytonPlayhouse.org). Indoors: Murder for Two (Thursday, July 8 to Sunday, Aug. 1).

• Legacy Theatre (LegacyTheatreCT.org). Indoors: Just Desserts (to Sunday, June 27), Joan Joyce (to Saturday, June 26), Oedipus Rex (July 27 to Aug. 27), Last Five Years (Sept. 1 to 26). Broadway Series Concerts–visit website.

• Madison Lyric Stage (MadisonLyricStage.org). In tent: The Sun Sets Low: An Evening of Stephen Sondheim (Friday, June 11 to Sunday, June 13), Boys in the Band (July 22 to Aug. 1), Suor Angelica and Erwartung (Sept. 9 to 19).

• MTC (MusicTheatreofCT.com). Indoor Cabaret Nights: Frank Mastrone–Back to Broadway (Saturday, June 19), David Maiocco–An Evening of Liberace (Saturday, July 10), Raissa Katona Bennett–Can’t Help Singing the Music of Jerome Kern (July 31), Jeff Harnar–It’s Delovely: Jeff Harner Sings Cole Porter (Aug. 7)

• Playhouse on Park (PlayhouseonPark.org). Kill Move Paradise (Sunday, June20 to Friday, June25 in Bushnell Park) and streaming (Wednesday, July 7 to Sunday, Aug. 1)

• TheaterWorks (TWHartford.org). Walden (July 24 to Aug. 22) at park north of downtown Hartford. Streaming (Aug. 15 to 28).

• Thrown Stone Theatre (ThrownStone.org) Suburbs (Aug. 27 to Sept. 12).

• Westport Contry Playhouse (WestportPlayhouse.org): Streaming Tiny House (Tuesday, June 29 to Sunday, July 18), Script in Hand–The Savannah Disputation (live stream Monday, June 14, available Tuesday, June 15 to Sunday, June 20). Indoors: Concert series: An Evening with Brad Simmons and Tonya Pinkins, on Saturday June 26; An Evening with Larry Owens, on Saturday, July 17,; and An Evening with Ali Stroker, on Saturday July 24.

The Berkshires

• Barrington Stage Company-(BarringtonStageCo.Org). Indoors–Chester Bailey (June 13 to July 3), Eleanor (July 16 to Aug. 1), Sister Sorry (Aug. 12-29) and A Crossing (Sept. 23 to Oct. 7). Tent: Who Can Ask for Anything More? The Songs of George Gershwin (June 10 to July 2), Boca (July 30 to Aug. 22).

• Berkshire Theatre Group (BerkshireTheatreGroup.org). Tent: Importance of Being Earnest (June 18 to July 10), Nina Simone: Four Women (Aug. 13 to Sept. 5).

• Shakespeare & Co (Shakespeare.org). Outdoors: King Lear (July 2 to Aug. 28), Art (July 30 to Aug. 22).

• Williamstown Theatre Festival (WTFesitval.org). Outdoors. Outside on Main: Nine Solo Plays by Black Playwrights (July 6 to 25), Row (July 13 to Aug. 8), Alien/Nation (July 20 to Aug. 8)









Karen Isaacs is the Columnists for Zip06. Email Karen at .

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