Screen Test

Local theaters embrace virtual entertainment

April 12, 2021
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When COVID-19 hit hard in Connecticut, professional theaters and community theater organizations found themselves in a state of shock. How on earth would they be able to sustain their businesses and non-profit organizations during this crisis, when it was now startlingly clear that being in close proximity to one another during rehearsals, and inviting audiences to their shows, could actually be life-threatening?

Unprecedented times require exceptional actions. While some groups decided to close their doors indefinitely and take a long break from performances, others took the plunge into the virtual realm.

And that meant theater companies, whether they were professional equity and SAG-based or home-grown community theater groups, had to consider becoming film production companies and Internet broadcasters practically overnight – something that, in their wildest dreams of treading the boards, they could not have ever imagined or predicted. This involved learning new techniques for online streaming, filming, lighting, and editing, using trick photography to add in virtual backdrops and, in some cases due to COVID restrictions, merging two or more people who filmed separately into the same scene.

Theater tech teams throughout Connecticut began to put on their movie director’s hats and begin anew. They would have to start reimagining how they could present drama and comedy safely, and then proffer it to their regulars for a fee.

What happened next was simply remarkable. Not only do theater groups report that their “pay to play” Internet broadcasts have been able to keep the figurative roof over their heads, but they have also increased their outreach and membership. Shows that previously would have been seen only by locals in the nearby region are now streaming to fans out of state and, in many cases, even out of our country.

Smaller theaters seemed to be first out of the gate to reinvent how productions might be presented. With their 195-seat theater forced to remain shuttered until it was safe to reopen, the principals at TheaterWorks Hartford knew it would be a big challenge to sidestep the potential disaster of halting all productions, like Broadway did. Regardless, the company’s extremely innovative leaders made the decision to shift their live productions to virtual ones and keep a full season, as daunting as that might seem.

For TheaterWorks, one of the most significant keys to their success was connecting with other theaters in Connecticut through Zoom meetings to brainstorm ideas about how to accomplish their common goal – to stream local theater performances to an audience straining at the bit to be entertained while stuck at home.

Artistic Director Rob Ruggiero and Artistic Producer Eric Ort report that when TheaterWorks joined forces with other theatrical organizations to produce the acclaimed streaming play Russian Troll Farm, they learned many tricks of the trade from collaborating with partners who had experience in the virtual theater biz.

In September 2020, Ruggiero and his team launched their 2020-21 virtual season, which offered up “12 plays in 12 months.” To date, all of the plays have been well received. Upcoming productions include The Sound Inside in April, Proximity in May, Moonlighters in June, and Walden and Lizard Boy: A New Musical in August. (For details, visit twhartford.org/current-season.)

TheaterWorks has also hosted a variety of interactive online events, including Talkback Tuesday, an Opening Night Watch Party, and Pop Up TheaterWorks, a “live chat/watch along event” allowing viewers to do just that. The team of directors and performers also seem to reach out more intimately to their audiences with behind-the-scenes insight and theater trivia that appear on viewers’ screens throughout each live event.

Other groups in the capital city have also proven to be nimble under pressure.

Sea Tea Comedy Theater – a comedic improv group that once depended upon a following of live shows that catered to an intimate but dedicated crowd – had shows running most days of the week and weekends before COVID came calling.

The group had won acclaim for the high-quality, affordable, original entertainment it delivered to a diverse audience. And by providing opportunities and a home for comedians and performers, the theater had also earned a reputation for cultivating an inclusive comedy community and springboarding top regional talent to a national level.

But like everyone else in the business during the COVID health crisis, the organization faced significant challenges in the struggle to survive and pay the rent for its small, 80-seat underground theater on Asylum Street.

Julia Pistell, one of the performers and directors of the group, says it became clear during the early days of the pandemic that they’d have to close their live theater portion and could no longer rely on their patrons to show up for the real deal. Instead, they too became filmmakers.

Choosing amusing themes that would appeal widely to their audience, they came up with prompts for improvisation shows that were presented to their loyal fans online for a fee and, in some cases, a suggested donation. This income allowed the comedy troupe to stay afloat, maintain a few paid positions, and plan for the future.

One notable tradition that Sea Tea was able to maintain virtually was a Hallmark Christmas Show, where the prompts given by the audience involved amusing Christmas words that would be of the squeaky-clean sort one might find in the “Hallmark Original” Christmas shows.  Gathering on Zoom, the performers used these words to spawn a storyline off the cuff – an elaborate and unlikely improvisation that kept their audience in stitches while watching together in unison. (seateaimprov.com)

Lessons From Life

Developing virtual productions in the face of pandemic-related restrictions has not been limited to Connecticut’s professional theater companies, however. As it turns out, the Farmington Valley is quite a hub for innovation, and although some theater groups did feel forced to close their doors for a while, the town of Simsbury seems to be batting a thousand on that score.

When the folks at Simsbury Summer Theatre realized that they could not perform their chosen work Grease due to COVID, the president, Melissa Richards, was not ready to throw in the towel. She called a meeting with creatives involved in their past productions and fashioned a way that a cabaret-style musical show could still go on.

Organizers blazed a trail with bated breath, praying the constant sterilizing of the microphone buffer combined with temperature taking, mask wearing, sanitization of the rehearsal space, and strict social distancing would be enough to secure good health for every member of the gang.

Kids learned how to perform on camera, acting out their songs while being professionally filmed on location. This was made more complicated by the fact that college student and sound engineer Marc Sokolson, a perfectionist and excellent singer/musician himself, insisted that the music and singing had to be pre-recorded in a soundproof place, engineered, then played by speaker on a click track so the kids could sing along and lip-synch with their previous recording.

The click track would then be magically removed, instrument tracks would be added to create a live orchestra feel, and voilà, a full show filmed entirely on location outdoors, with all state mandated COVID regulations in place, manifested beautifully.

The students were thrilled to have a project for the summer and a musical film they would be able to treasure, preserved online indefinitely. This project came through with flying colors and was so effective that it was streamed live for the entire town and far beyond.

A few months later, Theatre Guild of Simsbury came up with a well thought-out themed show called Singing Through Life, based upon the year of 2020. Written and directed by board member Iona Turnbull with the support of the guild’s active board members and many volunteers, they created a virtual production using licensed Broadway show tunes. All of it was filmed on location in someone’s yard, using every possible inch and fresh angle of the property to create a sense that it was recorded in various locales.

The recording studio was contrived out of a tiny sauna cottage in the yard, where the vocalists entered one by one to face a freshly sanitized microphone while Sokolson, who again jumped in to save the day, sat outside at a picnic table and assisted via a laptop stocked with the latest software. Adjacent to him each evening sat musical director Michael Yachanin and Turnbull, who listened and advised from a socially distant vantage point, masked up to the hilt. point. Guild president Diana Yeisley oversaw the effort.

Other scenes, using performers of all ages, brought the community together with excitement, knowing that actors could still perform, rehearse, and join together to make something special.

Certain scenes were actually filmed in a board member’s garage with a backdrop, professional quality lights, and videography arranged by Jeff Schlichter of Cameo Photo Video out of Canton.

Schlichter was ready for action, with multiple cameras shooting from different angles. As the year wore on, his business flourished, with livestreaming jobs pouring in from places like the Torrington-based Nutmeg Ballet Conservatory for its yearly Nutcracker production and Warner Theatre for its International Playwrights Festival, which did not need cancellation after all. For theater directors, the show must go on, and it did.

The immediacy of livestreaming these shows and the ability of audiences to make comments in the chat window to the group has made audiences feel that they aren’t really all that separated from friends and acquaintances because they’ve still been able to interact, lending hurrahs, claps, and compliments sent through their keyboards from the privacy of their homes.

High schools also got into the game.

Conard High School in West Hartford committed to a school musical and began filming once the kids learned their lines, while still following social distancing regulations. As a result, the hit musical Little Women, based on the classic novel by Louisa May Alcott, was entirely pre-recorded for streaming on April 2. The release of the production will be available for a lengthy period of time on demand, a method of streaming that many of the theaters have begun to depend upon.

Conard had to jump through hoops to make this production happen but the kids who are lucky enough to be involved in the production say it has made all the difference for them in terms of having a happier school year shared with friends.

They were despondent about not having a show, but when Drama Director Corinne Kravetz suddenly announced there would be a musical after all, hearts were lifted immeasurably. The orchestra recorded in a separate location with a monitor link to the conductor, Jared Boulet, so that the performers could still see cues.

Although they will remain masked, the kids in ornate 19th Century costuming are determined to evoke the true nature of their characters. By using body language, eye and eyebrow expressions as well as their acting vocalizations and singing abilities, the students are still able to convey emotion, regardless of their masks. For the students, it’s an unprecedented group experience, and the students all seem to agree that sharing with others in a meaningful collaborative manner is what high school theater is all about.

At Simsbury High, theater director Dr. Stuart Younse started his effort to create a musical by getting his students to actually write one – and a good one, at that. No stranger to writing musicals himself, he has also directed countless high school students over the years, some of whom ended up on Broadway – or in Hollywood.

Dr. Younse encouraged the kids to stop feeling too sorry for themselves and their predicament by launching them into writing and production through summer into fall. By late spring, they will be streaming nearly a year’s worth of work in the form of a musical entitled: What Just Happened? – based, of course, on the year of 2020 from the vantage point of high schoolers.

With the support and approval of Simsbury Public Schools’ visionary performing arts director Angela Griffin, Dr. Younse turned a team of creative students, music directors, and choreographers into an avid production crew, committed to learning everything they needed to know about filming – including green screens and video editing. No doubt the show will be an eye-opening experience for viewers, who may leave their computers tapping their toes and smiling in the knowledge that theater youth are capable of wonderful things, even in the face of a global pandemic.

Shoreline Savvy

In New Haven, Shubert Theatre had always been considered a stopping place for Broadway shows on the road – a veritable roadhouse of all the greats en route to NYC or, more recently, for widely acclaimed shows that had made it on national tours.

The theater was the jumping-off point for The Sound of Music and Carousel before they hit Broadway, and the full list of those who got their start at the Shubert is impressive. But for now, how would this 1,700-seat venue possibly be able to stay on point so their enthusiastic patrons would feel connected to what had once been a very active and appreciated theater in southern Connecticut?

Carla Sullivan, vice president of external relations at the Shubert, says her team came up with something entirely unique and forward thinking. The Shubert planned an abridged virtual season that required all the efforts of videography and technical wizardry. Some of its shows were recorded and streamed live, while others were carefully pre-recorded by a new team of production staff who learned the ropes as they went along.

The theater also decided to collaborate with local restaurants to create delicious, boxed meals that patrons could pick up curbside on the day of a virtual show. This allowed patrons to pop open their trunks, where the carefully assembled meals from the top restaurants in New Haven were placed. Theatergoers then could drive home to eat heartily while enjoying the virtual show, streamed with the link and code given to them in lieu of a ticket. In this way, Shubert helped restaurants that normally would be buzzing with their in-person clientele – a win-win situation for all concerned.

When Goodspeed Musicals in Haddam closed their doors to live performances during the pandemic, their devotees must have felt bereft of the delightful live musicals that graced the stage and warmed hearts far and wide.

But recently, Artistic Director Donna Lynn Hilton and Managing Director David B. Byrd announced plans to extend Goodspeed Musicals’ reach globally with a new streaming initiative called “Goodspeed On Demand.”

The adventure and inevitable pivot into the virtual world began March 15, 2021. “Goodspeed On Demand” now offers musical theater fans worldwide a variety of streaming content that ranges from never-before-seen archive recordings of past Goodspeed productions and filmed theatrical performances by musical theater legends to unique concerts from some of the best and brightest performers on the stage today. Each production will be available for several weeks, and new content will be added on a regular basis.

Goodspeed launched the initiative with an archive recording of the highly acclaimed musical Passing Through, which tells the true story of a young man who journeys on foot from Pennsylvania to California. Additional offerings in the series will continually be announced.

Goodspeed’s leadership in the development of new musicals and emerging writers has long been legendary. For that reason, the team decided to launch their initiative with a production that was nurtured by Goodspeed for more than three years and premiered at Goodspeed’s Terris Theatre in the summer of 2019.

Hilton notes that Passing Through is a relevant and beautiful new work that deserves to be heard by audiences worldwide.” Goodspeed also hopes to collaborate with other theaters and add cabarets and musical concerts to their promising virtual season until the day comes when all theaters can open to full houses with live audiences.

Curtain Call – Stamford’s longest-running and only nonprofit producing theater company, which stages performances in The Dressing Room and Kweskin theaters year-round – remained active throughout the pandemic, a feat made possible with professional organization and community support.

Curtain Call was bold enough to take the first steps in what might be the inevitable future of theater, the hybrid format in which patrons have the option of attending the live show (at 50 percent capacity) while others can pay to stream the show at home.

In February, organizers rolled out a two-person show, the 40-year-old comedic standard: Same Time, Next Year, but due to high demand, additional live shows were added for March. Opening night was filmed and streamed, but patrons will still be able to tune in to watch that production for a period of time.

The acting team is comprised of a real-life married couple, although they portray a couple having an illicit affair, meeting up once a year in the same place during many years of their lives. Keeping the show’s cast limited to two talented artists who are married was a brilliant move that reduced the risk of spreading COVID to others.

Lou Ursone, the company’s executive and artistic director, has been tirelessly advocating for the survival of his theatrical organization by entertaining patrons through weekly email communications while gently reminding them how vital donations are to Curtain Call’s survival.

Curtain Call also just released a recording of a past hit, called Something Rotten, a popular Broadway musical that it was able to share with past customers on demand for a modest fee.

It is certain now that theater in Connecticut will survive, one way or the other. Some are already boldly opening up but carefully following the state guidelines regarding social distancing, mask wearing, and proper cleaning of the facility. Whether it is the illustrious Shubert, the magnificent Bushnell, the beloved Hartford Stage, or the many countless other community and smaller grass roots professional theaters abounding in Connecticut, you can bet on the fact that the show is certainly destined to go on.

Hollywood … move over, because it sure seems that Connecticut is now, more than ever, in the movie biz.

All quiet on the set…rolling!

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