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During a pandemic, the play's still the thing

Regional theatres prepare for re-opening night
Regional theatres prepare for re-opening night 06:12

For the Barrington Stage Company in Western Massachusetts, putting on one of the few plays inside an American theatre this summer requires some big changes.

"These two seats are available, they're in red – definitely more than six feet between this row and this row," noted artistic director Julianne Boyd.

"We've started with 520 seats and we'll be taking out every other row, so that the seats that will be for sale are 163 seats," she said.

Post-COVID seating at the Barrington Stage Company in Pittsfield, Mass.   CBS News

Boyd says everything will be different, from a stage edge that keeps actors farther away from the audience, to new rules for patrons: "We're going to take their temperature," said Boyd. "They will have to sanitize their hands and then they can enter."

Correspondent Rita Braver asked, "Are people gonna be wearing masks in the theatre?"

"Absolutely, and they have to keep them on the whole time," Boyd replied.

For more than a quarter of a century, this theatre has staged full-blown, multi-actor plays. But to avoid having actors and crew too close to each other, the new season will open with a one-man show, the thriller "Harry Clarke."

"It's one actor, minimal set, one costume," said Boyd. "I would need no backstage crew."

Boyd says she doesn't expect to make a profit from the play: "This isn't something that we can continue doing for a long time," she said.

"Do you think that people are gonna be able to have fun even though we're in the midst of this pandemic?" asked Braver.

"Absolutely. They want to have fun. They're looking for fun.  They're looking for some great diversion."

At Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company in Washington, D.C., artistic director Maria Manuela Goyanes has already had her team draw up plans for cabaret-style tables socially-distanced, or even Plexiglas booths, once theatres are allowed to reopen.

Woolly Mammoth artistic director Maria Manuela Goyanes (with correspondent Rita Braver) must re-think how to stage shows due to the pandemic.  CBS News

"This is literally what every theater company is going through right now in the country," said Goyanes. "We are making scenario after scenario."

In the meantime, Woolly Mammoth is one of 20-plus theatres around the world trying a new idea:  

Goyanes said, "Pretty soon after we went into shelter-in-place, we talked about how to get a little bit of money into playwrights' pockets, and also remind folks that plays can bring joy even if they cannot go to the theatre to experience them.  So, we started an initiative called Play at Home."

Which means that families like the Fullers can download a script and perform a ten-minute musical:

The Greatest 10 Minute Musical Ever Written! I The Fuller Family by iTheatrics on YouTube

In another "Play At Home" video, Logan Crawford discovers her dad's shelter-in-place hideout: The bathtub. "I'm working!" he protests.

Many theatres have put past (and even new) productions online. And actors from Houston's Alley Theatre perform Shakespeare's sonnets, written when Elizabethan theaters were closed due to the plague:

Alley@Home: Shakespeare with Elizabeth Bunch-Sonnet 30 by Alley Theatre on Vimeo

But theatres are yearning to put on shows. Woolly Mammoth was set to open the fall season with "A Strange Loop," first staged Off-Broadway by Playwrights Horizons in New York.

And then, Goyanes said, came "the most unbelievable news: 'Strange Loop' wins the Pulitzer Prize. There are not words for my happiness, and I'm still on cloud nine about it. Mostly because I can't think of a more deserving human being than Michael R. Jackson."

It was a historic win for Jackson – the first time a musical won the Pulitzer Prize without playing on Broadway. But there was no night on the town for the playwright; the only celebration was on Zoom: "And then I just took a long walk and I, like, listened to Luther Vandross and Chaka Kahn, which felt like celebratory music for me to listen to," he said.

And Jackson will have to wait to see the new production of the show, based on his life as a gay black man, until the summer of 2021. He said he understands that safety comes first.

Braver asked, "Are you interested in writing about the pandemic?"

"What I'm interested in are sort of the longstanding, preexisting inequities that the pandemic has exposed," Jackson replied. "Why is that? Where do these inequities come from? And what can we do to actually address them?"

And so, whatever playwrights create, local and regional theatres will be ready to stage because, Maria Manuela Goyanes said, for audiences, cast and crew, nothing can replace the joy of theater. "Because it really ennobles us," she said. "It enriches our lives; that's what the theater does. And so what keeps me up at night is, how to employ people in the future and make sure that we can come back stronger than ever."

CBS News

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Story produced by Reid Orvedahl. Editor: Joe Frandino.

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