The shutdown of live theaters due to the COVID-19 pandemic is now stretching into its ninth month, and even by the most conservative estimates, indoor venues won’t be able to reopen until the middle of next year. The unprecedented work stoppage has been devastating to the theater industry, from the biggest Broadway houses to the smallest black boxes.
But some theaters are not waiting for the pandemic to end before they start nurturing new talent for the industry’s eventual return. Prospect Theater Company, a nonprofit theater based in New York City, spent time upstate this summer producing musicals in a “bubble”—a kind of isolation zone, similar to what the NBA pulled off for its recent season. The musicals were shot on film for Prospect’s Vision Series, an initiative launched this year to create original works while physical theaters are closed.
At a time when new musicals are in perpetual limbo at most venues, the series—sponsored by healthcare giant United Health Services—has been offering musical theater fans a fresh slate of content from emerging artists. The works stream for free on the theater’s YouTube channel.
Cara Reichel, Prospect’s producing artistic director, says performers and socially distant crews worked at a frantic pace in September to film the musicals safely.
“We had people getting tested multiple times, coming into a space, staying at a hotel for three days, doing an intensive rehearsal and filming session, and then going back to New York,” she tells Fast Company.
Unlike their commercial counterparts on Broadway, which trade in big-budget shows for mass audiences—often powered by big stars and recognizable music—smaller nonprofit theaters mostly rely on contributions and ticket sales from their members. But that revenue is contingent upon them fulfilling their end of the bargain, usually crystalized in a mission statement. Because Prospect’s mission is to produce innovative works by emerging talent, Reichel says the organization felt compelled to figure out a way to keep doing that—to keep paying theater artists—despite the closure of live theaters.
“We’re an organization that’s dedicated to creating a platform and a place for next-generation, early-career people—to have their work seen and heard and develop their craft,” Reichel says. “So when we went into this whole time period over the summer, we all had a lot of conversations about, well, how can we continue in our nonprofit mission?”
The disruption of talent pipelines is perhaps one of the lesser-discussed effects of the coronavirus pandemic, but it will have far-reaching implications for the theater industry for years to come, as small theater groups like Prospect have traditionally served as a vital bridge for career-building artists. Today’s resident playwright toiling away at a small nonprofit theater is tomorrow’s Lin-Manuel Miranda, Jeremy O. Harris, or Julie Taymor.
Reichel says her organization turned to works on film out of necessity, and that the goal was to replicate the aesthetic of musical theater. The musicals were shot at the Goodwill Theatre outside Binghamton, New York, a 100-year-old space that had been closed up for 30 years. It was in the process of being renovated when the pandemic struck.
‘Nobody tested positive’
The Vision Series wouldn’t not have been possible without proper guidance and oversight by public health experts. For that, the theater turned to Megan Farmer, a local registered nurse for United Health Services who was furloughed during the pandemic. Farmer was on site to make sure the crew was properly distanced, the HVAC system was working, and—probably most important—that everyone got tested.
“Nobody tested positive, so that was great,” Farmer says. “Every two or three days, they had a new group of the actors and performers coming in. We all just met at the testing site, and one by one we got our tests done.”
Because the on-screen performers worked unmasked, they had to meet an even higher standard, Farmer says, which included testing negative before they left their living area (most came from the New York City area) and then testing negative again when they arrived on site. “They really could go to the hotel and to the theater, and that was about it,” she says.
The next musical in the Vision Series, Lady Apsara, premieres online this Thursday at 7 p.m. ET. Theater artist Naveen Bahar Choudhury wrote the book and lyrics, and composer Kamala Sankaram wrote the music. The piece was directed by Zi Alikhan.
As for whether filmed musicals can actually replace the experience of live theater, Reichel admits not quite. But live theater artists also can’t wait forever for stage doors to reopen.
“I think we all still want to go back to gathering in one place, because there is a magic that happens,” Reichel says. “I don’t think we can ever replicate that on film. We can’t do things the way we’ve done them before, but we can do something. We can take the limited resources we have and be inventive with them.”