Theater came back for a weekend, but it was scary in a few different ways.
My daughter and I went to see her friends in a show last weekend. A real, live show. It was just like we have many, many times before. Sort of. It was outside (and it was cold). Everyone wore masks. And there were no flowers or hugging photos afterward.
Oh, and it was … Carrie. At any other time, in just about any other circumstances, I would have skipped this particular production.
I don’t like scary movies. I can’t even handle sitcom Halloween specials. But I went to Carrie and sat in a park, mask securely on, cold late October wind blowing leaves onto the masked cast that sang and danced and died.
(I guess we give points to Gas Lamp Players in Glen Ridge, NJ, for not pandering to a crowd’s need for something uplifting at this time? I mean who wants a feel-good musical, something where instead of everybody dying and the mother and daughter killing each other, happy, hopeful people laugh and love, overcome a few little obstacles and finish it off with a big, warm and fuzzy finale?)
But I digress. Back to the in-person show in this world of Zoomicals and streaming, self-taped cabarets.
This was actually the second live show we have seen since the pandemic restrictions lifted a bit. Over the summer, we went to watch another friend perform. The production was in a parking lot not a park, but that wasn’t the real problem. Audience members brought their own chairs (good idea) but could put them anywhere they wanted, as far or close to each other as they chose (not great). The theater group sold food and drinks, and masks sagged unattended on audience and cast members alike. At one point, a cast member was completely maskless as he sang with other kids and audience members nearby (not OK at all).
In that production, the sound came and went, and, to be honest, as happy as we wanted to be seeing a live performance, we left feeling more depressed. We hadn’t felt particularly safe, as we were reliant on those around us to voluntarily take precautions, and the quality of the show itself made us wonder if it was even worth it to try before theater could return to something much closer to normal.
But this weekend gave me hope. Seats were set together in groups of tickets purchased, distanced from each other and with the name of the buyer taped to the chair. It was a contact free arrival. There were no tickets, paper or digital, just a list with names and a kind, masked man who led the way. A single sheet with the cast names and roles sat on the chairs.
Announcements were made to make sure masks stayed on and distance was kept (people were even asked not to leave their seats during the brief intermission, although some did). No food. No bathrooms. There was a stage, multiple sets, music and lights. The sound was great. There was blocking and choreography that didn’t feel like it was only about making it work in the space or within precautions. There were times you would get caught up in the song or dance and forgot how abnormal all of it really was.
A talented teen cast barely showed the effect of the cold (or the unusual conditions) as they sang. And they appeared to follow the rules–the one time a mask unhooked from an ear, the performer immediately grabbed it and held it in place, continuing to sing. Yes, there were moments I worried, as characters sang and danced close together or held hands en route to the deadly prom. (Don’t touch! I wanted to yell, but managed silence behind my mask.) Then the wind would blow again and with my wish that I had worn a warmer coat came the reminder that any novel coronavirus aerosols were being properly dispersed.
Gas Lamp is not the only community theater attempting to rehearse and perform outside this fall in the NY/NJ area. And while we are running out of days for this in the Northeast, I now eagerly look toward spring possibilities and hope New York City companies can find a way to secure some outdoor space, too. For anyone reading this in places where the weather cooperates year-round, make the effort. It takes a little luck (no rain), but it is worth it–not as stop-gap crisis management to keep some money coming in and the arts alive (although those are legitimate reasons) but as real productions where kids (and adults) are performing for an audience, having fun, making friends and honing their skills.
When Broadway announced another reopening date, pushing to spring 2021, social media lit up with the typical mix of sadness and attempts of encouragement. One kid replied to an Instagram post that she picked the wrong year to get into theater. Not true, Tony nominee Rob McClure replied, “We’ll need you on the other side.”
Give them the chance, and the kids will lead the way there with a joy that can’t help but create hope.
I look forward to the next outside performance. Please, though, can there be a little less death?