Christopher Schario, executive/artistic director for The Public Theatre in Lewiston, stands Thursday next the sign where productions are usually advertised. Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

After canceling productions this year, John Blanchette, president of L/A Community Little Theatre in Auburn, and Christopher Schario, president of The Public Theatre in Lewiston, watched as set designs were torn down, costumes were put away and as actors went home.

Their 2019-20 season had effectively come to a close due to the coronavirus pandemic. 

Local theaters have rescheduled this year’s lineup for next season, following suit with Broadway, which will remain closed until at least the rest of the year. 

“We’re the first to close and last to reopen,” Schario said. “When you admit people into an auditorium they’re all going to be sitting in that auditorium and laughing and crying and cheering at the same time. All of those things are spreaders and as a result professional performing arts organizations are probably one of the last businesses to come back.”

Blanchette said Community Little Theatre’s 81st season was dotted with big name musicals that his audience members had been waiting for. Unfortunately, those plays might not make a comeback until a vaccine has been developed. 

Until then, Blanchette is putting together a new season of two or three “straight shows,” that will be limited in length and size. Audience numbers will also have to drop dramatically to comply with Gov. Janet Mills’ mandates and Actors’ Equity Association standards. 

“We are literally rewriting the playbook and in some cases rewriting the plays,” Blanchette said.”We’re looking at what we can do, under the circumstances, that will make sense, that will hopefully bring an audience in.”

Though Community Little Theatre seats 380, only about 70 members will be allowed in, cutting their overall income from ticket sales to 25%. To mitigate those losses, CLT has reinvigorated a donation drive called the Mask Society, where patrons can make contributions at differing levels and have their names placed on a plaque in the lobby to acknowledge their charity. 

In just under three months, CLT has raised over $48,000 and the pledges are still coming in. 

“I think people have been extraordinarily generous knowing our situation and saying listen we understand and we want you back so here’s what we can do to help you out right now,” Blanchette said. “The community has been great; they’ve really risen to the occasion. We might not have been able to get through the year, realistically without donations.”

The Public Theatre and CLT’s public outreach efforts indicate audience members are not ready to return until more measures are in place to guarantee the safety of those performing and attending. 

“We put out a survey to our members asking them if they’re ready to come back, and probably 80% of our actors and tech people said absolutely, get me back in the theatre,” Blanchette said. “We sent the same survey out to our audiences, more than two-thirds said, no way, not until there’s either a vaccine or something else has happened to make us feel a lot safer.”

One alternative is virtual or “zoom” theatre. The Theatre at Monmouth is testing the viability of this option with its summer 2020 streaming series, Fairy and Folk Tales for Families.

Starting July 31, a new archival video will be posted on YouTube every Friday from previous Family Shows and Page to Stage touring productions. For those signing up, a suggested donation is encouraged to unlock the streaming series on the website at http://theateratmonmouth.org//.

“We’re not doing it because we expect to make a whole bunch of money, we’re doing it because we know there are people who are used to coming every summer and getting to see these plays live,” Dawn McAndrews, producing artistic director, said. “We’ve picked the ones that we think are the most favorite out of our audience. They can sit in the comfort of their own home, eat popcorn, pause it if they want and they won’t miss a thing.” 

For now, Schario said The Public Theatre is offering online classes for children interested in theatrics that they hope to develop into an after-school program. 

During the shutdown, The Community Little Theatre has taken care of some maintenance issues such as painting, installing new lighting, redoing the outside awnings and tackling some heavy-duty cleaning. A gofundme page on the CLT website is set up to raise money for a new heating and cooling system. 

“Professional arts organizations in the state of Maine generate $1.7 billion for our economy every year and 17,000 jobs,” Schario said. “When we have shows going on and when arts are happening the typical community gets a 38% retail bump, according to the national association of community theaters. It’s interesting the arts are the canary in the coal mine,” he said, because often when you go to a community with a thriving arts organization, the community is thriving.

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