Many times since March, Anita Stewart has felt a little like Sisyphus, the character from Greek mythology who pushes a massive boulder up a hill only to have it roll back down as he nears the top.

For Stewart, the boulder represents her efforts at Portland Stage to navigate the disruptions, turmoil and uncertainty caused by the coronavirus. Pushing the rock up the hill sometimes feels nearly impossible, and it doesn’t take much for the best-laid plans to fall apart and crash in a cloud of dust. “Right when you think you’ve made it to the top, the boulder comes rolling back down,” said Stewart, executive and artistic director at Portland Stage Company.

For now, the boulder is teetering at the top. If the latest plan holds and the boulder doesn’t tumble down, Portland Stage will resume live theater with a limited number of people in the seats in October and November when it presents a run of Lanford Wilson’s “Talley’s Folly,” a one-act play about finding hope and joy in unlikely places during troubled times. The theater announced its plans last week, and doing so felt like a major accomplishment. “It’s been intense, to say the least,” Stewart said.

Since March, she and her peers across Maine have become experts on government loans, unemployment regulations, union rules, public health practices, and things they’ve never thought much about before, like how air circulates within a building. Now, they’re thinking again about stage directions, set designs and how to tell a story. Mounting a play is a challenging group effort under the best circumstances, and the task feels gargantuan and perilous during the time of COVID-19. Theater directors are reinventing how they work, while balancing an almost sacred need to lift others through art with the obligation of protecting the health and safety of the cast, crew and audience.

“For months, it has just been a crisis plan and worrying about my staff, who I had to furlough because there was no work, and knowing that what people really need in times like this is to come together, share stories and get outside yourself. You can do that in small ways through Zoom and things like that, but it’s not the same,” Stewart said. “It’s very exciting thinking about the ability, even with a small group of people, to get in the space and actually connect, to see the humanity that comes across and the relationship that develops between actors and audience, which is unique and has a real ability to heal.”

Said Bari Newport, executive and artistic director at the Penobscot Theatre in Bangor, “This virus and the government and everybody can take whatever they can away from us, but they cannot take our creative spirit, which to me is God inside all of us. As artists, we all have that, we all have that creative spirit inside of us. When the virus shut us down, it pained me in a very deep way that my divine spirit was being crushed, and everyone around me too. We had to feed that, and that is what we have done. We are still able to inspire and provide optimism and hope. That is kind of the whole thing.”

The fall theater landscape looks a lot like public schools in Maine – a mix of in-person performances, both indoors and out; remote performances accessible through the web (and the U.S. mail); and a hybrid approach, where plays are presented live and also available for streaming for audiences who aren’t comfortable coming to the theater. As necessity is the mother of invention, many of the adaptations that theaters are experimenting with as they return to the stage are likely to stick, particularly the streaming of live, local theater.

Stewart unlocks the door of Portland Stage, which is on Forest Avenue. Portland Stage plans to reopen at the end of October with a two-person play. No more than 48 theatergoers at a time will be allowed to attend. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

WORKING THROUGH CHALLENGES

Portland Stage is taking the hybrid approach with “Talley’s Folly.” The one-act show will open for previews on Oct. 29 with an audience of no more than 48 people. There will be an usher and a house manager, bringing to 50 the number of people in a seating area that can accommodate 286. Those 50 do not include a small technical crew that will be apart from the audience in a closed booth, and two actors on stage who will not come within 12 feet of the first row of occupied seats.

The production will star Kathy McCafferty as Sally Tally and her husband, Dave Mason, as the other lead character, Matt Friedman. Set in Missouri in 1944, the story is about a Southern aristocratic woman and the Jewish man who falls in love with her. The odds are against them, as they try to find a way to make their romance blossom. It is a play about working through challenges and overcoming personal and societal obstacles, an apt lesson for our times, Stewart said.

Portland Stage worked closely and over many months with the Actors’ Equity Association, a national actors’ union, for permission to do the show. The union has been protective of its members, imposing rigorous safety standards on theaters who employ its members. While Broadway remains dormant and will be for some time, many regional theaters around the country, including the Ogunquit Playhouse, have returned to work, and many others in Maine are operating with non-union casts. Casting a husband and wife helped win the union’s blessing, because it means the actors won’t have to consider social distancing guidelines during performances or rehearsals – not a small concern, given that “Talley’s Folly” is a love story.

Portland Stage will work with Northern Light Mercy Hospital to test the actors and everyone around them on a weekly basis with 48-hour results, and Stewart has been trained in COVID-19 compliance. In drawing up her health and safety plan, she benefited from her friendship with former Portland Stage board member Dr. Stephen Sears, an epidemiologist and member of the COVID-19 response team at the Maine CDC. He consulted with her throughout the process, reaffirming Stewart’s belief in the benefits of a well-rounded board. “I would never have guessed that someone who is an infectious disease specialist would be who I needed most on my team, but there you go,” she said.

The theater invested $20,000 in a new air-ionization system, and will move to concierge seating, so couples and other groups can sit together and allow at least 6 feet between them and others. Facial masks are required to be worn at all times. On days with two performances, the theater will run shows at 2 and 7:30 p.m. instead of its usual start times of 4 and 7:30 p.m. to allow more time between performances to clean the theater and refresh the air.

And perhaps most significantly, the theater will film the show so it will be available for people to watch at home. “We will wait until after we open to film so we have a really good show on our hands, and the tape will be available through direct streaming,” she said. “So you have two ways of seeing it. You can come and sit in the theater with up to 49 other people or you can purchase an online ticket and watch it on your own time whenever you want, within a two-week window.”

The official opening is Sunday, Nov. 1, and the play will run for two weeks, closing Nov. 15. The digital download will be available from Nov. 9 to Nov. 22. Rehearsals start Oct. 13.

That prospect thrills Stewart. “Ninety percent of my time this summer has been spent just trying to figure out a health and safety plan. It’s nice to be thinking about an actual play,” she said, with one eye on the boulder at teetering at the top of the hill.

A MEDLEY

Theaters in Maine will test a variety of approaches this fall.

In Bangor, Bari Newport and her team at the Penobscot Theatre scrubbed their planned season in favor of “Digitus Theatrum,” a virtual, multimedia season that will consist of staged live-streamed performances available for one-time-only viewing at specific times, as well as plays, audio dramas, music and others performances that have been prerecorded and available for streaming during certain windows of time. The season opens Oct. 9 with “Ghost Hunting in Bangor, ME,” a live-streamed performance of ghost stories by Maine playwrights.

The cast of “Measure for Measure” rehearsing at Cumston Hall before a live taping. Courtesy of Theater at Monmouth

At the Theater at Monmouth, the cameras rolled a week ago Friday at Cumston Hall for a full-cast production of Shakespeare’s “Measure for Measure,” which will be offered to schools as part of the theater’s ongoing and long-standing Shakespeare in Maine Communities program. In the past, Monmouth has toured a production to schools across Maine and New Hampshire. Limited by COVID-19 restrictions, this year the theater filmed a fully-staged production and will stream it to schools and community venues Oct. 13-31, with post-performance discussions via Zoom.

The cast of “Measure for Measure” rehearsing in director James Noel Hoban’s backyard. Courtesy of Theater at Monmouth

Portland-based director James Noel Hoban adapted the play to reflect some of what people are struggling with now. It’s set in fictitious Vienna, Montana, in the 1890s during a time of plague, and has a feeling of isolation and loneliness. The play is about an immoral leader abdicating responsibilities and the chaos that results. Masks are part of the costuming at times, and the set was designed to maximize social distancing. The all-local cast of eight rehearsed outdoors in Hoban’s backyard through the late summer and moved indoors to Cumston Hall for the filming, which happened before a small audience.

Other theaters are taking their performances into the crisp outdoors of the Maine fall. New York City’s Royal Family Productions, which has Maine roots, will stage director Chris Henry’s adaptation of the novel “Anne of Green Gables: Part 1” as a one-woman show for a socially-distant outdoor presentation at 1:30 and 4:30 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 26, at South Road Farm, an old New England working farm in Fayette. Henry is a native of Winthrop and grew up in Maine with Royal Family Productions board president Tom Calcagni. His parents used to own South Road Farm, now owned by Melysa Cassidy.

They worked together to stage this show, starring Nicole Renee Johnson. She will perform in one end of a barn open on both ends, with an audience of no more than 50 seated outdoors, masked, socially distanced and among the fields and pastures suggested in the play.

Riding out the pandemic in Readfield, Henry decided to stage this show outdoors in an idyllic setting to give people a chance to come together safely and share a story of strength and perseverance. “This story is about a woman, a young girl, an 11-year-old orphan nobody has ever wanted. Her entire life she is teased about having red hair and taken advantage of and not loved, and she has so much love to give,” Henry said. “It’s about acceptance and it’s about, in my opinion, how we can accept people for who they are, 100 percent, with unconditional love.”

She echoed Newport’s sentiment that not being able to create is bad for the soul. “As artists, we are all trying to figure out how to, in the age of COVID, make people feel safe and tell stories, because stories connect us,” she said. “I applaud everybody who is trying to create. At this time, the creation of art in any form is a form of rebellion.”

The Ogunquit Playhouse introduced its Playhouse Patio Cabaret series, with performances by Broadway singers who have starred in the theater’s most popular musicals, like “Jersey Boys” and “Million Dollar Quartet,” on a temporary stage outdoors at the theater. It’s been hugely popular. The series continues through Oct. 11, and every show has sold out – 40 performances over 10 weekends with 50 people per performance. Tables cost $118 for two or $236 for four. But as successful as the series has been, “it’s not going to scratch the surface” of the theater’s financial challenges, said executive artistic director Bradford Kenney. “It does look nice on a worksheet, but it represents one-third of the regular gross of one week at the playhouse,” he said.

FINALLY, GOOD NEWS FOR THE U.S. POSTAL SERVICE

Artistic Stamp artistic directors Shelley Butler and West Hyler came up with their idea while quarantining in Surry. Courtesy of Shelley Butler

Outlier to all the others are two New York-based theater directors with Maine roots, Shelley Butler and West Hyler, who have created Artistic Stamp, an interactive series of playwriting experiences among playwrights, actors and audience members, all conducted with handwritten correspondence through the U.S. mail. Audience members will receive letters in the mail, conceived by playwright and handwritten by actors, that begin to tell a story. The people who receive the letters will react and reply, and the story will evolve over the course of seven letters exchanged between September and December.

It’s an exercise in human connection during a time of isolation involving words on a page and the collaboration of artists and audiences — all the ingredients of live theater, but without a performance. “The end result is the exchange,” said Butler, who grew up in Maine and came up with this idea with her husband while riding out the pandemic at her parents’ cabin in Surry. “We may ultimately decide to put them together in some written form, but it’s the back-and-forth and the seven letters you receive, and what you decide to write back.”

The first letters go out this week, and the experience costs $100.

As directors, Butler said she and her husband will carry forward the lessons of this exercise when they go back to work in an actual theater. “I don’t know how yet, but we’ve all been doing what we do in the way we do it for so long now. So many innovations in our field may come out of this pause,” she said. “It’s going to be interesting to see how we change.”


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.