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Not to Be

Theaters and performers adjust toa season cut short by COVID-19



Leira Satlof and her team chose Clue: The Musical for Ferndale Repertory's 2020 season because they thought people needed some fun.

"We chose it because things were already kind of bad," says Satlof, the theater's artistic producing director. "We chose a season of things we thought were fun. We thought our patrons would appreciate it."

It was a demanding text to perform, one that would involve a lot of audience interaction and 216 possible endings, depending on what the audience chose. The actors, who were cast in May of 2019 and began rehearsing in January, worked hard. But when it became apparent a week before the show's opening night of March 19 that Clue and other local performances would have to be put on hold indefinitely to protect public health, the cast and crew — which includes several emergency responders — got on board.

"When we brought the realities to the cast and crew, we came to understand that [some of them were at greater] risk because they were over 60," says Satlof. "There were others with high rates of potential exposure, people who worked in juvenile hall, a police officer."

So the team left its intricately built set assembled on the stage and sent the word to ticket-holders that the show would not go on. Totaling the amount paid for the rights to the play, the cost of paying the choreographer, set builders, costume designer and the refunding of ticket holders, Satlof estimates a $50,000 loss for the tiny theater.

"I feel really grateful that we have a high-functioning board that can figure it out," says Satlof, who is the organization's only full-time employee. FRT's last musical of the season 9-to-5 has been postponed until May of 2021.

Calder Johnson, managing artistic director of North Coast Repertory Theatre, says his organization also took a significant hit when its doors shut last week, although he hasn't yet penciled out the total financial impact.

"The good news is that we already operate on a shoestring," he says. "It allows us to go into hibernation more easily. I am currently looking for options I have for filing for unemployment. We still need to keep the lights on. The reality is it's all going to depend on how long this will last."

NCRT decided to halt performances just before the preview night of Hamlet, scheduled to open March 13. Friends and family of the cast, having made plans to travel from out of the area to see the debut, scrambled to cancel plane tickets.

"I ended up having to make the decision to pull the plug about 48 hours before we opened," says Johnson. "Never in the history of NCRT — 37 years — have we had to just straight up stop an opening production. It was very traumatizing and surreal. It showed us how much we depend on and care for each other."

Jordan Dobbins, cast to play Hamlet, calls the cancellation a "gut punch." Dobbins had taken a break from his online coursework for the five-week run of the show, and now finds himself shuffling school and work back to the front burner as he waits to hear what's next. "We've got a silver lining in that the text is so old that it's public domain and there's no restrictions on how long we can use it," he says, adding that he hopes to get the cast together at some point to do the performance they worked so hard on. "If we can all get into the theater, get one version that we can do a ProShop of, we could release it online."

Satlof and Johnson are in preliminary talks to create a fundraiser of some sort to support local theater, possibly a multi-day cabaret, although these are early days. Some patrons have retained their memberships and donated the cost of their tickets back to the theaters rather than asking for refunds, which helps. But Johnson also worries about the local businesses that support NCRT through sponsorship, the restaurants and others that may be hard hit in coming months. "I am worried for NCRT but I am also worried for them and what the long-term effects will be on our community," he says.

Johnson emphasizes that Hamlet has been postponed, not canceled. The cast continues to rehearse, using virtual platforms to run lines and "stay fresh," with the hopes they can soon pick up where they left off. They've collected their efforts under the hashtag #placesandholding.

Dobbins continues to run lines at home with his wife, Emma, who was cast in Hamlet as First Gravedigger/Clown. David Hamilton, the director, stays in touch with the cast, giving them challenges to help them better understand the material.

"He keeps us on our toes," Dobbins says. "The other day he said to go through the script, find texts that are relevant to this time."

What did he find? Unsurprisingly, Shakespeare — whose Globe theater was closed several times by the Bubonic plague's sweep through London — had some things to say, including this from Hamlet, Act 2, Scene2:

"... the air, look you, this brave o'erhanging firmament, this majestical roof fretted with golden fire, why, it appears no other thing to me than a foul and pestilent congregation of vapours."

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