For One Theater, a ‘Marvelous’ Way to Perform in Lockdown
With actors on payroll, Seacoast Rep has removed seats, added tech equipment and is selling tickets for a musical livestreamed every weekend.
by Elizabeth Vincentelli
The Seacoast Repertory Theater revival of “The Marvelous Wonderettes” that opened on May 16 looked like fully produced live theater, because it was. The costumed cast of four was acting and singing up a storm in real-time and on real sets, backed by an actual four-piece band. The retro, pastel-colored jukebox musical popped. But there was no audience in the house — the ticket-holders, kept home in the age of Covid-19, were all streaming.
“I was flabbergasted, watching our friends around the country, other regional houses big and small, just closing their doors, going home and saying ‘See you in 2021,’” Brandon James, the co-artistic director, said on the phone. “People in the industry thought ‘no live audience means no live theater.’ We thought we just had to change our delivery system."
As most American theaters have pared down their offerings to a mix of Zoom readings, artist conversations, and archival streams, Seacoast Rep, in Portsmouth, N.H., has been web-casting new productions since mid-May and has them planned for every weekend until at least July 5. (The next, the “Marvelous Wonderettes” sequel “Caps and Gowns,” starts Saturday at 8 p.m. Tickets are $20 per person — the theater relies on the honor system when it comes to how many members of a household are watching.)
New Hampshire declared a state of emergency on March 13 and its stay-at-home order went into effect on March 27. By then Seacoast Rep had shuttered its main stage production of “A Chorus Line” and launched both a radio station and virtual music, improv and dance classes, as well as health and fitness workouts, which allowed them to stay open under the law.
“We fell under two categories of essential business operations: Being a radio station we were a news and media service, and we also offered distance learning and educational programs,” said James, 37. He and Ben Hart, 34, have been running the theater for about a year.
A big reason Seacoast Rep was able to move on to actual productions was its adherence to the repertory model, which has over time been abandoned by most other theaters: It has six full-time local performers on the payroll.
Four of them joined a skeleton crew of 10 employees who were willing to remain quarantined, avoid seeing their friends and families, and only venture outside to go to the theater. The company manager does grocery shopping for all of them. The rest of the staff works from home.
While Seacoast Rep occasionally hires members of Actors’ Equity, it is generally a non-Equity house. They have not heard from Equity or other unions in relation to their current situation or plans.
“I just walk to the theater — that’s it,” said Alyssa Dumas, Seacoast’s 28-year-old associate artistic director, who portrayed the Marvelous Wonderette Betty Jean. “I haven’t gone anywhere else. My birthday was in April, so that was a weird scenario, but that’s the choice we made: It’s all for a bigger purpose.”
Of course, participants are closely monitored. “We have procedures where everyone has to check in with either the production manager or the stage manager,” the theater’s executive director, Kathleen Cavalaro, said. “They’re asked screening questions, we have no-touch thermometers, and there’s regular sanitation every few hours. The musicians are not included in the 10 so they are backstage six feet apart from each other, with their own entrance and exit, and they follow the same procedures.”Seacoast Rep removed seats to install a streaming system, and moved light and sound equipment into the house. The lighting had to be reconfigured to accommodate the demands of video.
Then it was all hands on deck, like a modern, high-tech remake of a movie about Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland putting on a show in a barn.
The tech team is one sound person and one lighting person, with James multitasking in the back of the room. “I’m basically a one-man television production studio: I’m running all the cameras, doing the pans and the zooms on our iPad, switching between cameras and communicating with sound and light,” he said.At the same time, Hart is backstage helping with props and quick changes; he even pops up in the show to play the teacher Mr. Lee.
For actors used to the instant gratification of applause after a number, an empty house required some getting used to“Everything felt like a dress rehearsal,” said Jason Faria. Like most at Seacoast, the 27-year-old resident performer wears many hats: On a recent Saturday, for example, he led an online morning story hour in the vein of “Pee-Wee’s Playhouse” as his drag character Honey Punch, then played Wonderette Cindy Lou in the evening. The toughest hurdle, however, was not so much how to do a show but how to find one.
At first, James, Hart and Cavalaro looked in the public domain. “Most Shakespeares and Gilbert and Sullivans required too large a cast, and we also felt that other people had already well covered that stuff,” Hart said.
They considered turning J.M. Barrie’s obscure comic fantasy “Dear Brutus” into a jukebox musical with public-domain songs, but eventually decided they wanted a newer property. The problem was that nobody wanted to grant them stage and streaming rights.“The industry has not caught up with the time,” James said. “The biggest request from our audiences was, ‘Give us a show, give us storytelling’ and we kept telling them ‘We’re trying!’ We were getting hard nos.”
Until they reached out to Roger Bean.
The creator of “The Marvelous Wonderettes” and its (lesser-known) sequels, who also runs the licensing company Stage Rights, gave his approval immediately. “I think theaters that are constantly engaging their audience with some sort of streaming option will rise to the top and survive,” Bean said on the phone. “Because their audience is being talked to and treated compassionately throughout this thing.”
A key condition was that the shows could only be watched live, and there is a 200-ticket cap per “Wonderettes” performance — sales have averaged half that so far. Seacoast Rep’s other programs are available on replay via their theater’s streaming platform, Crowdcast. Patreon subscriptions are available, and James notes that ‘we’re monetizing some offerings way more after they’ve gone live.”
(The by-appointment model, incidentally, is spreading as a compromise between rights holders and theater companies itching to find material. London’s Old Vic, for instance, has just announced Old Vic: In Camera, a program of livestreamed performances in the theater, socially distanced but without audiences, that will start with Claire Foy and Matt Smith in the two-hander “Lungs.”)
Web-casting could also make partial reopenings possible. “You could imagine that there’s, say, a 70-person limit to an audience, but you can also sell livestreaming tickets and you can potentially sell out the technical maximum number of seats,” Hart suggested.James agrees about the potential of new technologies for live arts. “We are under no illusion that this is going to replace live theater, and we don’t want it to,” he said, “but streaming is certainly better than nothing. It has kept this organization’s nose above water.”And of course, seeing full performances live online may well whet theatergoers’ appetite for more, instead of satiating it. “Some people have offered us a thousand dollars a ticket to see a show,” Cavalaro said, laughing.