With stages shuttered by virus, R.I. performers improvise

Uncertainty is the name of the game for all of the state’s performance venues, as artistic directors and theater executives are faced with empty houses and closed box offices. Performers are getting by as best they can, hoping that before too long, the show will go on again.

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PROVIDENCE — The sets are already built. Fabric for the costumes has already been bought. The music has already gone out to the cast.

But you won’t see Trinity Rep’s musical “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” onstage this season. You won’t see “Sweat,” a drama about factory workers in the Rust Belt, either. And “A Tale of Two Cities” was halted in the middle of its Trinity run.

Trinity canceled the remainder of its 2019-20 season after Gov. Gina Raimondo and Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza sharply limited the number of people who could gather in one place, part of a statewide effort to slow down COVID-19, the coronavirus.

Trinity lost a total of 83 performances. Other theaters in Rhode Island have also canceled all, or part, of their seasons.

Actress Rebecca Gibel has been a member of Trinity’s repertory company since 2013 (she played Sheila Cianci in “The Prince of Providence” and Lucie Manette in “A Tale of Two Cities”). She was scheduled to appear in “Sweeney Todd,” as was her husband, actor Charlie Thurston.

She said she heard about the end of “A Tale of Two Cities” even before the official announcement, thanks to social media.

“It’s been strange. And disjointed,” she said. “I know that everybody’s lives have been hugely disrupted by this.”

Trinity is continuing to pay its company members for four weeks, and Gibel is grateful for the money. She and Thurston have side gigs narrating audio books, which they can do from their home studio. Gibel has recorded a wide variety of books, including a series called the Coffeehouse Mysteries with titles such as “Roast Mortem” and “Dead to the Last Drop.” Thurston’s most recent project is a young-adult novel called “Boys of Alabama.”

“Of all my friends who are theater artists, we’re probably in the .5 percent who can still make money,” Gibel said. She is also teaching a Shakespearean acting course at Brown University, which will have to go online.

In the meantime, she is taking online yoga and Pilates classes, hiking, biking and baking an enormous number of brown butter oatmeal chocolate coconut cookies.

“I’m baking everything,” she said. “I think baking kills the virus.”

Mostly, she said, she is living for the day when she can be onstage before an audience again.

“Theater, live music, dance — it’s all about people syncing up their heartbeats and experiencing the same thing at the same time,” she said.

She worries about local arts institutions — not just Trinity but the Gamm, Wilbury Theatre Group, Columbus Theatre, Festival Ballet Providence and many more — making it though the disruptions caused by the virus. She hopes that arts nonprofits get some consideration when it comes to government relief efforts, right along with the airlines and cruise ship operators.

“Think about the things that make cities desirable to live in — the culture, the nightlife. The reason big companies want to move to cities is because of these things,” she said, adding that large companies shouldn’t be the only ones that get help.

Lizzy Pegler is a costume technician at Trinity who began as an intern during the 2016-17 season. Until last week, she’d been very busy. She ran wardrobe for “A Tale of Two Cities,” was in the middle of final fittings for “Sweat,” and was starting work on “Sweeney Todd,” a demanding production when it comes to costuming.

“I’ve been pretty much going nonstop until now. I’ve never had time like this before, and I probably never will again. … I’ve been reading a lot of plays, doing some drawing, honing my skills as best I can,” she said.

Pegler will also be getting four weeks’ pay from Trinity, and she hopes that money will see her through to her summer gig with Shakespeare & Co. in Lenox, Massachusetts, where she will be working on “King Lear.”

That’s assuming things are back to quasi-normal by then.

“It’s all up in the air right now,” she said.

Uncertainty is the name of the game for all of the state’s theaters, as artistic directors and theater executives are faced with empty houses and shuttered box offices.

“We had to close a show after four performances — that was awful,” said Josh Short, artistic director of the Wilbury Theater Group in Providence, referring to the musical “Miss You Like Hell.”

“What we do is gather people together for a shared experience,” Short said. “Now we can’t do that, and it’s indefinite. It’s not like a snowstorm, where you close for one night, and then you’re back.” (Short is still holding out some hope that Wilbury might be able to stage the final show of its season, a musical adaptation of “American Psycho,” scheduled to begin May 21.)

At the Gamm Theatre in Warwick, artistic director Tony Estrella announced the theater was canceling the remaining run of “Assassins” and the upcoming “Mary Jane.” He said The Gamm will try to reschedule, possibly during the summer for “Assassins,” or next season for “Mary Jane.” But with schedules for actors, directors and crews thoroughly confused, it’s almost impossible to say what will happen next.

In the meantime, the Gamm has rescheduled its fundraising gala from March 30 to June 29, at Rhodes on the Pawtuxet, in Cranston.

The website for Theatre by the Sea in Matunuck says the venerable summer institution still plans to stick to its summer schedule, which begins in late May with “Mamma Mia!”

The Providence Performing Arts Center has postponed or canceled several events due the COVID-19 outbreak, including “The SpongeBob Musical,” which has halted its national tour. At this writing, “Dear Evan Hansen,” due to run May 26 to 31 at PPAC, is still on the schedule.

“I’m just trying to look to Friday,” said PPAC President J.L. “Lynn” Singleton when asked about future shows. (The PPAC box office can still be reached by phone at 401-421-2787 or email at box_office_questions@ppacri.org.)

Curt Columbus, artistic director at Trinity, said he’s been through three societal events that have affected the theater. He was still in Chicago, with the Steppenwolf Theatre Company, during 9/11. He was in Providence for the Great Recession of 2008-09. And now it’s COVID-19.

The big difference between the three, he said, is that this is the first time theaters have had to close their doors for an indefinite period of time.

Tom Parrish, Trinity’s executive director, said the theater has been following the COVID-19 epidemic closely. On March 12, Providence Mayor Elorza declared a state of emergency and temporarily revoked all entertainment licenses. Trinity closed “A Tale of Two Cities.” On March 17, the theater canceled the rest of the season.

He said the director and design team for “Sweat” came in from out of town, and Trinity honored its financial commitments to them. Columbus, who was slated to direct “Sweeney Todd,” said he spent two years researching and planning the show.

Is it possible that either “Sweat” or “Sweeney Todd” can return to Trinity in the uncertain future?

“Possibly,” said Parrish. “We’re just re-evaluating everything day by day.”

“From your lips to God’s ears,” said Columbus.

The cancellations are a financial blow to theaters throughout the state. Trinity, for example, receives about a third of its budget from charitable contributions, and nearly half of those are made between now and June 30. And, of course, there’s no box office revenue coming in.

Parrish said it’s too soon to assess what the impact to Trinity will be, but it’s going to be significant.

Columbus said Trinity is hoping its audience will continue to contribute to the theater, and perhaps donate the money they have already spent on canceled performances back to Trinity. In the meantime, the theater is focusing on its summer programs and developing the 2020-21 season.

Trinity is planning to hold its annual Pell Awards Gala on June 8, and hopes to have the annual Young Actors Summer Institute at the theater in July, plus the bilingual Teatro en El Verano at locations throughout Providence over the summer.

Some theaters are making a pivot to online material while their buildings are closed. The Wilbury Theatre Group in Providence, for example, has announced it will be streaming Monday night classes with Mycah Hogan and Jennifer Mischley, along with new work from Shey Rivera Rios, Darcie Dennigan, Christopher Johnson, Jesse Hawley and James Stanley. Plus, there’s an upcoming online performance of “Roadhouse: The Musical” by Brien Lang.

Audiences can watch the performances live via The Wilbury Group Facebook page, YouTube, and the GoLocalProv website.

Short acknowledges that online performances can’t match the thrill of live theater. But it’s a way to maintain a connection with the Wilbury audience, and hopefully encourage them to donate to the theater.

“We’re not going under, that’s for sure,” Short said. “I’m finally sleeping at night.”

At Trinity, ticket holders to “A Tale of Two Cities” will be able to see an archival recording of the show online, and the theater is hoping to develop additional online content soon.

“We can only keep walking forward. It’s all we can do,” said Columbus. “I am getting to see a generosity of spirit among people I haven’t seen in a long time.”

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