How ironic that freeFall Theatre Company’s 2019-2020 season was titled Ghost Light – referring to an old theatrical custom that says the room is dark and devoid of people.
This week, Chris Crawford announced that he was leaving freeFall, where he’d been Associate Artistic Director for exactly one year.
The reason, at least indirectly, was Covid-19: All performing arts spaces were shut down in March (midway through the Ghost Light season), and the talented actor, director and writer had virtually nothing to do.
“After weeks of intense soul searching and due to artistic and ethical differences, I have decided it’s best for me not to return to my position,” Crawford wrote on his Facebook page. “While freeFall has been a vital part of my life since moving to Florida, I feel as though it’s time for me to set out on a personal journey and rediscover my love for the theatre on my own terms.”
He and his partner, John Mark Jernigan, are launching a podcast, Say Hello.
Crawford’s departure came just as freeFall was bringing employees back from furloughs, described by executive and artistic director Eric Davis as temporary but necessary. “I’m very grateful that we were able to keep so much of our staff on payroll for so long,” Davis says.
These are the unforeseeable changes that have caused the business of live theater to teeter on the precipice of failure for six months: Performers need to perform. And theaters need people in the seats to remain open – for performers to perform in.
Covid implemented and enforced a “wait and see” system – and after six months, even the most optimistic are feeling a little ground down. “People are making pretty drastic life choices right now because of this thing,” Davis says.
FreeFall is gearing up to return to live performance – in a manner of speaking – with the “drive-in” show War of the Worlds, to be performed Oct. 23-Nov. 22 on a stage constructed in the theater’s 1st Avenue North parking lot. The audience will literally be in their cars.
War of the Worlds represents a compromise. Davis’ urge to create is great – that’s what he does – and the cold-water reality is that even a nonprofit with a healthy roster of donors and supporters needs to bring in a bit of money on its own.
“Everybody is struggling and we don’t know where things are going,” Davis says. “I don’t think that anybody who loves the arts should feel like ‘Oh, this has all gone away, and the arts organizations are out of the woods now.’
“We try to stay very positive, and I definitely expect us to recover and get back to where we were before this all happened, but we don’t know what’s going to happen next.”
And it’s been that way since March, with one tentative season schedule after another having to be jettisoned because the Covid situation was not getting better.
He has, Davis admits, at times believed that freeFall might not survive. “I think that’s been the case for all arts organizations, since the beginning of this. Even the museums and other organizations that were able to start coming back much earlier, they’re probably running with smaller staffs, they probably had to let some people go permanently, or some people moved on permanently because of other choices.”
Unlike American Stage, St. Petersburg’s other professional theater, freeFall has not been prolific with virtual programming during the pandemic.
“I’m not against that,” Davis explains, “and I love seeing different hybrid ideas people have that are ensuring a smooth transition, like what American Stage is doing – I think it’s really exciting and interesting. And very smart.
“But I really feel like what we do is theater, and that is about being in the presence of the performance. I love watching digital theater, but it’s a different art form. It’s television and film. I love playing with video, even within our performances. I’m certainly not anti-technology by any means.
“When we get to the tipping point where we’re no longer doing theater, but rather producing a sort of television or film … that stuff is valuable, too, but how do we preserve what theater does? And its function in society as this live thing, when we can’t gather?”
War of the Worlds, by necessity, will include special effects, some of them visa video screens, along with the live performers on the outdoor stage.
“And I think people are going to see a larger digital presence from us as we move forward and recover,” Davis adds. “Having been through this experience, we see a way to sort of weatherproof the organization as we build a stronger digital presence.”
To his mind, it’s all a slow crawl back to his life’s calling, and to freeFall’s raison d’etre: “That night when we open a show – back to what we were exploring when all this happened – will be a really satisfying moment.”