The theater world’s seemingly endless holding pattern has been, in recent weeks and months, altered. Each of the bay area’s professional-level playhouses is coming out, in its own way, of Covid-mandated hibernation.
Stageworks, at 38 years the longest-lived professional company on the Tampa side, is the latest to put physical butts back in physical seats.
There will be significantly fewer of them, in the interests of keeping said audiences good and distanced. “I think we can offer a deeply satisfying, safe way to come back and see theater,” says artistic director Karla Hartley. “We’ve been making significant investments in various technologies that will aid us.”
The “new” template begins Feb. 12, with The Lifespan of a Fact, a topical comedy based on the book by journalist John D’Agata with Jim Fingal. Hartley chose this three-person show because its premise – the travails of a media fact-checker – seemed relevant in the current political climate.
Stageworks will return at about 50 percent capacity – 46 or so seats, utilizing the usual auditorium seating, and a backstage area that’s been opened up and renovated so that it faces the two-sided thrust stage. Cabaret tables will be used in this space.
Hartley, like her fellow artistic directors on both sides of the bay, admits to a great deal of frustration since her last season ended so suddenly, with a whimper.
“The challenge has been what to plan,” she explains. “You can make a plan, and then all of a sudden the world can divert it. I think we all felt a hesitance to commit to ‘a date.’ Certainly three or four months ago.
“But we’ve been doing a lot of research about how to do this, and to do it with the utmost safety. And the fact of the matter is, we’ve got to do something. We can’t just continue to sit.”
For the first few months, Stageworks attempted to stay in the pubic eye with digital programs and videos. “We dipped our toes into livestreaming, but ultimately I find it to be dissatisfying,” she reports. “And also, it’s much more difficult to control – if you have lousy internet at your house, it looks lousy. And the whims of whatever waves are in the air can derail a whole event.”
Both Jobsite and freeFall theaters returned to live performances in October – the former, in the Straz Center’s much-roomier Jaeb Theatre, the latter in its outdoor parking lot.
American Stage livestreamed several plays, and will “go live” again, with social distancing, in late February.
“Ultimately,” proclaims Hartley, “I don’t care what everybody else is doing. I have a responsibility to myself, and I have a responsibility to this theater.”
Tickets are available now for the opening show, and for the others – Christopher Demos-Brown’s American Son (opening March 12), Luis Santeiro’s The Lady From Havana (April 16) and the A.R. Gurney comedy Sylvia, a longtime Stageworks favorite (June 4). Get tickets here.
Is it Hartley’s hope that by June, Covid restrictions will have eased somewhat, and she’ll feel good about expanding seating availability for Sylvia.
Because theater is, at the end of the day, a business. And like all businesses, it’s taken a beating.
“In theory, according to the governor, I could open at full capacity right now,” Hartley says. “But that’s not a responsible way to do this.”
In addition to the spaced and limited seating, the new plan calls for advanced cleaning, microbial-cleansing UV lighting and at-the-door temperature checks. A total of 45 to 50 seats, Hartley explains, “is enough for me to feel I’m making a responsible choice financially for the organization … and I’m able to continue doing the work.”