St. Louisans who crave plays and musicals will be glad to learn that area theater groups have been working together over the past year, planning a return to the stage as soon as it’s feasible and safe. In the meantime, they have connected with audiences and industry peers through a variety of virtual programs.
“We are approaching one year of the entire industry being dark, which is unprecedented,” says Hana Sharif, artistic director for The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis. “Even in the Great Depression, the stages didn’t all shut down.” Today, she says, national and local groups of artists and administrators are examining what it means to relaunch American theater, and a great deal of care is being taken to ensure it is done safely.
“The Rep has hired a health and safety coordinator, and we are working with an epidemiologist on a plan to protect actors, crew and audiences with the best safety practices available,” Sharif says. “Much of 2020 was a re-evaluation process, and we are striving to ensure our plan passes muster with the six unions who work with us. Some industry members are betting on this summer or fall to reopen, but we still don’t know for sure.”
Sharif says The Rep started virtual programming for at-home audiences in April 2020. Among other projects, the company partnered with four theaters in New York, Washington, D.C., Maryland and Connecticut to ‘microcommission’ short scripts from a group of playwrights. Audiences were invited to perform the pieces with loved ones at home and share them online. “It was a lovely way of getting people involved,” Sharif says. “We also worked with StoneLion Puppet Theatre in Kansas City to create a drive-through evening puppet show that drew 500 families.”
Sharon Hunter, founder of Moonstone Theatre Co., has been working to bring local industry professionals and audiences back together as well. She had just launched Moonstone and was preparing for its first show when the pandemic struck. The gravity and uncertainty of the situation spurred her to brainstorm ways to keep local theater alive.
The result was the St. Louis Theatre Community Task Force, a coalition of companies and professionals who meet virtually to discuss topics like financial concerns and safe reopening practices. Hunter says the group has proven to be a strengthening and unifying force for theater professionals in trying times. “I also have been creating monthly educational podcasts with local and national arts leaders,” she says. “We talk about their personal journeys and how the pandemic is affecting the industry. I plan to interview behind-the-scenes personalities as well, like playwrights and lighting designers.” She also is working on programs like a virtual one-act play festival slated for this summer.
The industry is likely to stay in a holding pattern for the next several months, but Hunter says there is reason for optimism. “Audiences are eager to return to their seats,” she says. “They crave live theater because it lifts the spirits and creates a sense of energy and community. It will look a bit different when it returns, but everyone is doing their best to ensure it has a safe, bright future.”
Pictured at top: The Rep’s top-selling show, Pride & Prejudice
Photo: Phillip Hamer