In a normal year, theaters around the state would be preparing for their summer seasons. With gatherings currently forbidden and uncertainty hanging over their heads, many are simply canceling the whole season. Others are postponing or, as NHPR’s Sean Hurley found out, discovering new ways to reach an audience.
Once again I find myself sitting down at my computer for a video conference call. But this time it’s different. This time I’m watching a play, a rehearsal anyway, of Michael Frayn’s Copenhagen:
Margrethe: Why did he come? What was he trying to tell you?
Bohr: He did explain later.
Margrethe: He explained over and over again. Each time he explained it became more obscure.
In full rehearsal since January, Director Gary Locke and his three actors had to stop meeting in person, but continued to work on the play via Zoom. “I couldn’t imagine not doing it,” Locke says. “This is a monster, this play, for the actors. And I had one of my actors started working on this in October. The other two were working on it in November. Well how could I, in March, say to them, ‘Nah. Hang it up.’ No. But I think we're further along than anybody else. I'm quite sure of that.”
What Gary Locke means is that when the state's stay-at-home order is lifted and small gatherings are once again allowed, he believes his production of Copenhagen might be the first play to be performed in New Hampshire.
Andrew Pinard, Artistic Director at the Hatbox Theatre in Concord, where the play will be staged, hopes so too. “We've got people raring to go,” Pinard says. “I mean, we have performers who want to get back on stage, I have audience members that are contacting me by email and even phone calls, ‘When are you going to reopen?’”
The plan is for Copenhagen to hit the stage as soon as legally possible. Even so, Pinard expects social distancing will mean that only 20 of the Hatbox’s 100 seats will be available to sell.
Neil Pankhurst, Artistic Director at the Winnipesaukee Playhouse, blows sand off the road near the playhouse as though clearing the way for the night’s theater traffic. “It's the glamorous life in the theater!” he calls out as he kills the leafblower’s engine.
As we head into the playhouse, he tells me how he went up and down the aisles last week with a tape measure trying to see how many seats he could use and still maintain a 6-foot distance. Not many, he says. Not enough. “I would say now, things have just gotten to a place where no one knows anything and no one can predict anything," Pankhurst says, "and so I think that you know, for the whole world of theater, it's gonna be, you know, incredibly difficult to get back.”
Though the playhouse will remain closed through the end of August, Pankhurst is hoping something can be done on stage in September. “For now, in the short term up through probably the end of the summer we probably can survive,” he says, “but there is a sort of a breaking point.”
That breaking point arrived for Main Street Art in Newfields. The small arts education and community theater closed its doors for good on March 6. But other groups and theaters are doing their best to innovate their way forward.
Last week in Wilton, Andy’s Summer Playhouse Artistic Director Jared Mezzocchi unveiled their Digital Renaissance Project. “For 50 years Andy's has been a space for new work,” Mezzocchi tells me. “It brings in professional playwrights, directors, choreographers, designers, from all over the country to work on new, you know, world premiere works that are performed by children ages 8 to 18.”
The Project, Mezzocchi says, will attempt to do nearly the same thing Andy’s has always done, but online. “You know, no, we cannot replicate what theatre is as we have defined it five weeks ago,” he says, “but what we can do is ask ourselves what is essential about theatre making? What is the back and forth response? What is that energy in storytelling on a live basis?”
Other theatre groups in the state are trying it too. Dive In Productions has begun hosting online workshops and contests. The Windham Actors Guild recently launched a virtual theatre experience called “Curtain Call with WAG.” The New Hampshire Theatre Project has begun to work on a new collaborative play titled “We Don’t Know What This is Yet.”
And playwrights are finding their way into the virtual world. Late last month, the Meredith-based playwright Bryan Halperin posted a full cast read-through of his play “The Hairy Man” on YouTube.
Narrator: Act I, Scene 1. Johanna Benton, age 11, is playing with a doll and in the midst of acting out a story.
Johanna: Now, Little Red, you need to take this basket of food to your sick grandmother in the woods. But mother why do I have to do it? Because I said so. She’s your sick grandmother.
Sixteen-year-old Sophie Pankhurst plays the part of Johanna. “When you're on the stage, you have your whole body to work with,” Sophie Pankhurst says, “but I definitely felt as if I couldn't get the entire message across because I couldn't use my entire body, but this is what it's gonna have to be for now.”
Halperin, the playwright, says the limitations of putting a play online could have some benefits. “This is a way to get your work in people's hands,” Halperin says, “and in a different format that might in the future wanna, you know, take a serious look at your play and possibly produce it.”
Back on Zoom, Gary Locke and his Copenhagen team reflect on what might have been.
“Tomorrow night would have been opening night,” Locke reminds his cast. “Tonight would have been full dress. We're at places and holding everybody.”
And that’s where we are. At places and holding everybody.