COVID-19 Dimmed Broadway Lights, But Theaters Like Greater Boston Stage Company Keep Art Alive
On a chaotic Thursday in March 2020, Tyler Rosati and staff at Greater Boston Stage Company closed down their opening night performance after discussions around coronavirus. The team planned only to pause things for a couple of weeks. The theatre has not had a live performance in their space since.
In response to the country’s ban on large gatherings, the lights went dark last March on Broadway, regional, and community theaters. Venues where art and culture thrived, have been replaced with empty seats and silence.
Located in Stoneham, Massachusetts, Greater Boston Stage Company provides live entertainment while also running a year-round theater education program, called The Young Company, for students in grades 1 through 12. Because of the pandemic, the theater and Young Company needed to learn how to adapt to the changing environment.
“It was definitely a quick tug of the rug under our feet,” Rosati says.
Rosati, who works as the Director of Education for The Young Company, held classes and performances online, where students operated in a virtual space.
“We started moving classes, our Winter Festival, some voice lessons to a virtual world and adjusted them in ways that just made them feel special,” Rosati says.
The Young Company performed two different virtual shows this semester, The Phantom Tollbooth and She Kills Monsters: Virtual Realms. The company also took part in a 24-Hour Movie where the actors worked virtually to recreate the home invasion scene from Home Alone in the span of one day. While the online component didn’t lessen the connection between students, movement and comfortability became a challenge.
“It’s really hard to freely move in your own space,” Rosati explains, “and I think especially in educational theater, it is hard for students to be as vulnerable and open as they would like to be because there are thin walls in their house.”
Even with these obstacles, Rosati felt the need to provide theater education now more than ever. “The world is a bit on fire, and students still need something to do, so we wanted to keep singing. We wanted to keep acting. We wanted to keep people engaged,” Rosati says.
With the idea of virtual theater, Broadway, regional, and community theater venues across the country are finding ways of bringing performances to the comfort of people’s homes. This past summer, Broadway’s Hamilton made its home on Disney+ while David Byrne’s American Utopia currently streams on HBO Max. Within the Greater Boston Stage Company professional sphere, the theater experimented with live-streamed Zoom plays, virtual concerts, radio programs, and virtual masterclasses.
Although they have been able to earn some money from ticket sales for past virtual performances, theater venues have struggled financially from the impacts of COVID-19. Since Brodaway’s closure on March 12, the theater district has lost an estimated $35 million per week. Greater Boston Stage Company faced its own economic stress.
“The whole staff went on furlough starting March 22nd,” Rosati says, “so they were out from March to late October.”
As theaters are hurting financially, states like Massachusetts work to provide financial aid to performance venues and other cultural non-profit organizations. The Massachusetts Cultural Council recently awarded Greater Boston Stage Company a $50,000 grant to help support the theater’s endeavors when it reopens.
While the state has helped keep the theater afloat, surprisingly, there has been an influx of donations from families involved with The Young Company.
“So many families whose programs were canceled opted to turn their ticket or their registration into a direct donation for the theatre,” Rosati says. “We are able to come back right now. We are able to start doing programming because those donations drove us to a little bit more financial stability.”
Luckily, with the rollout of the COVID-19 vaccines, theaters on Broadway could open their doors in fall or early September. The Greater Boston Stage Company will operate a condensed young company festival this summer and begin its new season of shows in the fall.
“We’ve been sort of laying low and doing what we need to do to be prepared for our comeback,” Rosati shares.
The pandemic has upended the arts in so many ways, whether it’s the loss of intimate in-person performances or the reinvention of new ways to create theater in the virtual realm. For the summer program, Rosati and the staff reflect on what theater means for people and how they can create art for all.
“This past year has reminded me how important empathy and connection is,” Rosati says, “and so we’re really leaning into creating that safe space this summer. What empathy do we have to give people?”
The return of Broadway and theater will set a different tone than before the pandemic hit. While there is no certainty for how live theater will operate once running again, the industry’s future looks promising. The doors may be closed for now, but hope, optimism, and the love of theater are only growing.