American Players Theatre announces steps toward 2021 season with The Road Back

American Players Theatre

A new season update from Artistic Director Brenda DeVita, and “The Road Back” (Photos via APT)

Recently, American Players Theatre announced a series entitled The Road Back, which discusses its journey back to the stage following the cancellation of the 2020 season. The following are the first three chapters, detailing the on-going process for the 2021 season. 

The Road Back: Chapter One 

Since the moment we were forced to cancel the 2020 season, we have been planning for 2021. Those plans have changed, and changed again. And again. They are, in fact, in an almost constant state of flux. But throughout all the planning and re-planning, our determination to bring you a season this year has never wavered. We’re hopeful that it can be live and in person. If that’s not possible, in part or in whole, we will have contingencies in place to bring you stories in whatever form is available to us. What we do know is that this season is shaping up to be nearly as unpredictable as the last. Maybe more so. And we will continue to navigate, evolve and share our progress every step of the way.

The first step on this journey to 2021 is “The Road Back,” our new blog series. It’s going to get in the weeds on the details of just what it’s going to take to safely perform live again – a snapshot of what we’re working on week-by-week as we encounter challenges and successes. More on that later. Today, as a bit of a preamble, we want to share an overview of what the 2021 APT season is – and is not – going to look like; because you can expect it will be different than any that has come before, or, hopefully, after.

First, we won’t be able to do all the plays that were in the 2020 season.
When we canceled 2020, our plan was to simply move those plays into 2021, believing that 12 months was plenty of time for normalcy to return again. But as the pandemic dragged on, it became increasingly clear that that would not be the case. We hope that a few of the 2020 titles will remain on the docket, but we know that some of them are simply too large to do under the current circumstances. There would be too many people, sharing too little space. On stage, backstage, in the dressing room, in the rehearsal room.

Artistic Director Brenda DeVita said, “In talking with the artists who will be working on the upcoming season, what we’ve realized is that it’s a joy and a privilege that we’re even able to discuss producing plays on stage right now. We’re thrilled about the conversations that we’re having, and about exploring the titles that will make up this one-of-a-kind season. Though it’s not possible to support some of the epic, sweeping stories that we had planned – it’s just not safe to have the number of actors a play like Julius Caesar requires on stage and in close proximity – we’re provided with an exciting opportunity to produce plays that we’ve been interested in, but that may not otherwise have shared a season or a stage. We hope you’ll join us and see for yourself. That you’ll find joy in being on the grounds, and in the plays that eventually make up this season. And that we’ll be back to full scale for summer ’22 and beyond. We’re already planning for it.”

Also, we’ll need to adjust our schedule.
The festival nature of APT is one of our hallmarks. We love that our audience is able to see a double feature in the afternoon and evening, or see up to eight plays over the course of a long weekend. Sadly that won’t be possible this year. Our company will need to work in “bubbles” (like pro basketball, but without Disney World) to guard against exposure to and spread of the virus. So, plays will mostly take place one at a time, or, if possible, in pairs. We know that might be disappointing, but it is the only way to keep our actors, our staff and our audience as safe as possible. And please know, our trademark rotating repertory will return again in the future.

Finally, we’re embracing uncertainty, and ask you to do the same.
We’ve learned a lot about working through uncertainty over the last year. First and foremost, we’ve accepted that the virus is calling the shots, and we must adjust accordingly. Because of this, many of the APT benchmarks you’re accustomed to will look different, or be entirely unavailable. We don’t know when we’ll have enough certainty to announce the plays, or publish a schedule, or sell tickets. But we believe those days will come. And when they do, we hope you’ll be with us; because even though parts of the APT experience will be different this year, our mission remains. The stories remain. The stars remain.

In the coming weeks we’ll tell you in more detail about our plans. We’ll start with one of the very first hurdles we need to clear to get actors back on stage – meeting the safety requirements set out by Actors’ Equity Association, the labor union that represents professional actors and stage managers.

The Road Back: Chapter Two 

Chris Klopatek, Andrea San Miguel & Melisa Pereyra demonstrate social distancing in the 2018 production of ‘As You Like It.’

Safety is our top priority as we plan for the day we can once again perform in person. In terms of our audience and most staff, we’ll follow the recommendations from the CDC and our local health authorities (more about this in a future post). But when we get to the actors, things get a bit trickier. The actors on stage won’t be masked. They can socially distance to some extent, but for the most part they need to be in the same space, talking to each other and projecting so the audience can hear them. To be safe, actors and production personnel that must come into contact with them (like wardrobe staff) need special consideration.

Since the pandemic began, keeping professional actors out of harm’s way has fallen to Actors’ Equity Association (otherwise known as Equity or AEA), the union of professional actors and stage managers that was founded in 1913 and represents 51,000 members. Since the very first days of APT, we have negotiated with them to employ AEA actors and stage managers.

Last spring, as COVID took hold of the country, Equity, as well as other professional theater-worker unions, set up strict regulations that theaters (including APT) must meet in order for members to perform safely. And due to the pandemic’s severity, only a small handful of productions nationwide have been able to get the green light to perform with Equity actors for in-person audiences (the first shows were approved in July, and opened in August along with a few others). We hope that, by summer, we’ll be able to join that group.

The first order of business has been to pore over the union regulations and figure out how to comply. The union has been thorough – supplying producers like us with a 29-page intake document where they lay out safety requirements, and we respond with detailed plans on how we intend to comply. Every detail is addressed. Here’s just a sample of the puzzle pieces we’ll need to fit together in order to comply with the new Equity rules:

Local COVID rates must be at an acceptably low level.

All aspects of testing need to be addressed, including how often actors will be tested, what test we’ll use and how results are reported, to name a few.

We need to determine how the actors will “pod” – that is, avoid contact with any humans other than the people working on the play they are in.

Plan for what happens if there is a positive test in the company.

Detail our masking and other PPE requirements, both for the actors and any staff members that will need to be in contact with them.

Implement detailed disinfection and sanitation protocols .

Address new HVAC requirements (so many HVAC requirements!) to ensure air quality in APT buildings, including the Touchstone Theatre, rehearsal halls, dressing rooms, etc.

Calculate the amount of space that will be required between people (in rehearsal, in performance, at other times), and how we will make that happen.

Provide a plan for how actors’ housing, company cars and other shared spaces will be cleaned and ventilated.

And much, much more. If you’d like to read the whole document, it’s available here.

APT staff, led by Production Manager Michael Broh, Operations Manager Cari Stebbins and Assistant Production Manager Sara Stellick, are diligently working through the process, devising plans to meet each requirement. We expect to have the first intake forms to be turned in to Equity by February 1. After that, we can begin the dialogue that we hope will ultimately lead to permission to hire the talented actors and stage managers in our company.

Meeting these requirements is going to be a tall order. It’s going to take a level of planning and coordination akin to the very biggest projects (The Next Great Stage comes to mind) in our history, but in a fraction of the time. It will take resources – both human and financial – that will stretch us. And, of course, as much as we plan, the one element that is completely out of our control is the virus itself. We can plan and solve for every requirement, but it will all be for naught if the COVID cases in our area are not at a level that Equity deems safe. But know that, if that occurs, we will work tirelessly to make things safe again, and continue to bring you stories in whatever way we can.

Because it’s worth it. If there is a chance we can gather with you in person, to share stars and share stories, we’ll do whatever is necessary.

The Road Back: Chapter Three

Things will look a little different this summer, but the picnic tradition will continue.

What to expect from the APT experience this year.

Today on The Road Back, we’re going to outline what we expect the experience to be like at APT this summer. But first, a caveat: As much as we are all striving to make this season a reality, we can’t know with certainty that in-person plays will be possible right away – or, honestly, at all. Of course, we hope that we’ll be through the worst of this pandemic and starting to return to normal by the time summer rolls around. And that we’ll get approval to go ahead from our union partners (more about that here). In any case, know that we will find a way to deliver on our mission and bring you stories in whatever form we can. And as soon as we’re able to safely produce plays on the APT grounds, we will be ready to do just that.

Okay, that said, let’s run down what we’re expecting the APT experience to be like this year.

The audience members will have to wear masks, but the actors will not.
To keep the actors and your fellow audience members safe, patrons will be required to wear masks on the grounds and in the theaters.

As for the actors and production staff, they will be living and working in strict conditions to make sure they can safely show their faces, similar to what you may have seen in professional sports and in the film/TV industry. Each play will have a “pod,” meaning the cast and crew will only interact with each other (except when they are on stage in front of you) until that particular show closes. During that time, APT staff will see to their needs in the outside world, like running errands and getting groceries. They will also be subject to frequent COVID testing.

Audience size will be limited.
Our starting point is to fill the Hill and the Touchstone to 25% of capacity, or maybe even less. Each audience party will have at least 6’ between their seats and other groups. This means we’ll have about 250 people per performance in the Hill Theatre and fewer than 50 in the Touchstone. With such small audiences, we’ll depend on your enthusiasm and have no doubt you’ll provide it.

We’ll take lots of other safety precautions.
We’ll be taking other safety precautions also, based on recommendations from the CDC and our state and local health authorities. We’ll ask you to stand six feet apart waiting for concessions and the restroom. We’ll offer contactless ticketing. Audience members will be required to fill out a health form the day you come to the theater, to make sure you don’t have COVID symptoms or a fever. We’ll work hard to make sure the protocols are all clear and simple and don’t get in the way of your visit.

Picnics: the APT tradition continues.
We plan that our grounds will be open for picnicking before the show as usual. Some tables will need to be spaced further apart and some areas may not be available, but the APT picnic tradition continues. We expect our partners at Hubbard Avenue Diner to once again provide pre-made picnics for your convenience. And, with a few modifications, we hope to welcome back our Midsummer Music series and the second season of Art in the Woods.

Meet the artists…virtually.
Due to our podding rules, you won’t see actors and artisans at in-person post-show talkbacks or at our Play Talks. You won’t even see them walking down the Hill after the play as might have happened in the past. But we (and they) still hope to engage with you. We plan to take our Beyond the Plays series virtual and make sure you have plenty of opportunities to learn about APT’s production process and interact with the artists and artisans. There will be more details to come on this series as we get closer to the season.

And finally:

There will be an at-home option.
We know that coming to APT in person may not feel right for everyone. Plus, the aforementioned limited capacity may mean we can’t get everyone in right away. So, we intend to film each play to be available on demand online. Unlike our Out of the Woods readings or our holiday performances, these will not be recorded on Zoom (though we love you, Zoom…what would we have done without you this year?). Rather, they will be high-quality recordings of the full production. This is a whole new world for us, and APT staff is busy learning about it as fast as we can. We’re figuring out how to film, edit and distribute a version of each play that will be the next best thing to being there.

This will also be our back-up solution in case we’re not able to perform in person for some reason. Perhaps case counts are still too high, or someone in the cast comes down with the virus, or the play gets rained out (it feels so normal to be concerned about rainouts!), you will have the option of seeing the play this way if you wish. Flexible refund and exchange policies will also be in place.

We know this all may bring up questions for you. We’re still working out details and challenged by all those unknowable factors, but we promise to do our best to answer those questions as they become answerable. Because we are in this together. And we will share our plans with you every step of this journey, providing more details as we confirm them..

In the meantime, we remain ever hopeful that we’ll see your beaming faces at APT this summer. Sure, we won’t see as much of them individually, or as many of them in one place. But simply being able to imagine a time when we’re once again sharing stories with you under the moon and stars makes all the work and extra precautions more than worthwhile.