New York theater produces new musicals in a bubble during COVID-19

The closure of live theaters due to the COVID-19 pandemic now stretches into its ninth month, and even by the most conservative estimates, indoor venues won’t be able to reopen until the middle of next year. The unprecedented work stoppage has been devastating for the theater industry, from the biggest houses on Broadway to the smallest black boxes.

But some theaters aren’t waiting for the pandemic to end to start nurturing new talent for the industry’s eventual return. Prospect Theater Company, a New York-based nonprofit theater, spent time upstate this summer producing musicals in a “bubble” – a sort of isolation zone, similar to this that the NBA managed for its recent season. The musicals were shot on film for Prospect’s Vision Seriesan initiative launched this year to create original works while physical theaters are closed.

At a time when new musicals are in perpetual limbo in most theaters, the series, sponsored by healthcare giant United Health Services, offers musical theater fans a fresh slate of content from up-and-coming artists. The works are streamed for free on the theater’s YouTube channel.

Angel Desai in Lady Apsara. [Photo: Zi Alikhan]

Cara Reichel, artistic director and producer of Prospect, said socially distanced performers and crews worked at a breakneck pace in September to film the musicals safely.

“We had people get tested multiple times, walk into a space, stay in a hotel for three days, do an intensive rehearsal and filming session, and then fly back to New York,” she says. fast company.

Unlike their commercial counterparts on Broadway, which market big-budget shows to mass audiences—often powered by big stars and recognizable music—small nonprofit theaters rely primarily on contributions and ticket sales from their members. But that revenue depends on meeting their end of the bargain, usually crystallized in a mission statement. Because Prospect’s mission is to produce innovative works by emerging talent, Reichel says the organization felt compelled to find a way to keep doing that — to keep paying theater artists — despite the closure of theaters. live theaters.

“We are an organization dedicated to creating a platform and a place for the next generation of early career people to have their work seen and heard and grow their craft” , says Reichel. “So when we got into this whole period over the summer, we all had a lot of conversations about, well, how do we continue in our nonprofit mission?”

Disrupted talent pipelines may be one of the least discussed effects of the coronavirus pandemic, but it will have profound implications for the theater industry for years to come, as small theater groups like Prospect have traditionally served as a vital bridge for artists building careers. Today’s resident playwright working in a small non-profit theater is tomorrow’s Lin-Manuel Miranda, Jeremy O. Harris or Julie Taymor.

Reichel says his organization turned to cinematic works out of necessity, and the goal was to replicate the aesthetic of musical theatre. The musicals were filmed at the Goodwill Theater outside Binghamton, New York, a century-old space that has been closed for 30 years. It was being renovated when the pandemic hit.

“No one has tested positive”

The Vision Series would not have been possible without the proper guidance and oversight from public health experts. For that, the theater turned to Megan Farmer, a local registered nurse for United Health Services who was furloughed during the pandemic. Farmer was on hand to make sure the crew was properly distanced, the HVAC system was working and, probably most importantly, everyone was tested.

“Nobody tested positive, so that was great,” Farmer says. “Every two or three days they brought in a new group of actors and performers. We all met at the testing site, and one by one we did our tests.”

Because on-screen performers worked without masks, they had to meet an even higher standard, says Farmer, which included testing negative before leaving where they lived (most were from the New York area), and then negative tests again when they arrived on site. “They could really go to hotels and theaters, and that was about it,” she says.

The next musical in the Vision series, Lady Apsara, premieres online this Thursday at 7 p.m. ET. Theater artist Naveen Bahar Choudhury wrote the book and lyrics, and composer Kamala Sankaram wrote the music. The play was directed by Zi Alikhan.

As to whether filmed musicals can actually replace the live theater experience, Reichel doesn’t quite agree. But live theater performers also can’t wait forever for the stage doors to reopen.

“I think we all still want to come back to the gathering in one place, because there’s magic happening,” Reichel says. “I don’t think we can ever replicate that on film. We can’t do things like we’ve done before, but we can do Something. We can use the limited resources we have and be inventive with them.