The Covid-19 pandemic has brought lasting changes to Vermont’s theater companies
At Northern Stage in White River Junction, crew members look at the weather forecast every morning to figure out if, between heat and rain, they will be able to work outside. The outdoor stage first built to adapt to the Covid-19 pandemic has become a permanent part of the setup.
When a reporter visited, the crew was busy setting it all up for the opening of “Sense and Sensibility,” the play the company is performing until July 9. All the sets were built in house, but that may not happen again. For the next play, “Twelfth Night,” which opens Aug. 1, half the sets are being built on site and half are being built a three-hour drive away by Upstate Scenic, a company in Chatham, New York, that constructs sets for theater and film.
Next season, the theater company will work with the contractor to figure out what makes sense to build on site and what makes sense to contract out.
The company experimented with this approach in March, with its production of “Sweat,” and “it went extraordinarily well,” said Jason Smoller, Northern Stage’s managing director.
Northern Stage decided to outsource its set construction because space is tight and staff is hard to find, said Brian Sekinger, director of production. Upstate Scenic also works with Weston Theater Company and other local companies, he said
A lot of people, particularly in set construction, “pivoted to other careers” during the pandemic, Sekinger said. “They either went into more industrial construction or building houses or just sort of left and did something totally different.”
Set construction is just one of the ways that theater companies across Vermont have adapted in permanent ways to changes imposed by the pandemic. They have outsourced the work on sets, let theatergoers pick their ticket prices, and performed more outdoors in summer as they try to regain audiences that have yet to return to pre-pandemic numbers.
“The pandemic isn’t over,” said Cristina Alicea, managing creative director of Vermont Stage, which is based in Burlington but also produces a summer outdoor play at Isham Farm in Williston. “We’re still dealing with audiences not fully back yet.”
Reconstructing career pathways
Like Northern Stage, other companies have moved outdoors in summer.
Lyric Theatre Company in South Burlington adapted to outdoor plays for young audiences during the pandemic, and those have become part of the company’s regular programming, said Erin Evarts, the company’s executive director. In June, the company performed outside at three public libraries and at the Shelburne Museum.
Weston Theater Company also took its programming for children outside in 2021, and never went back. And, the company is also performing those plays in towns beyond its home.
“It’s now a free tour for audiences all over southern Vermont,” said Susanna Gellert, the company’s executive artistic director. The troupe perform for free outdoors in Grafton, Brownsville, Springfield and Rutland, transforming a show that used to reach about 800 people to one that reaches more than 4,000.
But the workers employed in the field of building those sets are fewer and farther between.
Sekinger said that, nationwide, about 30% of theater technicians went into other careers during the pandemic.
“So we’ve been starting to rebuild,” he said. “There just aren’t the same number of people that there were before.”
Early-career professionals, Sekinger said, did not get the same hands-on experience in college during the pandemic they would have before. For instance, they were not able to produce in person, on stage, because so much theater was on Zoom.
Between the shortage of experienced people and the lack of experience of new people, he said, the alternative to contracting work out would be to have staff members work 60 to 80 hours a week.
The housing shortage is another factor leading to a dearth of technical professionals, Sekinger said. To alleviate housing costs for its employees, Northern Stage has bought some properties in the area and leased others, he said.
“During the pandemic, everybody moved up from New York, bought up all the housing and sort of stayed, which means there isn’t as much housing in the area for new people coming into the organization,” he said.
Smoller concurs: “It is becoming increasingly difficult to hire. It all comes down to housing.”
Weston Theater has taken another direction toward lowering housing costs for members of the company, at least in summer. It has formed a partnership with a company that in winter houses staff at Okemo Mountain Resort in Ludlow. That housing was not being used in summer, so Weston Theater is renting it.
While outsourcing set construction, Sekinger said Northern Stage retains creative control over those sets.
“We just send them drawings and paint renderings and research images and say: ‘This is how we want it to look,’” he said. “And then it just shows up here.”
Josh Davis, Northern Stage’s technical director, goes to the shop in New York to make sure that it is building what was drawn, and to answer questions.
“And making sure that if they’re supposed to be painting something blue and we’re building something blue and those blue things touch each other, then it’s the same color blue,” Sekinger said.
It’s a pretty significant shift in the industry right now, Sekinger said, for small regional theaters to acknowledge they cannot staff up the way they would pre-pandemic.
Sekinger said Northern Stage is adapting in other ways because materials are hard to get or cost more than they used to. He points to the painted plywood made to look like tiles on the floor of the outdoor stage set.
“We do a lot of painting wood to look like other other materials because it’s cheaper or easier to get wood than it is to get some of those other materials,” he said.
Another adaptation, Smoller said, is that Northern Stage is paying closer attention to what its audience wants. That change came about after the company staged “Spring Awakening” last year. The musical is about loss of innocence, abortion and teenage suicide.
“And the feedback we heard from people was it is just too difficult and too sad for this moment,” Smoller said. “So we thought oh, no, we can’t do sad plays anymore.”
Smoller said the company’s artistic director, Carol Dunne, considered pulling the next play, “Sweat,” but the company, proud to put the play on, decided to go ahead. The play deals with hard social issues, such as loss of jobs, poverty and addiction.
“This play deals with real issues, too,” said Smoller. “It is not about teen suicide, which is very difficult to grapple with.”
Smoller said it was universally well received.
“Our audiences loved it,” he said. “So many folks told us: ‘That is the best thing I have seen at Northern Stage.’”
The response reaffirmed that the company’s audiences still want challenging theater.
“They don’t want sad theater, necessarily, but it’s not that they just want to see ‘The Little Mermaid’ or ‘A Christmas Carol’ again,” Smoller said. “So what has changed for us permanently is we are really conscious of what people are looking for, and the season we are offering next season doesn’t have any ‘sad’ titles.”
That said, Smoller said, some people do want “A Christmas Carol,” and Northern Stage will offer a new adaptation of the play this year.
A push toward youth
If the pandemic led adults to avoid depressing plays, Smoller said young people are just looking for more in-person connection and belonging after years on Zoom, and so he is seeing increasing interest in the company’s intensive youth ensemble studios.
The studios offer students an opportunity to learn on the stage of a professional theater company, with professional actors, designers and directors.
In addition, he said, high school students are looking for inclusivity and belonging, and are drawn to theater by virtue of the fact that it is not closely associated with a particular gender.
“We don’t run a men’s lacrosse team,” he said. ”Even in high school, students who are grappling with their identity have to choose: ‘OK, if I’m going to be on the swim team, it’s the boys’ swim team or the girls’ swim team.’ And theater isn’t that. You never have to opt into one or the other.”
Teens tell him they find an inclusive place at Northern Stage, he said.
What does a ticket cost?
Another change brought about by the pandemic: Audiences are buying tickets at the last minute, said Evarts, at the Lyric Theater. She said the national trend is that tickets are being bought in the last week to 10 days before a show, and the Lyric is finding that, as well.
Alicea said Vermont Stage also contends with waiting for last-minute ticket purchases.
Last year, Weston Theater brought in another big change. Having trouble persuading people to buy subscriptions, it started letting patrons pick the price they want to pay for one. The company offered three prices for exactly the same seats. As a result, Gellert said, subscriptions doubled last year, and this year, the company had already sold more subscriptions before the season started than it did during the entire year last year.
This year, Weston Theater is also letting people pay what they will for previews — performances before a show is reviewed.
“You can choose to pay zero,” said Gellert.
Last year, Vermont Stage found that subscriptions dropped by half, and “I’m finding that a lot of people are still hesitant to sign up for a full year,” said Alicea. She believes the experience of the pandemic is leading people to wait and see before making long-term commitments.
“My hope is that people don’t wait and see too long, because it could spell trouble for our organization and others,” said Alicea.
This year, Vermont Stage, too, is letting people pay what they will for both subscriptions and individual performances. The company is letting patrons pay one of three prices — $24, $44 or $64 — for a general admission ticket. If people pay $64, they are helping to subsidize the people who pay $24, said Alicea.
The company also offers three prices for subscriptions, with the same number of shows for each and also for general admission: $89, $149 and $209.
Based on early sales of subscriptions, most people are paying $149, Alicea said, which is what she assumed would happen. But the company thought the second-largest group would be people who paid $89, and that has not turned out to be the case. Instead, more people are buying at the $209 price, a sign that patrons want to support the organization, she said.
“They’re definitely showing up for us in that way,” Alicea said. “It’s deeply appreciated.”
Alicea said she was inspired to offer the pick-your-price model by Andy Butterfield, the marketing director at Weston Theater. Sharing information about what works is how theater companies hope to rebuild their field, she said.
Read the story on VTDigger here: The Covid-19 pandemic has brought lasting changes to Vermont’s theater companies.