Leading Rhode Island Theater Companies Delay Performances to Fall 2021

by Joe Siegel

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Wednesday October 7, 2020

The homes of Trinity Rep (left) and The Gamm Theatre (right)
The homes of Trinity Rep (left) and The Gamm Theatre (right)  

Two of the largest Rhode Island Theaters are pushing the pause button on live performances for an extended period due to concerns about Covid-19.

Providence's Trinity Repertory Company recently announced that it will not produce in-person, indoor performances until fall 2021. The news came as a shock to theatergoers who were looking forward to live productions in January.

"During this pause in production, the organization is committing to equity, diversity, and inclusion work; education initiatives; and digital content production," read the September 18 press release.

Trinity's longtime Artistic Director Curt Columbus explained the rationale for the decision was obvious: the continuing threat of Covid-19 and the need to keep patrons and staff safe. A vaccine is not expected to be made widely available until mid-2021.

Chris Columbus, Artistic Director of the Trinity Repertory Company

 "Dr. (Anthony) Fauci has said he doesn't imagine that we'll be able to get people into a room together until Fall of 2021 at the earliest," Columbus told EDGE. "Even then, he believes it would only be 25 people at a time. That's not within our economic model."

The Gamm Theatre, based in Warwick, announced they would be delaying the start of their 36th season from January until next fall.

"With the previously planned 5-play lineup on hold, the organization will focus its efforts on virtual programming and education initiatives, as well as furthering its commitment to becoming a more just, equitable, and inclusive organization," read the October 1 press release.

"In June, The Gamm announced its intention to open the 2020-2021 subscription season in January 2021. The decision to move that date to next fall is the result of continuing public health concerns and a commitment to the safety of audiences, artists, and staff during the global pandemic. Ongoing state and federal safety protocols, along with union-mandated workplace protections, will make producing live professional theater for large audiences a practical impossibility for the near future. However, The Gamm hopes to offer innovative live theatrical experiences as soon as it is safe to do so."

The Gamm will team up with local NPR affiliate "The Public's Radio" to-produce "It's a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play" for broadcast throughout Rhode Island and Southern New England over the Christmas and New Year holidays.

Tony Estrella, Artistic Director, GammTheatre

"The decision to postpone the incredible productions we had planned was extremely difficult. But our top priority, along with enacting our mission, is the well-being of our audiences, artists and staff," said Artistic Director Tony Estrella. "It is my fervent hope and expectation that once the pandemic is under control, we can gather again to experience the epic intimacy and unique power of The Gamm."

"The Gamm is strong and we will ride out this storm," added Managing Director Amy Gravell. "In the meantime, our artists and staff are busy and excited about the new ways in which we are connecting with our audience, doing creative and necessary work with schools, and planning for a bright future."

"Social distancing doesn't work in the economics of theater," said Trinity Rep.'s Executive Director Tom Parrish. "Even when the theaters were full, we weren't covering the full costs of producing so to think we could (produce shows) at 25 percent capacity, we would have to raise millions of dollars more in donations."

Columbus notes longtime patrons are "disappointed" by the decision but yet they understand the circumstances behind it.

"The resident acting company fully supports this decision," he continued. "No one likes it. I mean it's not what we would choose for ourselves if there wasn't a pandemic. Everyone is accepting of the work we have to do to move to the other side and that we have to pause."

The situation is not unique to Trinity Rep. or even to theaters in Rhode Island.

"Tom and I are in conversations with colleagues across the country and this is what's happening everywhere," Columbus explained.

"Everyone (at Trinity Rep.) has been impacted by the pandemic," Parrish noted. "Whether it was loss of employment, or pay cuts, or furloughs. The pain is deep for our whole industry."

In the next several months, Trinity will devote time to education and diversity.

"We have a lot of important work to do," Parrish said.
Columbus said the plan is to make Trinity an "anti-racist" and "explicitly anti-racist" theater. A Transformation committee has been meeting to decide on priorities.

"We're going to be doing all this work in a very visible way so that our community can hold us accountable," Columbus noted.

Columbus and Parrish are also working to allow greater accessibility for different audiences, particularly for the disabled community.

"Our building is still an earliest 20th-century vaudeville theater in a lot of ways," Columbus said. 'That has been a limiting factor so we have a facilities plan that will in the next five years transform Trinity Rep. into a place that is accessible and welcoming to all."

Trinity Rep. is proceeding with a digital production of their holiday favorite "A Christmas Carol" in November and will also present other programming for the spring.

Parrish said depending on the scope of the pandemic, Brown University and Trinity's MFA program may have performances indoors in the spring.

For now, the impact of an extended break from live performances will have on theater is unknown. Columbus points out that theater has withstood enormous challenges in the past and thrived.

"Telling stories live is something humans have done since tens of thousands of years ago," Columbus said. "There was an article in The Guardian (based in London) about the fact that Shakespeare's theater frequently closed for six months, eight months, 12 months during the entire run of his time at the Globe because of the recurrence of the Bubonic plague. Not only did theater survive, but theater also flourished after that."

Joe Siegel has written for a number of other GLBT publications, including In newsweekly and Options.

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