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BWW Feature: How The Show Will Go On For GODSPELL at Berkshire Theatre Group

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Though the performers don't wear masks, the production has undertaken many other initiatives for safety of the cast and crew.

BWW Feature: How The Show Will Go On For GODSPELL at Berkshire Theatre Group
The cast of GODSPELL in rehearsal
Photo: Katie B. Watts

The Performing Arts have enjoyed a summer home in The Berkshires throughout the last century. In late February 2020 schedules and plans for the hundreds of performances that would take place on dozens of stages across the region were announced. By the end of June organizations across the country had decided to forgo their scheduled programming, and The Broadway League announced that all Broadway productions will remain closed through at least January 3, 2021. Some companies canceled or postponed the season altogether. Some chose to stream previously recorded events, virtual presentations or readings, and other alternatives. Berkshire Theatre Group (BTG) considered available options regarding the nine productions scheduled across their three stages. Although it was undeniable that changes would have to be made, according to Lee Perlman, Co-President and Treasurer of BTG's Board of Trustees, "the idea of a summer in Berkshire County devoid of live performance and comprised completely of alternatives was unacceptable". In addition to his involvement with BTG, Perlman has served as an executive with the Greater New York Hospital Association and has been affiliated with both The Actor's Fund and The American Theatre Wing, providing both passion and a wealth of valuable insight and knowledge to draw upon in navigating these uncharted waters.

Rather than be deterred by a relatively unprecedented set of circumstances, BTG began a concerted effort to devise plans whereby their production of GODSPELL, originally slated to run July 23 - August 29 at the Fitzpatrick Mainstage in Stockbridge could move forward in a manner that would incorporate and prioritize the safety of the audience, company, cast and crew. Perlman said: "While others gave up and accepted the situation, we refused to do so and vowed to do everything we could to facilitate a return to normalcy".

With a small cast of only ten, the simplicity and small scale of Godspell made it an ideal choice to move forward with given current concerns. Led by Artistic Director and CEO, Kate Maguire, the team at BTG developed a manual for safety which was submitted to Actor's Equity Association (AEA), the U.S. Labor Union that represents more than 51,000 professional Actors and Stage Managers. When the first submission was rejected, the focus at BTG shifted toward a small pop-up tent in Stockbridge with just one-person productions. At that point, AEA called Maguire with a question and it led to re-engagement. During that conversation in late April / early May, faced with "the closure of every theatre across the nation, an administration that is not at all friendly to the arts, the devastating impact to the industry and those in it", Maguire saw that she had to keep trying.

Armed with the knowledge that COVID-19 levels in the Berkshire region were dropping, Maguire felt something of a moral imperative to keep the discussion regarding working to restart live performances, and the continuation of the arts going forward. The union asked Maguire if she would consider re-submitting and entering into a much deeper process with them. She agreed and began what would become a two-month period that included almost daily calls (at all hours) with AEA, in-depth research about the virus from around the world, and working with Epidemiologist and consultant to AEA, Dr. David Michaels. She learned a great deal about how to protect the actors, the staff, and the audience. Gradually it began to feel that, yes, they "might be able to do something and that it would have to be outdoors". There was still much to be done including buy-in and approval from government officials at both the state and local levels. At about the same time AEA and BTG felt they had a workable manual in place to safeguard the production, on July 6th Massachusetts Governor, Charlie Baker announced the beginning of phase 3 which allows small outdoor performances. With an approved plan in place, there were (and are) still many unknowns and a need to deal with things as they present themselves, or as one of GODSPELL's musical numbers suggests: Day by Day.

Maguire said that while the BTG Team always works hard to produce 8-10 shows per season, mounting this one production during the time of COVID has meant working harder than at any time in their lives. She went on to say, "the responsibility is not only to getting the production up, but also to making sure that Berkshire County remains safe as well. When you add that level of responsibility, the work becomes more intensely focused, each piece becomes more critical, and we are analyzing at every step of the way". Keep in mind the BTG organization in a typical year normally grows to approximately 600, this effort is moving forward with a total of less than 50.

The volume of activity required has increased exponentially. So too has the magnitude of moving forward with the first musical approved in the United States in the wake of the health crisis. This aspect is not lost on the BTG team, most of whom see their production as the "rebirth / reopening of theatre in America" - but no pressure, right?

BWW Feature: How The Show Will Go On For GODSPELL at Berkshire Theatre GroupNew dates for the run were established with an opening on August 7th. Some of the individuals originally involved with the production were not able or comfortable moving forward with the revised conditions and timing. Video auditions replaced the traditional in-person casting. Those receiving offers were asked to accept within one day to allow for quarantining and help facilitate a compressed rehearsal period. Maguire believes that the group driving this effort consists of well-trained professionals whose ability to focus and deal with specificity is high and will serve well. As she put it: "if ever there were a time to focus, it is now with this production". Maguire went on to say, "we are theatre people and the show must go on". She feels we can find inspiration and optimism from Samuel Beckett right now - "And we must go on..." (reference: The Unnamable).

Lee Perlman expressed his hope that this production of GODSPELL will allow audiences a much needed break. That "the music they know, and love will wash over them and, although they will be wearing masks, hopefully they will be able to forget for two hours and just relax." While there will most certainly be an opportunity for that, a significant number of changes are required.

BWW Feature: How The Show Will Go On For GODSPELL at Berkshire Theatre Group
Alan Filderman directs rehearsal
Photo: Katie B. Watts

Conceived and originally directed by John-Michael Tebelak with music and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz, GODSPELL was first performed as a student project at Carnegie Mellon in 1970 with an Off-Broadway opening May 17, 1971. It was intended to be a small intimate piece performed in the black box theatre style to audiences of 500 or less. Due to overwhelming response and success it quickly grew in popularity and filled capacity houses numbering in the thousands. Director, Alan Filderman said this production will be "getting back to basics " and thinks "we will be able to create a truly intimate theatrical experience which is how it was conceived to be in the first place" which he sees as a plus. That said, Filderman and Choreographer, Gerry McIntyre, shared that this production will be "180 degrees from what was originally imagined a year ago". The changes required are numerous and challenging. They included the following as a small example:

- "Safe Choreography" wherein lifts and touching are not permitted which McIntyre humorously referred to as "Musical Theatre with a condom". He admitted that not being able to touch presents a huge handicap. Particularly in moments like when the cast sings "Long live God" typically lifting Jesus and carrying him through the theatre (depicting the resurrection).

- To help reduce the potential of aerosolization, restrictions have been placed on the number of performers singing at any one time. In this production there can be only one lead with a maximum of four on-stage and two off-stage backup singers. They are working hard to engage and involve the other cast members as much as possible in order to keep everyone involved which they feel is "essential and will help stay true to the original concept and the story (Gospel of Matthew) being told by everyone in a diverse group from all walks of life who met this man (Jesus), followed him and believed him."

- Although GODSPELL recounts events that took place thousands of years ago, the team is working to incorporate what is going on in the world today. Filderman advised that gloves, sanitizer, and other recent additions to daily life in the times of COVID will be used to "avoid the pretense that this is not happening - it is happening and you're going to see it on stage".

- Tim Jones, who will be playing Judas, grew up in the Berkshires where he has been staying with his family for several months. Jones is comforted by the fact that cast members will be relatively isolated and are being tested three times a week. He shared that the process of how they are creating this show, including the aspect that it is being presented during the pandemic is rather "unique and fascinating" as they work through the changes required for safety. He added that the challenge extends beyond meeting those requirements in that the development of comradery and the ability to react to castmates is difficult when all but the other person's eyes are behind a mask which are being worn during rehearsals. [Note: performers will NOT be masked during performances.]

In my conversation with members of the creative team we discussed the parallels and relevance of a piece that was created 50 years ago, based on events taking place thousands of years ago, at this precise moment. Alan Filderman acknowledged "it has been a revelation from the get-go and that's the beauty of great writing - it's the beauty of what happens with Shakespeare plays sometimes, it's the beauty of what theatre is. All of a sudden so much of this, without forcing it in, takes on a whole new concept and contemporary realness that we just couldn't have imagined. There are some songs that are just enjoyment pieces but almost every song will, in some way or another, be about this group of people coming together and sends a message to the audience that even though we can't touch, even though we're six feet apart - we CAN come together."

BWW Feature: How The Show Will Go On For GODSPELL at Berkshire Theatre Group
Nicholas Edwards
Photo: Katie B. Watts

BTG's production of GODSPELL will include the musical number "Beautiful City". The piece was not part of the original score. It was written by Stephen Schwartz for the 1972 film version, updated in 1993 following the Rodney King riots, and included in the 2011 Broadway revival. The piece is powerful, poignant, and hauntingly beautiful. It speaks to rebuilding and renewal coming out of adversity. It offers yet another of the amazingly topical parallels between GODSPELL and present-day realities and current events. A number of social media postings of Hunter Parrish recording the song as part of the 2011 New Broadway Cast Recording the piece were seen in response to the Black Lives Matter protests following the death of George Floyd. Nicholas Edwards plays Jesus in this production and will be performing "Beautiful City". Edwards feels the importance of this production, as the first and only musical approved by AEA to move forward, on the entire theatrical community. He said that "as an afro-latinx man, playing Jesus, at a time when everyone is fighting for social justice because a pandemic is sweeping through our nation is powerful. I don't take any of this for granted, and I see how powerful an image this will be ... being able to lift my voice - sing these words; and me, a person of color, teaching these lessons... I think it's very powerful. I have a lot of emotions and feelings about what's going on. I think there's not one person who hasn't been affected by this time. Some people have been very negatively affected and some people have somehow found a way to make some good out of it. I hope that is the story we tell. That out of the ruins and rubble we can all come together out of this pandemic, through this social justice movement, come together and build something beautiful again. Rebuild our country, and rebuild the arts. That's what I want to accomplish by telling this story." The conversation ended, so that Edwards could get to rehearsal, with him saying, "I hope this show will give people what they have been wanting for so long."

Performances will take place under a tent in the parking lot of BTG's Colonial Theatre in Pittsfield. To allow for Social Distancing, the audience for each performance will be limited to 75-100. Seating will be configured differently at each performance based on the orders received. Tickets are priced at $100 each. The price is slightly higher than standard, but revenues are not expected to come close to accommodating for the reduced capacity or the revenue short falls that will result from the curtailed season. BTG management hopes to be able to use lessons learned during this effort and move forward with other shows through the fall that they hope to be able to announce soon.

Temperature scans will be done for patrons at their point of entry. No-contact scanning stations for tickets will be spaced at least 6 feet from the temperature scan. Free-standing hand sanitizer stations will be placed at various locations throughout the space. Patrons will be required to wear masks. One-way traffic patterns will be enforced with arrows and 6-foot markers on the floor, as well as lines down the center of hallways, to and from the tent, restrooms, and concessions. The restrooms will have entrance and exits that are separate and one way. Every other stall, urinal and sink will be marked not usable. A doctor/nurse will be on duty for all performances. Additional safeguards will also be in place.

This production promises to be new, fresh, relevant, powerful, topical, and most certainly different than any you may have experienced. Ticket sales for GODSPELL, which is now scheduled to run August 6th through September 4th are going well. Through the generosity of BTG's Board of Trustees, a limited number of seats are being made available at reduced rates to allow community members with need an opportunity to see the show. Interested parties should contact BTG. Visit: www.berkshiretheatregroup.org for additional information and tickets.


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