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Road To Reopening: Ogunquit Playhouse Looks To 'The Bright Side Of Life' With SPAMALOT

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Learn more about the venue's outdoor pavilion and their summer reopening plans!

Road To Reopening: Ogunquit Playhouse Looks To 'The Bright Side Of Life' With SPAMALOT

BroadwayWorld is checking in with theaters around the country as they prepare to reopen this summer. Next in our series we check in with Ogunquit Playhouse's Executive Artistic Director Bradford Kenney.

Bradford. T Kenney is an artistic director, producer, stage & film director, and artist. Since joining the Ogunquit Playhouse in 2005, 16 seasons ago, the Playhouse has tripled its audience, growing from a single season summer stock theatre, into one of America's preeminent regional theatres with a three-season performance schedule and year-round operation in multiple states. During his stewardship, the Playhouse has garnered a number of awards and honors including the Moss Hart Trophy, Regional Theatre Award for Outstanding Achievement in the American Theatre from the New England Theatre Conference, multiple IRNE Awards, and a number of BroadwayWorld Awards including Best Musical.

In addition to the great pride he has in the 70 productions he's produced at Ogunquit, Brad is passionate about the Playhouse's New Works program including Frida The Musical, Mommie Dearest the Musical, Mr Holland's Opus, A Very Brady Musical, The Nutty Professor, and Heartbreak Hotel. Before arriving in Ogunquit, Brad was Artistic Director at the Foothills Theatre and Wachusett Theatre Companies in MA. He is also a fourth generation plein air landscape artist, having studied with Beth Ellis and at Rhode Island School of Design, Heartwood College of Art, and Maine College of Art.

What has your theater's staff been up to over the past year?

Well, we've been very busy shifting scenarios and planning as best we can. Last year had a major focus on fundraising to bridge the financial gap and retain our staff until we could re-open, which resulted in a successful Bridge Fund Campaign. Our 2020 evolved from "Can we open in late Summer?" to "Can we get a show on stage in the Fall?" and "Can move ahead with our Holiday production?" As each phase of the year became less feasible, we did what theatre people do, we stayed resilient by adjusting and finding alternatives.

For the first time in 88 years, we developed an outdoor Patio Cabaret series, which allowed us to learn, on a smaller scale, how to safely operate and manage producing during COVID. More importantly, it gave some of our Playhouse alumni the chance to safely perform, tell their stories, and put some money in their pockets.

In the meantime, while we watched the world grapple with social justice issues, the Playhouse team stepped forward and held ourselves accountable to develop new standards for Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Access. We've begun a long journey of learning who we are, who we can be, and how we best learn from the inevitable mistakes that come with trusting the process of becoming.

How has the pandemic most affected your company?

Like most regional non-profit theaters, the loss of our Box Office income for an entire year was a huge blow. As a company whose budget is 80% earned income, we lost over $8 Million in ticket sales that had to be refunded or moved into 2021. At the time we cancelled, we had a full season of shows in various stages of development, with set designs, rights agreements, and creative teams that needed to be paused, rescheduled, or cancelled. It was a loss of income not only to Ogunquit Playhouse, but to those collaborators as well.

However, the bigger impact was on our surrounding community. For 89 years, Ogunquit Playhouse has played a significant role in the regional economy. In 2020, Maine's Southern Seacoast lost restaurants, retail shops, and lodgings, because we were unable to open and drive the tourism this area thrives on for six months of the year.

Have you done any streaming theatre/events?

We did some. We hosted a live-stream fundraising event called Broadway Gives Back to The Playhouse and also partnered with Purple Mountain Productions and Broadway & Beyond Theatricals for a streamed benefit reading of A VERY BRADY MUSICAL written by Lloyd Schwartz and Hope Juber, with music by Laurence Juber. We set the reading of this funny new musical in an enhanced Zoom environment, with these new musical Bradys in their Brady Zoom squares. The cast featured Gavin Lee, Kerry Russell, Diana Huey, Mason Reeves, Klea Blackhurst, and Troy Iwata. It was a joy to work on.

Our Playhouse Arts Academy also went online and had great success with a series of online workshops and virtual masterclasses with Broadway performers as instructors.

Road To Reopening: Ogunquit Playhouse Looks To 'The Bright Side Of Life' With SPAMALOT

What have the audience reactions to any digital performances been like?

All of the events were well received, drawing viewers from well beyond the borders of our normal audience. It gave us a fascinating window into how we might cultivate and serve those audiences going forward. We learned some new things and found a number of silver linings in the struggles.

What have you got coming up you're most excited to share with audiences?

We're heading outside this Season having constructed a 25,000 square foot steel structured, fully covered Pavilion which will socially distance 75% of our indoor capacity. Four Main Stage shows - Monty Python's SPAMALOT, the Regional Premiere of Jimmy Buffett's ESCAPE TO MARGARITAVILLE, the World Premiere of MYSTIC PIZZA: A New Musical, and Mel Brook's YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN. We also have Youth Theatre performances of - Disney's Frozen Jr, Disney's The Little Mermaid Jr, Prince Street Players' Alice in Wonderland, and Pinkalicious. Plus, 10 weeks of diverse Cabaret events from some of Broadway's most charismatic performers. We're pulling out all the stops in bringing live theatre back to Maine's Southern Seacoast!

How did your venue come up with a reopening plan/covid safety plan?

The plan had been evolving for well over a year. As a team, we monitored the shifting protocols of Federal, State, and Local agencies as well as those of our theatrical unions. We quickly formed an alliance with the other performing arts producers in the State of Maine and started meeting weekly. This group included not only theaters, but touring houses, opera companies, dance and symphonic organizations. This led to a campaign of Federal and State advocacy to develop dialogue around emergency funding and the guidelines needed to open and operate performing arts venues safely. Thankfully, our State leaders were amenable to these conversations and it allowed us to forecast a plan. From there, we started to make commitments to creative teams and IP representatives.

How did you come up with the concept for the outdoor pavilion?

We realized pretty quickly our normal auditorium of just under 700 seat would only be able to support 150 socially distanced. Fortunately, Ogunquit Playhouse has a beautiful pastoral property and we identified an area of our campus close the historic Playhouse, dressing rooms, parking, and infrastructure we could work with. We started building scenarios for stage and audience space, challenging ourselves to dream in a big way that could present strong production values and sustain ourselves for a full Season. Led by our technical director Geof Dolan and facilities manager Jared Keniston, we were able to source and conceive what an outdoor, fully covered performance space could be, one that would hold an adequate sized socially distanced audience with an extraordinary theatrical tech package.

What were the greatest challenges in seeing that concept come to fruition?

First and foremost, the ground was not level, requiring excavation to give us a foundation upon which to build in a way that made sense without permanently changing the natural state of the property. Then the sheer logistics of learning how to plan and arrange resources around producing high caliber shows and hosting audiences with varying health and safety protocols. By taking it piece by piece, we stayed flexible enough to make it happen.

Were there any COVID considerations in programming the upcoming season - selecting titles, etc?

Most definitely. Due to licensing rights and production needs, our original 2020 lineup would not have be possible or ideal. We had to build a season that had heart, show stopping musical numbers, and a lot of humor. After what we had all been through, we knew audiences would be ready to feel some joy. Scenically and thematically, these shows needed to feel natural playing outside; shows that had the outdoors as part of their journey. SPAMALOT for instance, is based on a quest with many outdoor locations. ESCAPE TO MARGARITAVILLE centers on an island resort. MYSTIC PIZZA takes place in a small New England seaside village with Lobster boats. Perfect! These shows could thrive in a backyard environment, enabling us to leverage our brand and mission, and - with the world premiere of Mystic Pizza - produce world class theatre while also cultivating new works.

Road To Reopening: Ogunquit Playhouse Looks To 'The Bright Side Of Life' With SPAMALOT


Will there be any changes to the on-stage aspects of the shows in response to the pandemic? (Besides them being outdoors)

Before the safety guidelines became more relaxed, we were looking at all manner of possibilities - concert versions rather than full scale productions, masking our artists, maintaining social distancing on stage. Thankfully, the closer we got to opening, with a fully vaccinated company, the rigidity of those guidelines diminished. The shows can now be presented very close to their original form. The only real differences are smaller casts to ensure our performers have the space needed to keep everyone safe and healthy. Being outside, we are also working with the authors' representatives on versions that may be slightly trimmed to meet local noise ordinances, keeping performances to a maximum of two hours.

Will there be any changes to your ticketing policies, flexible rescheduling, etc?

All ticketing this season is remote, our Box Office available as a call center, and of course more than half of our sales being done online. Since The Leary Pavilion is fully covered and we've experienced how certain weather events affect the venue, we've been working hard to avoid any major inconveniences that often impact outdoors venues. The Pavilion also has side panels, which can be used in the event they're needed. It's an ongoing process of learning and adjusting.

When and what are you re-opening with?

We knew we wanted wanted to open in a big, bold way with lots of laughing, singing, and dancing, so we decided to "always look on the bright side of life" with Monty Python's SPAMALOT. There had been a socially distanced version developed by the rights holder, Theatrical Rights Worldwide (TRW). So in the event we had to start with that scenario, we would be ready.

Working with Actor's Equity Association, we have since been able to remove the distancing requirement and can all enjoy this hysterical Broadway musical as intended. And it takes place at the end of a pandemic, so there's that! With a fantastic new set design by Nate Bertone (placing the show in a plague-ridden Tudor village) with Tim Hatley's fantastic costumes, and a first class company starring Charles Shaughnessy (TV's The Nanny) as King Arthur, Mariand Torres, Josh Grisetti, Jennifer Cody, Nic Rouleau, Dwelvan David, Marc Ginsburg, and Daniel Lopez.

What are you most looking forward to?

Greeting our first audiences and opening SPAMALOT in mid-June was an absolute joy! The overwhelming positive energy people have felt coming onto our campus since has been beyond our wildest expectations. With MARGARITAVILLE already in rehearsals in NYC, we've been collaborating with Lively McCabe on the world premiere musical adaptation of Julia Roberts' breakout 1988 romantic comedy Mystic Pizza. Doing the work and planning even during the pandemic allowed the team to stay active theatrically, even if remote. This new show will include some of the great pop hits of the '80s and '90s to drive a narrative that has some new ideas in it. We couldn't be more thrilled with how it's all coming together.

How have you remained engaged with your audience about the return to the stage?

Our social media expanded with a new one-on-one interview series featuring Playhouse alumni like Sally Struthers, Angie Schworer, Carson Kressley, Jeffry Denman, Robin Hurder and Clyde Alves. We called it OPTV and it gave the audience a chance to check-in on the performers they've loved so much, especially during a time when we were all worrying about each other and wanted to see how everyone was coping with the isolation of quarantines and lockdowns.

How can audience members learn more and stay up to date?

Visiting our website at ogunquitplayhouse.org and signing up for our weekly email is a great start, and following our social media channels (Facebook, Instagram, TikTok) are the best ways to stay connected. We've stepped up our commitment to those platforms this year, producing valuable and engaging content, especially for those who may not be able to join us on site this Season.

Photos: Ogunquit's 2010 production of Spamalot! in which Charles Shaughnessy originated the role he's reprising this summer.


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