Rochester's Theatre Community Copes with Coronavirus Outbreak

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Rochester's Theatre Community Copes with Coronavirus OutbreakThere is no facet of life that hasn't been impacted in some way by the COVID-19 outbreak. Streets are empty, people can't go to work, students can't go to school, gatherings large-and-small are forbidden, and that's to say nothing of the devastating public health realities of widespread illness, the plummeting economy and skyrocketing unemployment rate, and the emotional tolls of social isolation. Here in Rochester schools have been closed since mid-March, as have most non-essential employers (many of which have their employees working from home), and the number of positive coronavirus cases within Monroe County currently stands at 512. Given the scary and unprecedented moment that we're all living in, speculating about the future of theatre and the performing arts seems trivial. But in Rochester, home to one of Upstate New York's most vibrant artistic communities, it's anything but trivial. Our region's theatres are employers and economic drivers of the Finger Lakes area, but more importantly, they bring tremendous joy to the community, which is palpably missing during a crisis that has forced the temporary shuttering of our city's theatres.

"Our theater and parking lot are empty, and big crowds that once represented the excitement of a sold-out show are impossible," says Ralph Meranto, Producing Artistic Director of JCC's Centerstage Theatre. "We hope that this fear of gathering will not keep people away long-term, and we will once again have the unique experience of live performances everywhere."

"We had to cancel a performance in May as well as a really big fundraiser for ourselves and the Henrietta Public Library in April," says Stephanie Siuda, the Artistic Director of Out of Pocket Productions, one of the many theatre groups that performs at Rochester's Multi-Use Community Cultural Center (MuCCC). "The MuCCC has had to cancel all of their shows through the end of April as well, and that's definitely taking a financial hit on them."

While undoubtedly nerve-wracking, this crisis has led many of Rochester's theatre directors to flex their creative muscles and find new, innovative ways of engaging with their audiences until they can welcome them back to their seat on the aisle. "We have begun a number of online and virtual programs, and are working on many more," reports Danny Hoskins, Artistic & Managing Director of Blackfriars Theatre. "Mrs. Kasha Davis is hosting an online Story Hour on Wednesdays and Sundays on Facebook; BT Coffee Hour Live, which was already a staple of our programming, is still going strong at noon on Wednesdays; we've started a virtual BT Book Club that meets weekly to discuss a new play every Thursday night."

Other venues, such as the Rochester Broadway Theatre League, continue to engage with their audiences through social media while their theatre is dark by distributing fun Broadway-themed coloring pages and graphics, and by channeling fun interactive content from well-known Broadway stars, such as the trending Broadway Hand Washing Challenge. At Geva Theatre, releasing filmed performances of their season's current shows is a way to engage the audience (and keep some revenue coming in) during this crisis.

Theatre communities everywhere are known for being tight-knit and supportive, and nowhere is that truer than in Rochester, where theatres are seeing a tremendous outpouring of love and support from audiences and donors, both emotionally and financially. "We've had a large percentage of our audience donate their tickets for 'Silent Sky' and 'Calendar Girls' back to the theatre," says Hoskins. "There have been many who have made additional donations to help keep the theatre going during this crisis."

"Our sponsors and media partners have connected to see if they can help, our educational partners are working with us to reschedule our programming, and we have had many inquiries about the ability to donate to the Actor's Equity Fund in this time of need," says Correna Dolce, Publicity Coordinator at the RBTL.

Theatre, as an art form, has been around since the beginning of recorded history and has persevered through plague, war, famine, depression, natural disaster, and every other imaginable calamity; suffice it to say, COVID-19 isn't going to be the downfall of theatre or the performing arts. That being said, how will theatre---an art form that demands you to consume it in-person, in a room with (often) hundreds of other people---going to change once the dust has settled and we're all allowed to resume normal life again? Going forward, will new theatres be designed so seats are a safe six feet apart? Will theatres invest more heavily in video production equipment, in the event that plays and musicals have to be viewed remotely? Will audience members have to submit to a temperature check before walking through the doors? Only time will tell how the theatre industry will change to better accommodate future outbreaks on the scale of COVID-19, but it's hard to imagine that everything returns to "normal".

During this time of fear and uncertainty, it's vital that Rochesterians do what we can to lift up and sustain our vital cultural institutions; without them, the Flower City would be a much drearier place to live. Please consider making a donation of any amount to Rochester's theatres, linked below:


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From This Author Colin Fleming-Stumpf