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With the news that Broadway will be shuttered at least until September 6 due to the coronavirus pandemic, and with local theaters having been closed since March, theater enthusiasts have had to look elsewhere for the kinds of entertainment that keep their hearts going. Thankfully, many local companies have been filling that void with online productions. These virtual productions not only give their actors, musicians, and staff opportunities to continue to hone their crafts but they also provide the means to maintain a close sense of community between the theater companies and the audiences that they have been separated from. But amidst necessary shut-downs, the loss of ticket sales, and companies struggling to stay afloat, the question remains: What comes next?

A group of local theater professionals got together (virtually) to discuss how Covid-19 has affected their businesses, what they have been doing since the shut-down, and possible next steps for reopening their summer camps and their doors for the immediate future and beyond. Hosted by Fairfield Center Stage's Executive Producer Eli Newsom, and Artistic Director Christy Newsom, the May 8 episode of their online series Fairfield Center Couch brought together the leadership from Milford's Pantochino Productions, Fairfield Teen Theatre, Norwalk's Music Theatre of Connecticut, and Stamford's Curtain Call. This informative chat session was an excellent display of solidarity among local theater groups and provided a clear sense of hope for the future for community theater.

First up were Bert Bernardi and Jimmy Johansmeyer, co-producers of Pantochino Productions. Heading into its 10th year this fall, Pantochino Productions produces three original productions per year, has an after-school program, and produces teen theater and summer camps with Milford Arts Council. Not having a physical connection with their students has been difficult, but they have managed to have Zoom sessions which their students have appreciated.

Their summer camp programs are still scheduled to go on, as the State of Connecticut and local authorities put protocols into place. Four sessions of Summer Camp programs are scheduled for the month of July, and they are scheduled to produce THE DROWSY CHAPERONE for the teen theater production in August. They will be contacting registrants with details once the regulations are set.

In the meantime, Pantochino Productions have been busy. Their distance learning program, LET'S LEARN STUFF, has taken off on YouTube and Facebook Live. The series features funny lessons from Victoria Sautee, a hostess reminiscent of Dame Edna, with wacky lessons and story-times. They also have Pantochino Podcasts, which airs original mini-musicals voiced by company members. The podcast had a soft launch in the Fall, but since the shutdown has become one of the top 125 family podcasts in the country.

Fairfield Teen Theatre was next up with director Carole Frawley discussing plans for the 2020 season. Part of the Town of Fairfield's Parks and Recreation Program, FTT is a community summer program that was founded in 1966 and has been an integral part of Fairfield's training program for up and coming theater professionals (performers and non-performers) throughout its history. With programs for students starting at age nine, the 2020 season is set to begin soon. Pre-Teen Players will be presenting PETER PAN JR. in July, Magic Box Theatre will present CURTAINS (YOUNG @ PART) on July 17, 18, and 19 and Main Stage will present SCHOOL OF ROCK weekends July 31 through August 9.

Again, auditions and rehearsals would have to be within the state protocols that are now being introduced. Because rehearsals and performances traditionally take place in schools which are currently closed due to the pandemic, Carole said they are in a wait and see mode in terms of scheduling and performances. If schools will not be available, they will have to adapt. For example, one idea would be filming the show and presenting the film like a drive-in movie, but of course all manner of things would have to fall into place to make this a reality.

The pandemic presents other challenges as well. If the schools do open up, social distancing may mean a change in the number of audience members per performance as well as changes in ticketing. Carole spoke of having open seating so family members could sit together but away from other patrons, or spaced out seating. These are all factors that are under consideration as she strives to present a safe environment for her campers and audience members. It will all depend on answers she will get from the Fairfield Board of Education.

Kevin Connors from Music Theatre of Connecticut is not in a wait and see mode. Founded in 1987, MTC produces Equity productions featuring New York professionals, as well as student productions and performing arts classes for students ages four through high school. Right now, MTC is doing a lot of events virtually and has been able to switch mediums in order to keep as many of their planned events going as they can.

MTC teachers have been holding virtual classes. Their student production of THE WIZARD OF OZ will be virtual, but rather than adapting a stage musical for Zoom, they are building the musical for the medium. MTC will also be hosting their annual fundraiser virtually. MTC Voice will take place at the end of May, where they will pair an amateur performer with a Broadway coach who will help them with material. The contestant will get sponsors and submit a video, which friends and family will be able to vote on. Prizes will be awarded on May 24.

MTC will not do anything live this summer, but they are planning on launching their new season in September. The season will include GHOST, TENDERLY THE Rosemary Clooney MUSICAL, IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE, THE IRISH AND HOW THEY GOT THAT WAY, and LEND ME A TENOR. Season subscriptions are still selling well, indicating the audience members are missing live theater and are looking forward to getting out.

The final guest was Lou Ursone, Executive Producer of Curtain Call in Stamford. Curtain Call produces year-round performances in the Kweskin Theatre and The Dressing Room Theatre. They also produce an annual free outdoor Shakespeare production and offer a full performing arts curriculum for students ages 5 through adult. In accordance with shutdown protocols, all performances, classes and auditions have been suspended through May 20.

Curtain Call started doing outdoor productions when they first landed at Sterling Farms in 1972. Right now, they are planning virtual programs for late spring workshops and summer programming. While they have decided not to do a full Shakespeare production this summer, they are considering doing some scenes and monologues and some musical events outside on the lawn. They may even have a summer program production outside, if they are allowed to. Stamford is a hotspot and therefore has some different considerations as far as reopening timing and protocols to be adhered to.

Curtain Call's annual Dancing with the Stars fundraiser has been postponed until September 19 at the Stamford Palace. However, at this point, Lou is not sure how the shutdown has affected the restaurant partners for this event, so there may be a challenge there. The event is scheduled and they are hopeful.

There are some silver linings to the shutdown as explained by Lou Ursone. He has been sending daily emails and video clips to patrons and their return letters and phone calls of encouragement have made all the difference in the world to him. Curtain Call's subscribers are hanging in there as well, with some asking for their subscriptions to be held until next year and others donating their ticket purchases as contributions.

The takeaways from this episode of Fairfield Center Couch are many. As Eli pointed out, while performing arts and artists have been hit hard by the shutdowns caused by the pandemic, they are uniquely suited to rise to the challenges that social distancing has presented. It takes equal amounts of imagination and adaptability for these local theater companies to weather this particular storm. From virtual performances, auditions, and classes, to brainstorming ticketing, seating, and even venue options, and sometimes delaying productions or even changing to productions that are better suited to smaller groups of performers either onstage or from the comfort of their own homes, changes in the theater world are inevitable.

What has not changed is the desire for these companies to come together and perform for their audiences. It is the magic of live theater to bring people together for a shared experience. And it is the outpouring of love and appreciation from their audiences that keep theater alive.

The best way to learn more about your favorite theater groups is to visit their websites, subscribe to their online series, and donate to the cause. Follow the links below or follow them on Facebook to get more information, donate, and or tell them how much you appreciate their efforts in these unprecedented times:

Fairfield Center Stage

Pantochino Productions

Fairfield Teen Theatre

Music Theatre of Connecticut

Curtain Call

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From This Author Cindy Cardozo