The “new normal” of everyday life is requiring a lot of adjustment: baseball games with no fans, restaurants with lots of space between tables, masks being worn everywhere.
The same goes — and is perhaps even more complicated — for theaters dealing with the details of admitting audiences to see live performances.
Rather than go at this task separately, three of Cincinnati’s professional theaters and their artistic directors — Blake Robison at the Playhouse in the Park, D. Lynn Meyers at Ensemble Theatre Cincinnati and Brian Isaac Phillips at Cincinnati Shakespeare Company — have collaborated to share plans for their coming seasons. Due to concerns for the safety of audiences, performers and backstage workers, all three will delay their season starts to late 2020 or early 2021.
Cincy Shakes kicks things off in mid-November with its zany four-actor holiday show, Every Christmas Story Ever Told (and Then Some), followed in 2021 by three works by Shakespeare plus a Jane Austen adaptation. The Playhouse will mount eight shows, five on the mainstage beginning on Dec. 1 with a one-man adaptation of A Christmas Carol and, starting in January, three on the Shelterhouse stage. Ensemble Theatre will wait until early January to restart its production of Dominique Morisseau’s Pipeline which had one performance before it was shut down by Ohio’s orders banning gatherings. Three more productions will follow through the spring and early summer.
The three theaters are working together to present consistent and more or less parallel opening plans. They will follow the same COVID-19 safety measures, including intense cleaning, reduced audience capacity and other protocols. Each production will run longer since keeping theatergoers socially distanced means fewer seats can be made available. Specifics are still in the works, awaiting further guidelines from the state of Ohio and CDC.
All three artistic directors are quick to say that further changes might be needed to ensure the safety of patrons, artists and staff.
“I know everyone has questions. We don’t have all the answers, but we have ideas,” the Cincy Shakes' Phillips says.
Ensemble Theatre's Meyers underscores, “We’ll pull everyone together to be sure we’re being safe for cast and crew. We even have to think about our box office team (who interact with the public). The staff is my family, and we have to protect them.”
Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park
Robison plans to start the season with a solo-rendition of A Christmas Carol (Dec. 1-27). A pair of actors, not yet announced, will alternate bringing “a little bit of holiday cheer and avoiding theatrical coal in everyone’s stockings.” The Playhouse production offered for nearly three decades “would not be possible — with 28 actors onstage and nearly as many backstage.” (He intends for the annual large-cast staging to return in 2021.) Kicking off with a one-man show allows time to figure things out.
In January, the Playhouse will stage its previously announced world premiere, The West End (Jan. 16-Feb. 14), by Cincinnati native Keith Josef Adkins about some residents living in that urban neighborhood. It will be followed by the beloved beauty parlor celebration of female friendship, Steel Magnolias (Feb. 27-March 28), then a biting comedy, Jocelyn Bioh’s School Girls; or the African Mean Girls Play (April 10-May 9), set in Ghana. The mainstage season wraps up with the classic mystery, Murder on the Orient Express (May 22-June 20).
The Shelterhouse season begins with Becoming Dr. Ruth (Jan. 9-March 9), a solo portrait of America’s favorite sex therapist. Another small-scale production, Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill (March 20-May 16) about Jazz singer Billie Holiday is next. A warm comedy about an Irish-Catholic family, Incident at Our Lady of Perpetual Help (May 29-July 25), rounds out the season on the smaller Playhouse stage.
Cincinnati Shakespeare Company
Following its presentation of Every Christmas Story Ever Told (and Then Some) (Nov. 19-Dec. 27), the hilarious send-up of “BHCs” (Beloved Holiday Classics), the classical theater company has lined up three productions of the company’s mainstay: Shakespeare. Hamlet (Jan. 15-Feb. 21), featuring company favorite Sara Clark in the title role, is first. The romantic tragedy of Romeo and Juliet (March 5-April 11) comes after, then a rollicking rendition of The Comedy of Errors (April 23-May 23). The season concludes with Kate Hamill’s spirited adaptation of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice (June 4-July 3), a March 2020 production cut short by the pandemic. (Read Jenifer Moore's review of the original staging of the show.)
Phillips says Cincy Shakes shows will look to its local company of actors and rely less on performers from other cities. “We’ll do our best to produce these plays with less risk and exposure,” he says. He adds that a single set might work: In Shakespeare’s time, a fixed stage was the norm.
Anticipating that performances for school groups will likely be reduced, Phillips believes the company might be in a position to add some evening performances. He also points out that runs will be longer, in some cases six or seven weeks, to counterbalance the reduced seating capacity to about 30 percent.
Ensemble Theatre Cincinnati
Ensemble Theatre’s traditional holiday show, a non-traditional fairy tale musical, was too risky for a large cast and crew to perform, especially with boisterous singing. The previously announced Sleeping Beauty will likely return in 2021. So they'll open their season with Dominique Morisseau’s Obie Award-winning play, Pipeline, in January. Ensemble's March production was stopped in its tracks the day after its opening night. (Read Rick Pender's review of the March production here.)
“I wanted to start with an important work, so Pipeline was perfect, made even more so by this international awakening of concern about racism," Meyers says.
She is reassembling the cast from March, and the set is still in place on Ensemble’s stage.
The show, a portrait of a Black family striving to keep their teenage son safe, resonates powerfully with the concerns advanced by the Black Lives Matter movement.
Meyers is planning an early August announcement of three more productions embracing the ongoing spirit of social consciousness that audiences have come to expect from Ensemble Theatre. These shows will likely run for five weeks and could possibly extended. Various online programming is also under consideration, such as ETC’s annual special event, Expectations of Christmas, offered every December.
Meyers is profoundly grateful for the generosity of patrons and subscribers. She cites the example of a ticket-buyer who asked for an $88 refund, then returned the check when his unemployment came through.
The Playhouse's Robison sums up what he, Meyers and Phillips have aimed for with their coordinated effort: “Our ability as a community to enjoy live performances again rests in our own hands. We have to be disciplined and do the right thing to make this kind of performance possible.”
Phillips adds, “It’s impossible to be perfect about this. We will do the best we can and hope that science catches up.”
More details about each of these seasons can be found at cincyplay.com, ensemblecincinnati.org and cincyshakes.com. Each theater will reach out to its patrons regarding procedures and options for 2020-2021 tickets already purchased. Additional tickets will go on sale later in the fall.