Director Jade King Carroll (standing) talks with actress Annie Henk and stage manager Myles Hatch during a rehearsal for “Bad Dates” at Portland Stage Photo by Mical Hutson, courtesy of Portland Stage

For the first time in a year, theater director Jade King Carroll has been able to share physical space with an actor in preparation of a performance before an actual audience – and what a joy it has been for her to be able to talk face to face, to turn to a designer or stage manager to discuss details large and small, and simply get up from a chair and walk around the rehearsal room at Portland Stage.

“This feels like home,” Carroll said of the theater. “It feels right. Nothing makes sense right now, but this does.”

Since last March, when the pandemic shut down live performance coast to coast, Carroll has directed actors remotely, participated in radio plays on Zoom, and even directed actors in a bubble – but that was for a performance without an audience. Finally, Portland Stage gave her the chance to bust out of her New York apartment and return to a sense of normalcy by directing the comedy “Bad Dates.” It opens Friday and will run through May 2, with limited live audiences. The 90-minute, one-woman show starring Annie Henk also will be recorded and offered as a streaming option beginning April 28.

Jade King Carroll said Portland Stage feels like home. Photo by Mical Hutson, courtesy of Portland Stage

Returning to Portland Stage completes a coronavirus full circle for Carroll. She directed “Native Gardens” at Portland Stage a year ago. The play was in the second week of its run when the virus hit, canceling the play and everything else. Carroll had finished her work in Portland on opening night in early March and was in Washington State the next week preparing for a production of “The Threepenny Opera” when the country began shutting down. She hopped on a plane for home, and received a text when she landed in New York saying “Native Gardens” was canceled.

Nothing has been the same since – until now.

“I was supposed to be on the road for eight months straight, but I sat in my apartment by myself. What a weird year,” Carroll said. “It feels so good to be back and so surreal to be back in the Portland Stage rehearsal hall.”

For Portland Stage and Anita Stewart, the executive and artistic director, “Bad Dates” is another step in the slow process of returning to a semblance of normal, though it’s far from what it was before the pandemic, and it remains to be seen what normal will look like for live theater in the months and years ahead. “It’s been a year,” Stewart said, exasperated. “People are tired. It’s been a lot for all of us.”

“Bad Dates” offers a breather. It’s a quick laugh, with some depth. Ostensibly, it’s about a recently divorced woman named Haley, who laments her return to the world of dating. But the play is really about self-discovery and acceptance, a process many of us have been through over the past year cooped up in isolation. “It’s about just being here and now and breathing and accepting what is,” said Carroll, who hand-picked Henk for the role. “It’s about being OK with yourself and not being so concerned with other people’s perceptions of you. It makes you laugh, and there is something intimate and safe and heartwarming about it.”

Stewart chose it because it’s a funny play about coping. “That’s what we’re all doing,” Stewart said. “She does some things right, she does some things wrong.”

Annie Henk stars in “Bad Dates,” a play about a shoe-obsessed woman trying to cope. Photo by Mical Hutson, courtesy of Portland Stage

“Bad Dates” is Portland Stage’s fourth show since it reopened. All have been small plays, with casts of no more than three actors. Audiences have been limited to 50 or fewer people per performance, and attendance has been inconsistent.

“Audiences have ebbed and flowed with the virus, but it was rare for us to have ‘sold out’ houses last fall, which is fine with us,” Stewart said. “Our goal has been to have the availability (of live theater) there in a safe way when people feel ready to come back.”

In the theater world, that is the question of the moment – when will audiences feel comfortable returning? For Stewart and other theater presenters, the question of audience comfort is of far greater consequence than state limits on attendance. Even if Maine were to allow theaters to open at 100 percent capacity, would people feel safe coming back to full houses?

Stewart doesn’t think so.

“It is our assumption that the answer is no and as we look toward next year, our goal will be to be doing shows more the way we normally would, but we are assuming that it is going to take a while to regain audience, so we are prepared to continue to see a loss at the box office – that is what at least I’ve been hearing from people who track these sorts of things,” she said.

The other looming and complicating issue for Stewart and her colleagues at Portland Stage has been negotiating with Actors’ Equity Association, the national labor union for actors. Equity requires Portland Stage to submit a health and safety plan for each show, and Stewart said the guild has added layers of oversight at a time when she believes they could be lessened. She would like to produce shows with larger casts to create more dynamic theater, but the guild won’t sign off on it.

Actress Annie Henk in rehearsal for “Bad Dates.”

Because of contractual agreements, Portland Stage is required use Equity actors when it produces its own shows – which is to say, when it originates a production on its own and hires the creative team. For its last play, “Or,” by Liz Duffy, which opened in late January, Portland Stage presented an existing production, originated by the Winnipesaukee Playhouse last fall, with a three-person cast of non-Equity actors.

That was the first non-Equity show at Portland Stage in its history, and Stewart said there could be more. “We’re looking at a (2021-22) season that could be full Equity, and we might look at what happens if we produce three Equity shows and present three non-Equity shows. All options are on the table,” she said.

But that makes planning for next season, which begins in the fall, difficult. “I am not just thinking about when will people be comfortable coming back to the theater, but when will Equity give me permission to use more than one actor? The state can give me permission to open up, but if Equity says no, what do I do? I feel like we are getting to a breaking point – I have been following all the rules, and I am ready to cash it in and say, ‘Let’s go non-pro and see what happens.’ We need to figure it out.”

Meanwhile, Portland Stage is moving ahead with “Bad Dates,” and Stewart is thrilled to be working with Carroll and Equity actor Annie Henk on this show. Both are women of color, and hiring people of color helps Portland Stage meet its goal of achieving more equity and diversity, Stewart said. Despite her frustrations with things beyond her control, whom she hires is still something over which she has the final say.

“As focused as we are in dealing with the pandemic, we are also making sure we are integrating and being responsible by involving a wide variety of people who exist in this universe. We are excited to be making sure we are being diverse in our casting. That feels really good.”


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