Here’s another way the pandemic is reshaping our lives: It’s probably going to be a while before we will sit through “Annie” again.

At least for now, many community theaters – long the domain of the big-cast, Broadway-style musicals that involve everyone from the kids to the grandparents and sometimes the family dog – are going small, producing non-musical plays and musicals with small casts, some of which are being trimmed to 90 minutes or less. Although the changes were made out of necessity, theaters are welcoming the opportunity to tackle different types of material and to try more inclusive approaches to casting to bring more diversity to their stages.

Portland Players will return in June with the non-musical “God of Carnage” and a cast of four. Biddeford City Theater will produce the safely distanced musical “The Marvelous Wonderettes,” also with a cast of four, in July. And in September, Lyric Music Theater is planning its return to live theater with the one-act musical “Sister Robert Anne’s Cabaret Class (A One Nun-sense Musical Event),” which will be performed by a single actor.

It’s a big change, and one that community theaters are embracing – at least for the short term. “It’s going to be rough, because so much of what community theater is all about is the community itself and the camaraderie that comes with having a big cast,” said Liz Kershenbaum of Yarmouth, who auditioned for “The Marvelous Wonderettes” last week. “But I think people will latch onto anything they can get right now. Just the draw of theater will carry us through that awkwardness of not a lot of people being cast.”

Brie Roche of Portland, who also auditioned for “The Marvelous Wonderettes,” sees this moment as a chance for community theaters to surprise people with shows they might otherwise not consider staging.

“Oftentimes in community theater, we want bigger casts so we can feature as many people as we can in the community, as well as to bring in more ticket sales,” she said. “But if we are not worrying about filling the house, this is an opportunity to be more prominently featured or explore shows that community theaters do not explore very often. It’s a cool thing for now, but we definitely want to get back to our ensemble shows with 25 or 30 people in the cast.”

Some of Maine’s community theaters are returning to live performance with a renewed commitment to inclusion and diversity, in hopes of attracting actors of color and others who are interested in theater but might have felt unwelcome or uninvited.

“A lot has happened since we last put on a play,” said Benn May, a member of the board at Portland Players, reflecting on the pandemic as well as the death of George Floyd and all that has changed and is changing across the land as a result of both.

Giselle Paquette, far right, walks off stage after bringing in Audrey Bradbury, far left, for her audition with Benn May, second from right, for “God of Carnage” at Portland Players in South Portland on May 2. The play, with a cast of just four, will be the first production since the pandemic closed the theater in March 2020. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

When Portland Players put out a casting call for “God of Carnage,” opening June 11, it included a statement saying it was “actively seeking people of color, varying gender identities and all abilities to audition. These roles are not race, gender or identity specific, and can be played by any actor.”

Auditions did not yield the huge turnout of actors of color that May had hoped for, but May, who will direct the show, was able to cast one non-white woman, and “we saw new faces in terms of gender identity and physical ability,” he said.

Märgen Soliman, who identifies as Egyptian American, will make her debut for Portland Players in “God of Carnage” playing the role of Veronica. She did not reply to the audition notice because of the statement of inclusion by Portland Players. She auditioned because she was eager to return to the stage, and “God of Carnage” was the first audition notice she saw. But she was pleased – indeed, thrilled – to see that Portland Players is making an effort to remove barriers that prevent some people from auditioning.

As a person of color, she often felt “disqualified” if her skin tone did not match a character in a play. “I remember as a kid going out for ‘Sound of Music.’ Being Egyptian, I do not look Austrian. It would be heartbreaking to not do these shows because you do not look like the other von Trapp children,” she said.

As written, “God of Carnage” involves two traditional couples who feud over the behavior of their children. May is casting one as a same-sex couple. “In reading the play through a 2021 lens, I felt like it could be more open because very few lines from the character of Michael – now Michaela – felt gender-specific,” he said. “I didn’t set out to cast one as same sex, but based on what I saw in the auditions, the energies of the people involved just felt right to cast it in the way I did.”

May said he was committed to lasting change by working to recruit new people to the theater. “We have to be proactive. Maine for many years has chalked it up to, ‘Well, Maine is not that diverse.’ That is not true anymore. I want to make sure the shows we present are representative of our audience and our community.”

A DIFFERENT EXPERIENCE

Smaller shows sometimes result in a different kind of theater experience. The big musicals are generally palatable to large numbers of people. They are fun and lively with bright costumes and splashy colors, whereas the smaller shows might tend toward more serious subjects, more personal stories and less splash. To avoid the no-no of non-partners kissing during a pandemic, directors are steering clear of romantic comedies and choosing shows with plot lines devoid of intimacy. Portland Players decided to reopen with a biting, cynical comedy because it seemed appropriate for the times, May said.

Auditions for “The Marvelous Wonderettes” took place inside a quiet Biddeford City Theater, which can seat 500 but will probably cap the audience at 150. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

It’s about people who don’t get along.

“We knew we had to, at least for the first show, come back with something with a small cast, and this show was relevant in general. It’s an opportunity to talk about these very polite people who underneath the surface are animals and at each others’ throats. We have seen a lot of that over the last year and a half,” May said.

Theaters are easing back into action with the expectation of small audiences, though Maine’s latest indoor safely regulations soon will allow for full houses. When “The Marvelous Wonderettes” opens July 23 at Biddeford City Theater, director Linda Sturdivant expects to seat about 150 or so people in an auditorium that can accommodate 500. The size of her theater gives her comfort, she said.

“City Theater is huge,” she said. “I am lucky I have that space.”

She chose “The Marvelous Wonderettes” because it’s a lively musical with a small cast – four women, each standing with a microphone, belting out pop songs from the 1950s and ’60s. “They’re automatically socially distanced. They don’t have to stand close together,” Sturdivant said. “It’s four women, no kissing. I said, ‘We can do this.’ ”

From left, Jessica Libby, Joanna Clarke and Audrey Bradbury sit six feet apart as they read the script for “God of Carnage” before auditions May 2 at Portland Players in South Portland. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

She plans to present the musical in two acts, with concessions served outside during intermission – but all that could change if comfort levels increase by opening night.

Lyric Music Theater has plenty of time to decide to how to handle ticket sales for “Sister Robert Anne’s Cabaret Class (A One Nun-sense Musical Event)” upcoming in September. “Because we have a while before tickets will go on sale, we have the time to be thoughtful in our planning,” said Joshua Chard, a member of Lyric’s board. “We definitely will be looking to other theaters for guidance as we navigate these ever changing waters. It’s enough to give one whiplash.”

As conditions allow, Lyric hopes to return to bigger shows, perhaps for the holiday season. “We just want to take it one show at a time until we can be certain so we don’t find ourselves in another seemingly endless loop of postponements and eventual cancellations,” Chard said. “We know can’t reopen with a giant musical – we are Lyric Music Theater and we would love to put on an over-the-top musical, but we can’t. Our goal is to reopen small and say, ‘Hey, Lyric community, we are still here.’ We will slowly build until it is more safe to do larger and larger shows.”

Portland Players expects to seat 100 or so people in its theater, which can accommodate about 300. Portland Players will present just two performances each week when “God of Carnage” opens in June, on Friday and Saturday nights. It will sell seats in sets of two, to make it easy and safe to separate people, and convenient for the box office.

“Many people seem to think that because the restrictions are lifted, the theaters will be filled. That is not the case at all,” May said. “I think staying small and distanced – playing it safe – is very smart. As a theatergoer, I will be more inclined to a buy a ticket knowing I am safe and have the opportunity to be distanced from others than if I know I will have people seated next to me. I am not sure what will be necessary for me to feel comfortable with that, but I am definitely not there yet.”

READY TO RETURN

Operating as volunteer organizations, many community theaters have gone dormant during parts of the pandemic, used the time for improvements and other projects, or adapted their content for online audiences. The board of Portland Players decided to lock the theater on Cottage Road in South Portland in December, to conserve energy and save money. At Lyric, also in South Portland, the board used a grant from the Maine Theater Fund to install a bipolar ionization purification system to its existing HVAC system. Lyric also installed a new digital wireless microphone system with a grant from The Linwood Dyer Foundation.

Chard, director of marketing for the theater, believes the new air purification system will help sell tickets because people will feel more comfortable returning to the theater knowing it has invested in their safety. “For me it’s a pretty big marketing tool,” he said.

During the pandemic, Acorn Productions gave up its office, classroom and rehearsal space on Main Street in South Portland, saving the theater $1,200 a month. At the same time, Acorn’s new artistic director, Dan Burson, created online classes, giving the theater a new source of revenue.

After canceling the Maine Playwrights Festival last year, Acorn will host this year’s festival with five fully staged short plays that will be filmed in late May and streamed in June, said Howard Rosenfield, Acorn’s board president. Rosenfield, who lives in Brunswick, became president of the local theater company by default. He didn’t step forward as much as he didn’t step back as quickly as the other board members when the position needed to be filled.

That was December 2019. Three months later, Rosenfield found himself at the helm of the theater company in the midst of the pandemic, leaving Acorn’s uncertain future in his hands and those of other board members. It was a stressful year, he said.

“Some people asked, ‘Is this the beginning of the end?’ You could see the storm clouds brewing and imagine that would happen,” said Rosenfield, who joined the Acorn board after he retired as a psychiatrist. “But I have a strong theater ethic, and all of us on the board were not going to go that way. We never talked at a board meeting, ‘Should we pull the plug on this thing?’ I guess there were some doubts and questions about Acorn, but I didn’t vocalize that to anybody and it never got to the point we considered it as a board.”

McKayla Prophett of Brunswick goes over the music for her audition with Music Director Patrick Martin during auditions at Biddeford’s City Theater for “The Marvelous Wonderettes.” Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

Despite uncertainty and unknowns, Rosenfield said he sensed that the theater community was ready to return. Sturdivant, with Biddeford City Theater, saw evidence of that enthusiasm when she hosted auditions for “The Marvelous Wonderettes.” She filled most of her audition slots well in advance. The same was true at Portland Players. When Lyric hosts auditions in June for its single available role for its September musical, the theater expects a large turnout.

Theaters have adapted auditions for the pandemic. Instead of showing up en masse and waiting in the lobby to be called in for the audition, actors showed up at an appointed times for 15-minute auditions, and then promptly left the theater. For the first time, Portland Players encouraged actors to audition remotely, a common practice in professional theater but almost unheard of at the community-theater level.

“It’s a brazen world in many ways,” Portland Players’ May said. “We are just trying to find a way where everyone is comfortable and everyone is safe.”

Brie, who auditioned for “The Marvelous Wonderettes,” was about to open “Little Women” at Biddeford City Theater last March when the pandemic forced the theater to close.

“It was devastating to everyone in the cast,” she said. “We had worked so hard for three months, and two hours before opening night we had a national emergency. And that national emergency has not changed – until now.”

She sees live theater as a return to some kind of new normal.

Sarah Thurston auditions in front of director Benn May and his friend Jackie Grigg for “God of Carnage.” She said, “I’m just happy that anything at all is happening” in live theater. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

A new normal is the ardent hope of Patrick Myers, executive director of the Center Theatre for the Performing Arts in Dover-Foxcroft. He will host auditions for two plays this weekend.

“The return of live theater is one way of establishing a new normal, whatever that is,” he said. “It’s hard to say what the long-term outlook is, but my hope and expectation is people who love live theater and value live theater will show love and value once the virus is behind us. It’s just a matter of time before they are comfortable coming to the theater again, laughing and enjoying themselves.”

Kershenbaum never hesitated at the opportunity to audition for “The Marvelous Wonderettes.” She graduated with a degree in musical theater from the University of Southern Maine, and being away from theater this past year has made her want it more.

“It has been a rough year being away from the theater community itself and being away from the stage. A lot of us in community theater feel the theater is our home, and we missed it so much,” she said.

Being back on stage for the audition felt affirming, she said. If she has to wait a little longer for the return of the big musicals, that’s OK.

“We can make it through until next year for the bigger ‘Les Mis’-type of shows,” she said. “It’s worth the wait. It will feel even better when we get there.”


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