Joel Leffert as Scrooge in Portland Stage Company’s 2018 production of “A Christmas Carol.” Photo courtesy of Aaron Flacke

Portland Stage Company is canceling its in-person production of “A Christmas Carol,” the theater’s biggest moneymaker of the year, because of breakthrough cases of COVID-19 among people associated with the show.

Anita Stewart, the theater’s executive and artistic director, said five cases were detected early this week, prompting the theater to nix the entire run, a reminder of the difficult and tenuous nature of live performance during the pandemic. The theater will record a performance of the play, which had been scheduled to open next week, and offer a digital version that people can watch at home.

Maine’s rising rate of virus transmission and record number of COVID-related hospitalizations factored into the decision to cancel, Stewart said. It is the second local theater cancellation in two weeks attributed to breakthrough cases of COVID-19, following Portland Players’ cancellation of its final weekend of performances of “Cabaret” before Thanksgiving.

“It’s really about how do you make the best forward movement and keep everybody safe and not do anything foolish,” Stewart said Friday. “While Maine is having the highest transmissions it has ever had, we don’t want to be part of the problem. We want to get on the other side of this and keep doing what we know works and what we can manage, but right now it feels like there is a lot of transmission out there, so it seems to not make sense (to do the show).”

The disruption began when a close contact of director Sally Wood tested positive. Later, a non-actor member of the company, who was also involved in the rehearsal process, tested positive. That person lives with others associated with Portland Stage, “and in that little cohort we had a handful of positive cases,” Stewart said. “At that point, we shut everything down.”

Portland Stage protocols include mandatory vaccination and masking for everyone in the building. Actors working on stage do not have to wear masks. To protect unmasked actors, Portland Stage requires anyone who has close contact with a positive COVID-19 case to isolate and follow a five-day testing regimen culminating in a PCR test.

The play, which was scheduled to open Dec. 4, includes a core cast of seven and two ensembles of five child actors from the community, for a total of 17. It’s the largest cast Portland Stage has assembled since the pandemic began, and posed the greatest exposure risk because of its size and because so many in the cast live in and interact with members of the community. But none of the positive cases was among actors, Stewart said. “That’s good news. It means our protocols are working.”

Still, they could not save the show.

The cast, crew and others associated with “A Christmas Carol” underwent PCR testing Tuesday. On Wednesday there were no new reported cases, Stewart said, but with Thanksgiving looming and local cast members expected to interact with family and friends over the holiday, Stewart and the Portland Stage board opted to cancel.

“If we had this many close calls and actual instances of this happening, then we are in a situation we can’t really control,” she said.

The uncertainty of the pandemic forced Portland Stage to eschew its typical 12-month budget process, and the theater is operating with a series of short-term budgets a few months at a time. The loss of “A Christmas Carol,” which was scheduled for 28 performances from Dec. 4 through Christmas Eve, represents about $80,000 to $90,000 in revenue for the theater, or 50 to 60 percent of its current budget cycle.

“It was the thing that was sustaining the other pieces as it were,” Stewart said. “It is our biggest moneymaker, and it is what sustains the rest of the organization in a way. So it’s a big hit for us.”

Stewart hopes some of the loss in revenue will be offset by people who opt to watch the digital version of the play at home. Because none of the actors are sick, they will perform the show without an audience in coming days. It will be available for viewing Dec. 15.

Portland Stage began informing ticket holders of the cancellation Friday.

Other arts groups are moving forward with their holiday plans, cautiously, and many presenters expressed concern about rising case numbers and another winter of uncertainty.

Maine State Ballet opened its version of “The Nutcracker” at Merrill Auditorium on Friday, with nearly everyone on stage, other than soloists, wearing masks.

“We also decided that everyone backstage would wear masks,” said assistant director Glenn Davis. “We asked our performers to be very careful at home and in the community. Our hope is to get through the show before the new South African variant joins us.”

Good Theater, which opened the one-woman comedy “Who’s Holiday” at the St. Lawrence Arts Center in Portland on Wednesday, has reduced capacity from 106 seats to 91, and artistic director Brian Allen said he is monitoring case numbers in Maine closely. Doing a one-person show, he said, “definitely makes it easier. … These are scary and difficult times. Hopefully we can keep going, but it is stressful, and I am constantly reading the daily articles on the latest COVID updates.”

Michael J. Tobin, executive artistic director at The Footlights Theatre in Falmouth, said Friday’s news was “truly sad for the arts community.” He is opening “Humbug! A Spirited Christmas Carol” on Wednesday, as planned. “All COVID protocol is in full effect, as it has been since day one,” he wrote in an email.

Carolyn Nishon, executive director of the Portland Symphony Orchestra, which opens “Magic of Christmas” at Merrill on Dec. 10, issued a statement of support for Portland Stage, and said the PSO would proceed with its performance schedule.

“We will continue to evaluate the situation and rely on guidance from leading health officials to protect our audience, musicians and staff,” she wrote. “We are moving forward with our ‘Magic of Christmas’ schedule following strict policies, including requiring proof of vaccination or a negative COVID test prior to admittance to the auditorium.”

Merrill will not operate concessions during intermission, and the orchestra is offering socially distanced seating for some performances, as well as a digital version of the concert beginning Dec. 17.


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.