Local theater troupes may be playing an ongoing game of hide and seek with their audiences for months as they attempt to navigate what may – or may not – be the end stages of the COVID crisis.
Signature Theatre on Feb. 1 opened its latest production – “Daphne’s Dive” – and has another in the pipeline for early March, but another Arlington professional troupe, Synetic Theater, opted to push back its planned February production of “Servant of Two Masters” to April.
“The show will go on, and you’ll only have to wait a couple of months,” the Crystal City-based troupe promised.
(“Servant of Two Masters” has been living a limbo-like existence; the production originally was slated to be part of Synetic’s 2019-20 season, the latter half of which was wiped out by the arrival of the pandemic, then was rescheduled to run from Feb. 18 to March 13 this year before again being pushed back.)
Synetic was among the theater troupes in the local area to restart in-person performances in late 2021, offering productions of “The Madness of Poe” and “Cinderella.” But the advent of the highly transmissible, if relatively benign, omicron COVID variant caused leaders throughout the local theater scene to rethink their schedules.
“The problem is that if a cast or crew member tests positive, they have to shut down until everyone is tested, especially for those theaters with Equity actors,” said Janet Kopenhaver, who heads the Embracing Arlington Arts advocacy group. “Many tell me that they open shows and just pray to get through the entire run.”
Encore Stage & Studio, which produces shows for (and by) youth, has kept up its planned performances since rebounding last year. (A number of shows from a recent production were canceled, but due to snow, not COVID.)
Dominion Stage, a community-theater troupe, restarted shows last fall but opted to push back its planned early-2022 musical to wait out omicron. The Arlington Players, also a community-theater troupe, aimed to be back with in-person productions in early 2022 after a lengthy layoff, but also opted to postpone its new production.
“I think many theaters are moving opening dates [to spring] under the assumption that cases will drop a lot now,” Kopenhaver said. But, she added, “I don’t think we will see the end to canceled shows over the next couple of months.”
Professional troupes, which not only pay casts and crew but also administrative personnel, were aided by federal relief funds. But federal-government payroll-protection funding is now a thing of the past, leading those in theater management to try and figure out what is the best-case scenario: Run shows now and hope for the best, or wait the situation out and hope the net result will be better.
Most theater troupes already had instituted, or planned to, COVID-vaccination requirements on patrons. (An exception has been Encore, whose target audience in many cases is currently too young to qualify for inoculations.) Some troupes have instituted social-distance spacing in parts of all of their venues, and virtually all have been requiring masking of the audience.
Troupes that use Arlington school facilities – including Encore, Dominion Stage and The Arlington Players – fall under school-system rules, which currently even require those on stage to be masked up. It’s an edict that has outraged some in the arts community, but they are keeping their feelings largely to themselves in an effort not to jeopardize their ability to use the facilities.
Elsewhere in Northern Virginia, both professional and community organizations are bobbing and weaving to meet ongoing COVID challenges.
The Vienna Theatre Company has successfully mounted several productions, although it lost one weekend’s worth of shows over COVID issues.
1st Stage, a Tysons-based professional troupe, is planning for the run of a new show – “The Phlebotomist” – later in February.