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Local theater companies speak to the importance of performance amid COVID-19

  • Double Edge Theatre ensemble actor Matthew Glassman addresses the would-be audience during a rehearsal on for the Ashfield troupe's Summer Spectacle, "6 Feet Apart, All Together". Staff Photo/Kevin Gutting

  • Milena Dabova, left, and Francisco Rivera Rodriguez rehearse in the stream at Double Edge Theatre for the Ashfield troupe's Summer Spectacle, "6 Feet Apart, All Together." Staff Photo/Kevin Gutting

  • Milena Dabova, left, Andrew Todd, below, and Cariel Klein, top, rehearse with the Double Edge Theatre ensemble on Friday, July 10, for the Ashfield troupe's Summer Spectacle, "6 Feet Apart, All Together." Staff Photo/Kevin Gutting

  • The Shea Theater on Ave A in Turners Falls. June 8, 2017. Recorder Staff/Paul Franz

Staff Writer
Published: 8/6/2020 9:27:39 AM
Modified: 8/6/2020 9:27:29 AM

While many theaters across the country have been forced to remain closed, members of Double Edge Theater in Ashfield say they feel fortunate to sell out tickets for their socially distanced, in-person performances.

The theater is in the midst of a run for a slightly different version of its annual summer spectacle. While Co-Artistic Director Jennifer Johnson said this year’s show, “6 Feet Apart, All Together,” is a bit different for the audience and performers, with smaller crowds and limited showtimes, she said they are grateful to put on a show at all. The sprawling 105-acre farm grounds with fields, woods and streams allow for audiences to explore the immersive sets while maintaining a social distance.

Producing Executive Director Adam Bright said the performance weaves together scenes from past performances including “Leonora's World” and last year’s annual Summer Spectacle “I am The Baron.” Other parts of the performance are a celebration of nature. Johnson described the performance as a mosaic of scenes across the property that take audience members into specific, episodic worlds.

“There is a limitation forced upon us by social distancing,” Bright said. “We’re a physical company, there’s an intimacy to our performances. We had to adapt our creative process in some other elements, but we’re still looking for intimacy — from a distance.”

While normal shows see audience sizes of around 100, this year they were reduced to about 30 to 45 people per show, who traveled the property in groups of 10 to 15 people, all of whom are required to wear masks. Production also usually involves up to 50 people involved between the cast, crew, set designers and others, this year the team was cut back to roughly 25 people. Even with certain limitations, the theater’s trademark dancing, music, stilt walking, acrobatics and wirework were all on display this year.

Klein said other theater companies, both locally and nationally, were quick to push shows to an online or virtual format. But Klein said this was not desirable for the Ashfield theater. In addition to limited internet service in the area, Klein said they feel it’s important to hold live shows.

“We want performances to be something people experience,” Klein said. “Based on the response from the community, we think it’s important to them as well.”

“We have the opportunity because of who we are, where we are and how we work is unique, to be able to offer this,” Bright added. “I think it’s healing.”

At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, the theater company was in the beginning days of a national and international tour. Unfortunately, the public health emergency forced them to cancel the rest of the tour. Upon returning, the company was forced to adjust practices by forming “pods” for certain performers to work together, and reducing the overall number of students on their campus at a time.

While Bright said the tour’s sudden cancellation was “a sucker punch,” he and Klein were excited to put on “6 Feet Apart, All Together” as a “love letter” to the community, thanking them for their support over the last few months. Some support came in the form of early renewals for theater memberships, some from a local doctor who Klein said tested ensemble members for COVID-19.

Double Edge Theatre also recently completed a fundraiser raising $25,000, with an additional matching $25,000 from MassDevelopment. The $50,000 total will be used to expand the theater’s outdoor space by extending pathways, adding rain covers to audience areas and more.

Shea Theaterin Turners Falls

In Turners Falls, the Shea Theater Arts Center has been finding ways to keep performances alive virtually, while remaining closed to the public. According to Managing Director Linda Tardif, the local company’s doors have been shut to public audiences since mid-March.

“I remember that early on we had initially canceled events through April 1, in what we thought was an abundance of caution and had plans for a busy spring at the Shea,” Tardif said. “This has obviously shifted quite bit as the public closure extends into July without a clear end in sight. It is a tough time for the performing arts.”

Tardif said the theater space has long been a home for performers, technicians, designers, artists, musicians, dancers, poets, community groups, and audience to share human connection in a dreamy vintage theater. Without audiences, or a full cast rehearsing in the space, it’s impossible to deny something is missing.

“The magic really happens when we are all together; listening so intently you can hear a pin drop, sharing a drink at the bar, clapping for the encore, and sharing space with friends, neighbors, and strangers,” Tardif said.

While the safety of their artists, patrons, and staff is a priority looking ahead, Tardiff said they “we miss everyone very much.” In regards to reopening, Board President Monte Belmonte said the reopening plan was on a “wait and see” track. Belmonte said it was “pretty clear from what’s going on around the country” that it is still not safe for close proximity indoor events, and certainly not at full capacity.

In the meantime, Shea Theater Program Coordinator Emma Ayres said the company has partnered with other area entertainment businesses to establish “Quarantunes,” a series of performances streamed live online. According to Ayres, Quarantunes is a partnership between The Shea Theater, Hawks & Reed, Pria Music Marketing, The Stone Church and Dwellings Arts. Performances stream live every day from: facebook.com/quarantunesforyou.

“In the wake of Covid-19 show cancellations, your favorite venues and arts hubs in the 413 have come together to create an online concert series because, now, the show must go on…line,” Ayres said.“This is our combined effort to support our musicians and performers while keeping your beloved community spaces and performance venues afloat.”

If you are a performer interested in booking a slot on “Quarantunes,” please email Shea Theater Arts Center Program Coordinator Emma Ayres at gettotheshea@gmail.com. Ayres said they are interested in hosting anything from music, plays, staged readings, dance, performance art, poetry readings, open misc, independent film screenings, etc. Performers are invited to send along any and all ideas.

“We are innovating alongside you,” Ayres said.

Zack DeLuca can be reached at zdeluca@recorder.com or 413-930-4579.

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