The pandemic has impacted all corners of the Boston arts scene. This week, WBUR's arts reporters are examining the effects on institutions, large and small. This is the third story in our series.
Of all the arts, theater has been hit especially hard by the pandemic. And even if audiences were willing to gather, regulations prohibit it. According to Dr. Anthony Fauci, patrons are unlikely to return to theaters before the end of 2021.
But Watertown’s New Repertory Theatre has found a solution to scratch theaters goers' the itch for live performance.
New Rep is presenting “The Charles W. Lenox Experience,” the first in-person production since the pandemic struck in March. The show follows a local Black resident and barbershop owner during the Civil War era.
Lenox, played by actor Kadahj Bennett, is the show's sole performer and must wear both the 1860s-style costume and a face mask for safety precautions. “It's a clear mask, a clear plastic mask. But it's also kind of like having a plastic bag on my face, so the breathing is kind of hard and muffles the sound a little bit,” Bennett says.
The play is a collaboration with the Watertown Free Public Library and the Historical Society of Watertown. It’s based on a true story and is the first in a series of outdoor historical plays New Rep is planning. Bennett walks the audience on a short tour past historic sites where he channels Lenox. The play explores the tension between Black soldiers fighting for freedom and their unrecognized efforts during the Civil War.
“The Charles W. Lenox Experience” is one of the ways theaters are getting creative in the time of COVID-19. Because of safety precautions, this show takes place outside with no more than 15 attendees socially distanced from one another. Everyone, including the actor, wears a face mask. Bennett's voice is projected through a speaker steered by Mia Porter, a New Rep front house staffer, who follows closely behind him as he moves.
New Rep artistic director Michael J. Bobbitt says the series comes from an idea he had before the pandemic. He has worked on similar projects for former employers and the pandemic pushed New Rep to try the new approach. When "The Charles W. Lenox Experience" wraps up, the theater will work on the next play for the series which will focus on an indigenous person’s story and is written and directed by indigenous people. There are no plans to produce anything indoors until next year.
Bobbitt also says the dual pandemic of COVID-19 and the racial equity movement has pushed theaters to rethink how they’re including marginalized voices, on and off stage. In addition to giving more people from different backgrounds to tell stories through theater, New Rep is also exploring options to expand the theater's reach.
“I think it's a shame that theater can only be enjoyed by the people in the building,” Bobbitt says. “If you can afford to be in the building. But if you can't get to the building. Should you not see it? You should be able to see it.”
In the wake of the pandemic, New Rep is considering the elimination of its tiered and subscription tickets to make its shows more accessible. Bobbitt says annual subscription tickets privilege subscribers over those who can only afford to buy single tickets. Black, brown, poor and young folks will be left out of the experience. He also wants to offer digital productions to wide audiences, like Disney+ has by making "Hamilton" available to mass viewership.
“I think that if we come back and we come back the same, that would feel like a failure,” he says. “And I would frankly be embarrassed to be a part of the theater community if everything goes back to what it was, inequitable and not sustainable.”
Bobbitt says the theater hasn’t had to lay off or furlough any employees. They have lost $950,000 in revenue since March, which is about 56% of their operating budget. They are working hard to bring in donations to avoid dipping into the theater’s reserve funds.
Audience member Ryan Evans of Somerville has been going to other outdoor productions like Starlight Square in Cambridge and the Nature Plays at Mount Auburn Cemetery. Despite the limitations, he appreciates the theaters’ ingenuity.
“I really miss having a bigger audience and being closer to the actors, having a bigger acting troupe,” says Evans. “I think it's been fantastic the way a lot of the theaters and actors have adapted and been able to put on fantastic productions and fantastic art, even with what's going on.”
New Repertory Theatre’s play “The Charles W. Lenox Experience” runs through Nov.8 in Watertown.
This segment aired on October 15, 2020.