The from footlights to the wings, local theaters are silent, as actors and technicians halted rehearsals and paused productions as part of the larger effort to limit the spread of the Coronavirus. While some people stuck at home rediscover hobbies and pastimes, local thespians feel lost and adrift without their creative outlet, missing the chance to create, perform, enjoy the spotlight and an audience’s applause.
Sarah Hawkins, an area actor who teaches theater at the University of Detroit-Mercy and at Wayne State University, has had her classes move to an online platform, which is challenging for theater performance students, who rely on human contact and full-body movement to practice their art.
“I feel fortunate to have the steady employment of teaching, especially as I see so many colleagues losing gigs that they were counting on to make ends meet,” she said. “I am struggling with how to support my students in their creative endeavors, knowing they will be entering a field that will be hard-hit after this pandemic comes to an end.”
Hawkins said she is also concerned with how the Detroit area theater scene will be impacted in the long term.
“I suppose when the school year is done, I will work on the play that I have been kicking around in my head forever,” she said. “We shall see.”
Brian Townsend, a local actor, director and playwright, feels certain the theater world will have many new plays, based on our current circumstances, when the pandemic ends.
“As a playwright, this whole situation has given me time to work on new ideas and to polish up some old ones,” he said. “The arts are resilient, and have always been mirrors to history. Stories of being locked up alone, holed up together, mysterious illnesses, the weight of loss and the joy of rediscovery – we might see a great mixture of comedy, drama and music sprout from our current times.”
Townsend, who had cast and was ready to direct the musical “Anything Goes” at the Players Guild of Dearborn before the show was canceled, knows the decision was the wisest course.
“The Guild wants to help maintain the health of its actors, technicians, designers and audiences, so they all return to the theater later,” he said. “We are waiting to see what the future might hold.”
Brandon Omoregie, a local actor, said the coronavirus has put a halt to his plans to join a local improv group and to continue his education. He said he is immuno-compromised, so he is working to maintain both his physical and emotional health.
“I need to stay leveled by taking the necessary health precautions,” he said. “I hope to return to the stage, expand my horizons and try out different stage environments in the metro Detroit area.”
Kirk Haas, actor, director and producer, said Barefoot Productions, a theater in Livonia, is trying to bring entertainment to its patrons through the group’s Facebook page so they don’t forget the group while the house is dark.
“These are tough times for the venue entertainment business,” he said. “I am fine with the cancelation, as everyone understands. Emotionally, I am too experienced in this art to take it personally. Safety first.”
Valerie Haas, Kirk’s wife, also an actor, director and producer, said that while the theater is dark, there is concern that they could lose the building in which they perform.
“That’s the fear,” she said. “We are currently in a state of suspended animation, our small theater shuttered, waiting for rehearsals to begin, waiting for audiences to fill the seats.”
She said as the artistic director for Barefoot Productions, she feels useless, having no shows to direct or produce.
“We have announced our next season, which may be altered, dependent upon how long this virus thing keeps us down,” she said.
Julie Ballantyne-Brown, an actor, was playing the lead role, Amanda Wingfield, in “The Glass Menagerie” at the Players Guild of Dearborn, when the show was canceled one week into its three-week run. She said that while she understands the logic of the shutdown, the decision is emotionally difficult to process.
“The greater good outweighs everything, and keeping people apart is the best thing for our world right now,” she said. “Emotionally, it was, and still is, difficult. Everyone put so much heart and work into ‘Menagerie,’ and we fell in love with the show, so it was very difficult to digest that we will never perform it again.”
Ballantyne-Brown said theater people are not the only ones hurting now.
“Social distancing has ended so many things for so many people,” she said. “We need to be allowed to grieve for the things we have lost. We also have to try and remain as positive as possible, because things will, eventually, begin again and get to some kind of normal.”
Tamara Marla, an actor, singer and vocal music teacher and director, said while the closures were the right thing for the community, it was painful to see the performers get hit with such a devastating blow.
“I felt bad for the teens who were supposed to open ‘Arsenic and Old Lace’ this month for Southgate Community Players,” she said. “For months, I have also been working with private vocal students doing material for school and youth productions. They worked so hard, and as their teacher, my heart breaks for them.”
Marla said the royalty companies seem to be willing to work with theaters to change the performance dates.
“Now it is a waiting game,” she said. “Only time will tell when it will even be feasible to start scheduling things again.”
Marla calls for everyone in the theater community to be supportive of each other.
“We need to build each other and these groups back up after this devastating hit,” she said. “Audience members’ love and support is what keeps these theaters functioning.”
Kelly Klug, actor and director, said it was painful to see the Allen Park High School spring production of “Guys and Dolls” delayed.
“Logically, I get it,” she said. “Emotionally, I run the gamut from sad, scared and frustrated.”
Klug said she has held rehearsals online with her students using Zoom.
“It’s been great to see their faces,” she said.
Tom Sparrow, actor and webmaster for the Players Guild of Dearborn, said it saddens him to see community theater productions canceled.
“I worry about the future of the Guild,” he said. “Arts organizations like ours stand on shaky financial ground. Prolonged shutdowns are scary times.”
Gregory Prusiewicz, an actor and Dearborn Heights native living in Los Angeles, said he was scheduled to assistant direct a production of “Richard III” for Shakespeare by the Sea in southern California when all of the theater’s current productions were canceled.
He said that while the L.A. theater community is huge, it operates mainly through small, community-based theaters.
“Most theaters need ways of raising funds, and margins are tiny,” Prusiewicz said. “Just getting through year to year can be hard without something catastrophic like a full shutdown. I fear a lot of theaters aren’t going to make it through this.”
He said emotionally, the theater community is scared and uncertain about its future.
“Artists are resilient, and we have an inherent need to create that cannot be stopped,” he said. “We will persevere. I think we will see some really amazing art come out of this hardship, and that gives me a lot of hope.”