'Godspell' in 2020: Masks, partitions and a contactless crucifixion

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PITTSFIELD — And on the eighth day, Jesus wept.

A hard rain thrummed on the roof of a festival tent. Nine masked performers, speechless, stared intently at center stage. Nicholas Edwards, the 28-year-old actor playing the Son of God, made it midway through the "Godspell" ballad "Beautiful City" when, rising to sing a lyric about rebuilding, he burst into tears.

It had been a long first week, and not just because there was so much to memorize. There were the nasal swabs and the temperature checks and the quarantining and the face coverings. And now there were tape measures to double-check distances and translucent screens to enclose backup singers; still to come were costume pockets to stash hand sanitizer.

The rehearsal halted. The keyboardist stopped playing. Edwards buried his head — pierced in one ear by a cruciform stud — under his black tank top.

"In the real world, we would come over and hug you," said the director, Alan Filderman. But, complying with the rules of the day, he did not rise from his seat; nor did the other actors, who extended air hugs instead.

Edwards took a moment, collected himself and finished the scene. "As I started to sing, 'When your trust is all but shattered,' that took me out, really hearing that," he later explained. "We've lost all faith and trust in each other, and trust in the theater. Will it ever come back?"

The coronavirus pandemic emptied stages across the United States in March, as local officials banned large gatherings and then the nationwide theater actors' union barred its members from performing. Now, for the first time anywhere in the country, a handful of union actors are returning to the stage — two stages, actually, both of them located in the Berkshires, a treasured summer cultural destination in Western Massachusetts.

The two productions here in Pittsfield — "Godspell" at Berkshire Theatre Group, and the one-person play "Harry Clarke" at Barrington Stage Company — are de facto public health experiments. If they succeed, they could be a model for professional theater during this period of peril. But, if actors or audience members get sick, that would be a serious setback.

"The whole industry needs this," said Kate Shindle, president of the Actors' Equity Association, the labor union representing 51,000 performers and stage managers. Shindle, who planned to attend the "Godspell" opening Aug. 7, video-called the musical's actors on their first day of rehearsal with a message of encouragement and of caution.

"Not to put any pressure on you, but the entire American theater is depending on you to be really smart," she said. "People are going to look to you to know that theater can happen without anybody getting sick."

More complex undertaking

Equity agreed to allow the two Berkshire productions because the number of reported coronavirus cases in Western Massachusetts is low and because the theaters agreed to implement a dizzying array of prophylactic measures for workers and audience members. The monthlong production of "Godspell," with 10 roles, is the more complex undertaking because of the cast size and the perils of singing, which produces potentially dangerous aerosols.

The 1971 musical remains enormously popular, with nearly 10,000 productions over the past two decades. Adapted from the Gospel of Matthew, the show focuses on Jesus' uses of parables as a teaching tool; it has been staged in many, many ways (at a refugee camp, in a prison, among homeless squatters), and this production — spoiler alert — is set during the pandemic. The visible onstage public health measures — partitions, masks, social distancing — "become part of the parable of being a moral person," said Matthew Adelson, the show's lighting designer.

The acting company — 12 performers, including two understudies — range in age from 20 to 34. A few have Broadway experience, but most are at earlier stages of their careers. At least three, including Edwards, have had the coronavirus.

They are exuberantly grateful to be working.

"I'm just so excited to perform for people again," said Najah Hetsberger, a 20-year-old musical theater student at Montclair State University. "I haven't done that for months."

There are, of course, practical benefits as well. Dan Rosales, a 30-year-old who expected to spend this summer performing in the off-Broadway musical "Trevor," said that, without this role, he wouldn't qualify for health insurance next year. And Emily Koch, a 29-year-old who has performed leading roles in "Wicked" and "Waitress," acknowledged, "I definitely needed the money."

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Pittsfield as a pioneer?

Over and over, they said they hoped success in Pittsfield would lead to more jobs for theater artists elsewhere. "This has to work," said Alex Getlin, a 26-year-old New Yorker spending her third summer at Berkshire Theatre Group, "so more theater can happen in the rest of the country and more of my friends can get back to work."

But, not everyone wanted to be part of this production.

"They're bold, and someone has to do it, but I don't know that I wanted to be the guinea pig," said Vishal Vaidya, one of three actors who declined an opportunity to be in the show. "My joke is, 'Do I want to die doing "Godspell"?' "

On the day of the first rehearsal, under an open-air tent in Stockbridge, there were rules to be learned even before the actors opened their scripts: one person in a bathroom at a time; music stands 6 feet apart; individually wrapped bagels; personal bins of Sharpies, sweat rags and sanitizer.

Kate Maguire, the theater's artistic director, choked up as she offered a few words of welcome: "At this time in history, someone had to begin to tell the stories again."

And then they began to talk. About the pandemic. About the Black Lives Matter movement. About "Godspell."

"I've been alone in my apartment for four months, literally," Filderman, 65, offered as a prompt and a confession. "I'm very nervous about my life and my future."

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Stories, which Filderman would later fashion into a prelude, began to flow. Zach Williams, a 28-year-old Texan, had been touring in "Aladdin" when the pandemic hit. Tim Jones, 24, had just moved to New York; he returned home to Pittsfield, and took a job delivering masks and gowns to nursing homes.

Kimberly Immanuel, 25, reflected on injustice.

"I was sick of people staring at me as if I was the human incarnation of COVID-19 just because I'm Asian," she said.

Edwards spoke of theater as a path through despair.

"When COVID started, I thought, I'm just going to give up — I had panic attacks for days on end," he said. "Art saved me."

Built-in pandemic humor

Each day there were complications (not just the virus, but also passing motorcycles, airplanes, rainstorms and bugs) and compromises.

"At first, did I imagine all these masks and all these partitions? No," Filderman said. "But, I do now, and I think it's going to be really good because it makes the actors feel safe and it's going to make the audience feel safe."

To keep the actors apart, the wide, shallow stage is subdivided into 10 "home bases," each with a seating element of a different height: a chair, a stepladder, a beanbag. Props are limited because none can be passed from actor to actor. Pandemic humor is built into the staging — during the vaudevillian number "All for the Best," Jesus and Judas brandish yardsticks, rather than canes, and measure the distance between them.

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The audience will be small — under Massachusetts safety standards, outdoor performance venues are allowed to admit only 100 people, including cast and crew, so the theater is expecting to sell just 75 tickets a night, at $100 each. (Ordinarily, the theater stages its biggest shows in a 780-seat house.)

The front row will be 25 feet from the stage, in accordance with the state's protocols for performances involving singing. (The show's music does not require wind or brass instruments, which are also thought to pose a risk of droplet transmission.) Audience members will have to submit to temperature checks before entering; parties will be seated at social distances from one another; and masks will be mandatory.

Among those planning to brave the restrictions: Stephen Schwartz, the show's songwriter, best known for "Wicked."

"I'm just delighted that live theater is finding a way back," he said, "albeit tentatively and cautiously, but finding a way at all."

The tensest moment came on the seventh day of rehearsals. It was a hot one — 86 degrees — and the show's choreographer, Gerry McIntyre, was teaching the actors the steps for Koch's big number, "Bless the Lord."

Jason Weixelman, in his seventh summer as a stage manager with Berkshire Theatre Group, didn't like what he was seeing. Weixelman, 40, could never have imagined that a life in the theater would involve enforcing public health protocols just devised by the state of Massachusetts, Actors' Equity, and the theater itself. But, now, he was concerned that performers at the front of the stage were at risk from those at the back, and he told Filderman that the partitions they had been using to separate singers next to one another might also be needed to separate the rows.

The cast was antsy. Filderman was frustrated. "I need to know," growled the director, who was already deep into the first act, with barely more than a week until the first performance. "We need this clarified."

Edwards, who is the elected liaison between the actors and their union, decided he was not going to wait for the creative team and theater officials to brainstorm best practices. He pulled out his cellphone and called Equity's national headquarters.

The response was clear: Any time someone in the back row was singing, there would need to be a physical barrier between them and those in the front row. And any time actors were passing within 6 feet of one another — meaning basically every time a scene changed — they would need to wear a mask.

Complications

Up the road, there were major complications for "Harry Clarke" as well. The play, starring Mark Dold and scheduled to open today, was to be the first Equity-approved indoor production of the pandemic. And Barrington Stage went to great lengths to safeguard the theater: upgrading its air-conditioning system to improve air filtering and circulation, removing most of its seats to ensure social distancing, and replacing bathroom fixtures (to make them touchless) and assistive listening devices (to make them easier to clean). But, just six days before the first performance, still lacking permission from Massachusetts to stage indoor theater, the production decided it had no option but to move outside.

That night, much of the "Godspell" cast gathered on the porch of the large house where they were isolating — mystified by some of the restrictions (why could they sit on the stage floor where others had walked but not on chairs where others had sat?), frustrated with all the changes (why didn't they just do a concert performance?), worried that, at any point, the show could be shut down.

Michael Wartella, an elder statesman among the group as a father and a 34-year-old with three Broadway credits, reminded the others that chaos comes with theater.

"There's always stopped rehearsals with arguments and the director and choreographer screaming at each other," he said. "This is just a different topic."

Edwards, eating a burrito, cradling a script and eager to get back to running lines with his cast mates, listened as the conversation drifted from the legacy of AIDS to masking practices in Japan.

"We're risking our lives, but if this finishes and we don't get sick, then whatever we're doing is working," he said. "Theater needs to be saved somehow."


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