Live theater or not? That is the question

Theaters manage risk to produce programming during the COVID-19 pandemic
Matt Baum (left) and Greg Hunter play the title roles of "A Year With Frog and Toad" at Synchronicity Theatre.
Courtesy of Jerry Siegel

Credit: Jerry Siegel

Credit: Jerry Siegel

Matt Baum (left) and Greg Hunter play the title roles of "A Year With Frog and Toad" at Synchronicity Theatre. Courtesy of Jerry Siegel

The coronavirus is the rare thing that can disrupt the perennial promise that “the show must go on.”

“In this case, the show must not go on,” says Rachel May, artistic director of Synchronicity Theatre. “If we have to stop, drop back and punt instead of performing, that’s what we’re going to do. That’s a big change from, ‘I’m going to perform tonight even if my leg is falling off!’”

Since March, the COVID-19 pandemic has caused playhouses nationwide to suspend live performances to avoid potential exposure to audiences and artists. With the year winding down and a vaccine months away from wide distribution, theater artists are considering their options in 2021: Remain dark, expand virtual programming or experiment with in-person productions.

Acknowledging that his audience base is 80% Black, a community that has been hit hard by the virus, True Colors Theatre has chosen to suspend live performances, says Artistic Director Jamil Jude. “Our audience has let us know in no uncertain terms that they’re not going to return until there’s a vaccine,” he says.

On the other end of the spectrum, Synchronicity began producing live shows indoors in October with the monologue series “4x4” and continues with the current holiday family show “A Year with Frog and Toad.”

Every show has a Plan A, Plan B and Plan C, explains Managing Director Celise Kalke. Plan A is a live, socially distanced performance in the theater. Plan B is a filmed stage performance presented virtually. Plan C is a recorded Zoom performance.

Three days prior to a performance, Synchronicity determines whether a show can be presented live or not, based on whether the metro area’s COVID-19 test positivity rate’s seven-day average is higher than 8%, as determined by the Georgia Department of Health. If it is, audience members are notified 72 hours before the show that “In the Theatre” performances are cancelled, in which case patrons can watch a streaming version or exchange their tickets for another show in the season.

If the city’s positivity rate is below 8%, up to 20 patrons can attend a show; masks and social distancing required. In addition, performers all wear plastic face shields and the filtered air is circulated five times an hour.

"A Year With Frog and Toad" at Synchronicity Theatre is available for viewing live in the theater or online.
Courtesy of Jerry Siegel

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Synchronicity’s COVID-19 protocol was developed by a team of doctoral students and undergrads from the Emory University School of Nursing who created a safety plan for local theaters. The idea originated with a conversation between Helen Baker, an assistant professor and global and community engagement coordinator at Emory’s School of Nursing, and her husband Alexander Scanlon, managing director of Actor’s Express.

Over the summer, the nursing team gathered data about Atlanta theater practices, focusing on interactions with audiences, rehearsals, backstage activities and performances.

“The challenge was that we had a ton of different theaters doing everything from musicals to two-person improv shows, and we needed to develop safety recommendations that they all could use,” says doctoral student Morgan Clark-Youngblood.

They found that minimizing risk of infection was easier for audiences than the performers. “We had to make so many considerations for the performers, and not only for shows,” says doctoral student Laura Wiese. “For weeks and weeks, they’re getting together in one rehearsal space with set designers, costume designers, accessory crew and more. They’ve had to really reduce the number of people together at different times.”

In August the theaters were presented with a document of best practices for safely reopening during the pandemic.

Watching a final run-through of Dad’s Garage Theatre’s virtual show “Improvised Made-for-TV Christmas Movie,” Wiese was impressed to see the protocols in practice.

“Seeing them so dedicated to creating art while seeing them so dedicated to keeping the community safe was a wonderful thing,” she says.

Actor’s Express has also ventured into live performance with a seasonal musical, “Holidays at the Trolley Barn.” Held outdoors at Inman Park’s Trolley Barn, the cabaret-style show prohibits paper tickets or paper programs, and places Plexiglass barriers around the singer, so she can remove her mask. The audience is seated by twos, six feet apart.

“Everything is an experiment now,” Scanlon says.

The Alliance Theatre has experimented with a drive-in adaptation of the Charles Dickens classic, “A Christmas Carol: The Live Radio Play.” Stories that have stood the test of time can withstand a temporary change in format, says Artistic Director Susan V. Booth. “If the story has to be told with four actors in shipping containers and the audience in cars, it still can be told,” she says.

Otherwise the Alliance has focused on virtual programming, which Booth finds can lose the immediacy of live theater, while offering the opportunities of a different medium.

Terry Burrell performs in the Alliance Theatre’s virtual show, “A Very Terry Christmas.”
Courtesy of Alliance Theatre

Credit: Handout

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Credit: Handout

In the Alliance’s current virtual show, “A Very Terry Christmas,” Broadway performer Terry Burrell sings holiday songs recorded at 14 popular Atlanta attractions.

“We chose songs that would be thematically appropriate to places like Zoo Atlanta or the College Football Hall of Fame,” Booth says. “It’s a cool thing when one of your actors gets to sing ‘You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch’ to a real dinosaur at Fernbank.”

The current rise in coronavirus cases has made planning for next year more uncertain. “Everything we’re looking at for the back half of our 2020-2021 season has a giant asterisk,” Booth says.

At Synchronicity, May hopes that their COVID-19 protocols will allow the company to continue producing 2021 shows in the theater. “We feel really confident that we can go with this model for the rest of the season. It has a flexibility and a nimbleness built in.”

Despite having to wear masks and forego concessions, the audience response has been extremely positive, she says. “They’re so happy to be there. It’s like they’re coming to a party they’ve been waiting for all year.”

But for many artists and audiences alike, the waiting will have to continue.


‘A Very Terry Christmas.’ A virtual production presented by the Alliance Theatre. Through Dec. 31. $20.

‘A Year With Frog and Toad.’ Live and virtual production presented by Synchronicity Theatre. Through Jan. 3. $25 “In the Theatre”; $10 “On the Screen.” 1545 Peachtree St. NE, Atlanta. 404-484-8636,