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Intermission: 20 minutes? or 20 months?

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“Comedy of Errors” was presented last summer by Shakespeare by the Sea. Photo by José Cordon

Life during “the great intermission”

Hold that pose: local theater companies on standby

by Bondo Wyszpolski

The usual theater intermission is about 20 minutes, but what if it’s 20 months? Let’s hope it’s not that long until we can step back into our favorite theater. In the meantime, here’s what some of the area venues are doing while we wait out stay-at-home directives and social distancing.

One troupe, their wagons and carts loaded with actors and props, have been traveling the Southland for years, but this year will prove to be the exception:

“The Board elected to officially cancel the 2020 Shakespeare by the Sea summer season,” writes Suzanne Dean, the associate artistic & development director of Little Fish Theatre. “The SBTS administration was laid off indefinitely, and the seasonal production team released. It was a tough decision, as the shows were already designed, tour cities booked, and auditions were coming up just as the city lockdown happened.

“The expectation is that parks throughout LA County will remain closed for many months and if/when they reopen the city may continue to limit the size of gatherings.” Since the size of an audience in Hermosa Beach, Manhattan Beach, and Torrance can be 500 or more on a typical night, staging performances soon is problematic at best. In short, Suzanne notes: “Government mandates will determine future touring. SBTS will hopefully return in 2021.”

Shakespeare by the Sea presented “Henry V” when they toured the Southland last summer. Photo by José Cordon

As for Little Fish Theatre, located in the arts district of San Pedro, Sarah Ruhl’s “Dead Man’s Cell Phone” had gotten through a couple of weekends before being halted. Another production, “Becky’s New Car,” by Steven Dietz, was in rehearsals.

Little Fish Theatre is a savvy outfit that not only produces new and alternative fare: the company sees the present health crisis “as an opportunity to rethink how we create and present theatre,” Suzanne says. “We moved quickly, getting ahead of some other theatres, with a multi-pronged Virtual Stage plan that includes live stream events, recorded content, and narrative. (i.e., live stream play readings and screenplay readings, recorded Meet the Artists spotlights, spotlights on other community members who are struggling in this moment, short films, how-to videos, and a new mockumentary web series.) This digital format has allowed us to not only extend our audience reach beyond the database, but also expand opportunities to other artists – beyond the current company members. Exciting perks, in an otherwise tough situation.” There’s a lot to look at and enjoy: details at littlefishtheatre.org.

One of the more recent highlights of summer has been the Torrance Theatre Company’s annual summer musical. But what about this year, with the company set to produce their version of the highly successful “Mamma Mia”? Gia Jordahl is the producing artistic director of the TTC and there’s both sad news and optimism in what she sees in the months ahead.

First of all, “Mamma Mia,” which was to take place in August in the James Armstrong Theatre, has been cancelled. No word on whether it will be considered if there’s a summer musical in 2021. “Last year the company celebrated its 20th anniversary,” Gia says, “with Disney’s ‘Beauty and the Beast,’ a wildly successful production that led into a five-show season at 1316 Cabrillo Ave in historic downtown Torrance.

“The 20th anniversary season was exceeding all expectations, but no one expected a pandemic to come crashing down in early spring.” On the eve of opening night, David Lindsday-Abaire’s “Good People” was cancelled. “As the COVID-19 crisis grew, and safer-at-home guidelines were handed down, the TTC was forced to reassess the rest of the season. The decision was made to hold on to ‘Good People,’ and to try and present it in early fall, and to cancel the production of ‘Wait Until Dark’ that was scheduled to run from mid-May through mid-June.”

What if you’d already sent in money, anticipating another fine assortment of plays by a talented group of actors and production team?

“Season subscribers and patrons are given the choice to donate their tickets back, or receive a refund. We’ve been humbled by the generosity of so many of our patrons who opted for the former.”

The decision to cancel “Mamma Mia” was a difficult one, Gia admits. But, she adds, “We now turn our focus to planning for a new season in the fall.” She refers to this time we’re living through as “the great intermission,” and “We are working with our actors and team members to find new and inventive ways we can reach our audiences.”

We await the return of this fine company. Keep up to date with them by going to TorranceTheatreCompany.com.

The Kentwood Players cast of “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike” includes (l-r) McKenna Goodman, Chris Morrison, Sarilee Kahn, Giovanni Navarro, Valerie Sullivan and Cherinda Kincherlow. The play was put on hold… one day before it was to open. Photo by Gloria Plunkett

What about the Norris Theatre in Rolling Hills? This venue features musical acts (jazz, big band, tribute groups, pop groups, and occasionally a play or musical with a 2-3 week run). According to Julie Moe Reynolds, “The majority of the remaining shows from Palos Verdes Performing Arts season have been rescheduled to a new date. All patrons have been contacted and advised that their tickets are valid for the rescheduled date. People who bought tickets in advance for Norris Theatre shows that were cancelled, were given full refunds.

“Jack Wright’s Tribute to Neil Diamond on June 7 has not been cancelled, and we are awaiting Governor Newsom’s direction on May 15 before making a decision about continuing with the performance. We will be announcing our 2020-21 season in May, and will begin taking season ticket orders on June 1.

“As far as the shutdown,” Julie adds, “We have had to lay off 35 people from the PVPA staff, and many Conservatory classes are now being held online. Financially this has been a major blow. We are looking forward to welcoming back the community to the Norris Theatre in the fall, with our full 2020/21 season. However, the safety of our patrons will always be our primary concern, and we will only open in compliance with any state or local directives.”

New season details to be available at palosverdesperformingarts.com.

Shari Barrett, the Kentwood Players publicity director, has been involved with promoting theater for as long as I can remember, which goes back into the last century, at least! Theater companies come and go, but here’s one that knows how to dig in and weather any storm or mishap. As Shari writes:

“Kentwood Players was celebrating our 70th anniversary as a community theater group in 2020 when we had to postpone our production of the comedy “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike” the night before it was scheduled to open on March 13. Directed by Susan Stangl, the show’s set, costumes, props and lights are still in place and the play will be presented as our first production once we can again open the Westchester Playhouse to the public. The cast is meeting weekly on Zoom to practice their lines to be ready, with specific run dates to be announced as soon as possible, as will new audition dates for the musical “Fun Home” which were to take place March 14 and 15.

“Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill,” which closed out International City Theatre’s 2019 season, was the company’s highest grossing show in 34 years. It starred Karole Foreman and Stephan Terry. Photo by Tracey Roman

“During the down time,” Shari notes, “much-needed repair work is underway to the Westchester Playhouse roof and the floor in the upstairs green room and dressing rooms.” Meanwhile, the board of directors is staying in touch with one another, discussing “future scheduling options for our upcoming six-show season.” It will include the aforementioned “Vanya and Sonia…,” “Fun Home,” Neil Simon’s “Laughter on the 23rd Floor,” the suspenseful thriller “Night Watch,” “9 to 5, the Musical,” and Arthur Miller’s Tony Award-winning play “All My Sons.”

If you don’t want to miss any of these, stay informed by going to kentwoodplayers.org.

The Manhattan Beach Community Church Theatre usually stages two productions a year, beginning with a spring musical. “Little Me,” by Neil Simon, was set to grace the boards beginning March 27, which didn’t happen, although we may see it later in the year.

The company’s Bob Manning was brief but succinct:

“I think most of us actors are cleaning house, repairing stuff that we’ve been putting off. I, for one, work on a play I’ve been working on for a while.… [The enforced hiatus] gives me time to be creative. Just about all of our ticket purchasers want to hold their seats for when we do “Little Me” in the fall. At this point, that’s not even a given, but we just have to wait and see.”

Surf City Theatre concluded Neil Simon’s “Rumors” in early March and has been planning to stage Joan Casademont’s “Maids of Honor” beginning May 16. No word from the company about any change in their plans, nor has their website been updated.

Between downtown Los Angeles and Costa Mesa, it’s arguable that International City Theatre stages the most critically-acclaimed productions. Artistic director/producer caryn desai answered some key questions about the current season, which began in February.

“As of today, one show was moved to 2021 and another has been postponed,” she says, “and we may be bumping another show. I’m trying to make sure I can at least produce three of our five shows for International City Theatre’s 35th Anniversary season.”

In the meantime, “We have talked with the union about streaming services for past productions or readings but they make it absolutely unaffordable. We are looking at doing some interviews with artists and Instagram takeovers by actors.” ICT’s involvement with schools is on pause, but the company is looking into ways to keep that relationship vital and ongoing.

As for people who have already purchased full-season subscriptions, caryn points out that “ICT works on a calendar year so our season just began in February. Fortunately we were able to produce and run the first show of the season. Because the second show has not run on its scheduled dates, a few single ticket buyers have requested refunds. Some donated their tickets but the full impact will not be known until the year moves ahead. ICT’s renewal campaign begins in August and that’s when we will really know the fallout from all this.”

Stay in the loop with this one, too. Visit ictlongbeach.org.

The Joanna Medawar Nachef Singers presented their first virtual performance, via Zoom, on Easter Sunday, with Handel’s “Hallelujah Chorus”

This isn’t theater, per se, but when the Joanna Medawar Nachef Singers perform they elicit emotions from their audience that equal what you feel in the best dramas written for the stage. And if there’s anyone who won’t back down from a challenge, or to find a way to get something done, it’s Joanna Medawar Nachef.

“Even in the darkest of times, music and its message of hope endures!” she writes.

“On Friday March 13, I realized that my career of 35 years was put on hold. Not by my own doing but by a worldwide pandemic that muted my last note of music. As a conductor, music professor, artistic director, and performer, I worked with hundreds of people on a daily basis. Feeling empty, sad, and truly stunned by COVID-19, I asked myself: Do I succumb to this silence, or do I find creative ways to keep the music alive?”

Those who know Joanna can already guess the answer to that.

“It is in my nature to take risks and follow my passion, even as I participate in social distancing. My first idea was to create a “Virtual Choir” for Easter Sunday with my performance group, Joanna Medawar Nachef Singers. In less than 10 days, this labor-intensive project was completed and we debuted our first virtual performance, singing Handel’s “Hallelujah Chorus” on Easter Sunday.

“Realizing that my college classes were all in-person, skill building music courses, I decided to dive further into a virtual teaching experience. My immediate family now hear me from our living room, teaching, rehearsing, and singing with my El Camino College students during our Zoom class sessions!
“This pandemic will not interrupt who I am and what I was made to do. Even in this darkest of times, music can keep us connected and allow our hope for the future to endure.”

Is there a better note to end on? I think not. ER

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