In the dark days of the pandemic, when gilded theaters in big cities and community playhouses in small towns shuttered their doors, the ghost light continued to shine as a symbolic bright spot in an otherwise bleak present. Some theater people with a flair for the dramatic believe the light wards off wayward spirits, but the true reason the single bulb is left on in dark theaters is simple: safety. And perhaps as a sign that one day, the show will go on again.
The ghost light still shines for Stony Brook University’s theatre community – as it has since March 10, 2020, when the Staller Center for the Arts canceled that month’s events. Announcement of an indefinite closure followed. Two days after Staller closed, Broadway also went dark.
And even though Staller’s closure has ended – the 26th annual Film Festival was live this summer albeit with virtual components and tickets are now on sale for the fall 2021 in-person season – the ghost light shines on. Broadway, too, has reopened – lead by marquee shows like Hamilton, The Lion King, Chicago and Wicked – with 41 theaters from Midtown to Lincoln Center poised to raise their curtains and strut their stuff. By October, 28 shows will be open or in previews with more coming.
“We were probably the second university arts center in the country that canceled,” Alan Inkles, director of the Staller Center for 25 years, said as he sat on a stool on an otherwise barren stage last spring. The pandemic was still raging and the campus was a ghost town as he looked back on a year that even the most inventive of playwrights couldn’t have imagined. A thousand empty seats of faded burgundy loomed behind him. “We looked like the bad guys on the first day. On the second day we were the good guys.”
A genial man in his 60s with graying hair, Inkles lives and breathes theatre. As a teenager unable to afford tickets, he would sneak into Broadway shows during intermission just to watch the second act without knowing anything of the first.
At 18, with short-lived aspirations to be an actor, Inkles moved to the West Coast, where he shot a few TV commercials and three or four pilot episodes for television shows that never saw airtime. He eventually enrolled at University of California, Los Angeles. But he disliked auditioning for roles he didn’t get. More than a little homesick, Inkles returned to Long Island. He took small roles in a handful of off-Broadway shows, including the lead in “Romeo and Juliet.”
“I tore a ligament in my knee,” Inkles recalled. “With only five shows left to go. And I would not let the understudy go on because only I could play Romeo.” Most insulting, Inkles hadn’t even hurt himself onstage, but instead he was injured between acts in a display of what he called idiocy – walking into a piano. The damage to his knee ultimately ended his acting career and he moved on to managing the Staller Center’s theater at the age of 22 – just three months after graduating from Stony Brook University.
In one of his first acts as director, Inkles secured the sponsorship of British Airways and brought in companies from around the world, among them a Scottish company that included a then-unknown actor named Alan Cumming, who would go on to win Tony and Olivier awards and multiple Emmy nominations.
When Inkles started his career with Staller nearly 40 years ago, the arts center presented 20 shows a year – 10 dance performances and 10 classical music concerts. Until the coronavirus closed it, the center hosted 350 a year – from live Metropolitan Opera screenings to acrobatic acts and theatrical performances.
On March 7, 2020, the Staller Center’s closing event – the 2020 Gala featuring Broadway legends Kelli O’Hara and Sutton Foster singing together for the first time – drew a nearly sold-out crowd in spite of mounting unease about the pandemic. Though the after-party was canceled, the show itself went on.
Kelli O’Hara spoke to the anxiety in the room. “Thank you for being here because it might be the last time we’re all in the same room,” she said. For many in the audience, the gala would be the last live performance they’d enjoy for months to come.
“If we had to go down on a night, that was a good night to close our theater,” Inkles said. “They always say you’re as good as your last show. So that’s pretty good, right?”
Acts cancelled or rescheduled included the 25th anniversary tour of “Rent,” Alan Cumming returning for the first time, and the March 2021 Gala featuring renowned cellist Yo-Yo Ma. For nearly five months, the center remained on hold as the pandemic worsened worldwide. From March to December 2020, Inkles estimated a loss in revenue of about $1.2 million. That’s almost half the $2.5 million it costs to run the Staller theatres in a typical year.
But the show eventually went on – in a way. Partnering with IndieFlix, an independent streaming service, the university’s formerly postponed annual film festival went virtual last September. “We’ve turned into a virtual venue,” Inkles said at the time.
One positive to come out of an otherwise devastating closure was the widespread exposure the film festival received. Which is also why this summer’s festival included live and virtual screenings, Inkles said, and probably always will.
“We sold more passes than we would normally sell if we were opened here,” he said of the 2020 festival. Factoring in the likelihood that many of the nearly 900 passes sold were used by couples, families or groups of friends, Inkles estimates three to four times more people, nationwide, experienced the festival in this digital medium than a typical live in-person year.
The festival, typically held for ten days in July, ran instead for 12 weeks in 2020 at $60 per ticket, with viewers able to screen one feature-length film and one short each week. This summer the festival returned with in-person viewings for 10 days in July and virtual screenings in August.
“We’ve turned into a virtual venue….We sold more passes than we would normally sell if we were opened here.”– Alan Inkles, director of the Staller Center for the Arts about the success of the 2020 film festival.
The decision to transition to a virtual experience last year became an overarching constant in the performing arts world. Theatre fans were able to purchase inexpensive tickets ranging from $5 to generous donations for a plethora of Zoom performances that benefit The Actors Fund. The national organization has provided emergency financial assistance, health care, career development and more to members since 1882. In the wake of COVID-19, The Actors Fund distributed a record-breaking $10.5 million in emergency financial aid to its members in just the first eight weeks of the shutdown. “Take Me to the World,” Stephen Sondheim’s 90th birthday concert, went virtual with more than 2.3 million views on YouTube as a benefit for the organization Artists Striving to End Poverty. Technical difficulties due to volume delayed the stream for more than an hour.
In addition to fundraisers put on by theatre companies and groups, specific shows also went digital. For example, “What the Constitution Means to Me,” a Tony-nominated play that has since closed, is available on Amazon Prime Video – free to Prime members.
For $6.99 per month, Disney+ subscribers can enjoy the world-renown Broadway rap/hip-hop musical, “Hamilton,” winner of 11 Tony Awards. The film is a taped performance of the live stage show, featuring the full original cast, minus one ensemble member. At its height, “Hamilton” tickets sold for upwards of $1,500 a seat, not to mention resale values that climbed even higher. In just the first 10 days on Disney+, around 2.7 million households nationally tuned in, according to the television analytics company, Samba TV. This viewership supersedes the 2.6 million theatergoers who have seen the show live on Broadway in the five years since it opened, according to Broadway World, a theater-news website
But most shows are not “Hamilton,” which reopened at the Richard Rodgers Theatre on Sept. 14 with almost the first month of performances already sold out. Instead, during the pandemic, most shows took place in the small rectangles of Zoom.
Zoom spawned a number of new shows written or adapted specifically to be performed in that medium. Zoom Theatre, for example, is a new online company that has made seven live theatre shows, including “Macbeth” and David Mamet’s “Reunion & Dark Pony.” None of the free shows are recorded, and audiences watch in real time with the ability to un-mute themselves and applaud at their discretion.
At Stony Brook, Pocket Theatre, the university’s largest undergraduate theatre organization, got into the act. “We’re trying to do as much theatre as we can,” Emily Morse, the group’s president, said last fall when virtually all classes and extracurricular activities were virtual.
The junior chemistry major became president just weeks before the March 2020 shutdown. The student-run troupe was unsuccessful in mounting even a small-scale outdoor show because of the difficulties of following university guidelines at the time.
But members were determined to have some sort of activity that spring, so its 2020 cabaret concert was moved to the Pocket Theatre’s Facebook page. Half a dozen students submitted self-taped performances with varying degrees of audio and video quality. None were live.
Before long, Morse and her e-board members were holding auditions for a modern reimagining of the H.G. Wells novel turned play, “War of the Worlds,” made specifically for Zoom performances.
But Zoom isn’t live.
“The whole point of theatre is to be live,” Morse said. “It throws a wrench in what theatre is defined as.”
Teaching, a performance art of sorts, also went online. A majority of theatre classes such as the introductory courses, Performance Art I, and American Theatre and Drama were restricted to Zoom. Production classes, both at the introductory and advanced levels, were in person but operated under strict regulations and limited capacities. Students sat at desks spaced six feet apart. For ease of contact tracing, students were required to sit at the same desk for the entire semester. They also had to purchase their own personal protective equipment such as earmuffs, wrenches, and work gloves usually supplied by the class. Eating and drinking during class were forbidden – a challenge since production classes are typically three hours long.
Before COVID, it was customary as their final projects for students in the introductory production class to run tech – theater jargon for work that includes handling lighting setups, monitoring audio and building sets – for Pocket Theatre productions or Staller Center shows. This was something Hannah Oliver, a sophomore theatre minor who was a teaching assistant for such a class, had been excited about. But barely six weeks into her first theatre class, the campus shut down and the class went online.
“The whole point of theatre is to be live. It throws a wrench in what theatre is defined as.”– Emily Morse, president of the university’s Pocket Theatre
“It was pretty rough, I’m not going to lie,” she said of the abrupt transition. But using their experiences from the spring 2020 semester, instructor Dave Barnett and Oliver made changes that benefitted the fall-semester students. A camera positioned over Barnett’s desk projected blueprints, tools and other practical demonstrations onto a flat screen television that enabled students to better see from their socially-distanced seats. And Oliver used a hand-held digital camera to record the lessons for anyone unable to make the in-person class.
“It was nerve-wracking,” Oliver said of her TA experience. She had to reconcile the rewards with the very real health risks. “It’s weird knowing I could potentially get COVID, I could potentially be spreading COVID. There’s a lot of anxiety centered around that.”
Before the beginning of the fall semester, the Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching offered educators a crash course in online pedagogy. “Otherwise I’d be floundering even worse than I am,” theatre professor John Lutterbie, said at the time.
His class – THR 344, Performance Art I: The European Avant-Garde – runs as a combined section with the art history department. Lutterbie, who holds a Master of Fine Arts in directing and a doctorate in theatre history and criticism, admitted he is not well versed in technology.
In addition to the steep learning curve that accompanied online teaching, Lutterbie described the struggles of teaching a performance arts class to empty faceless boxes in a Zoom meeting. Early in the semester, more than half of his 36 students kept their cameras on. But as the semester dwindled on, only perhaps two or three remained visible, leaving him to lecture to what amounted to an empty screen.
Professor and students struggled. “Taking this course online is definitely not as good on Zoom as it is in person,” Carissa Andreas, an art history major in her final year, said. “Before COVID even existed, my entire college career, I avoided online classes because I hate that.” Andreas added that she struggled with technology and expressed sympathy for educators navigating this new way of teaching.
The most significant change Lutterbie made was the advent of group projects and presentations. “It’s interaction,” Andreas said. “In a classroom we’d be sitting together and working together.”
Before the coronavirus, she took the second part of Lutterbie’s performance art classes. She recalled the fun students had creating and rehearsing performances for their final projects, contrasting it with online projects. Of the 37 students in the class, the majority elected to create recorded video projects alone. And while Andreas does not discount solo work, she said the collaborative work of past years generated more innovation and enjoyable performances.
Andreas lost her job at the Paul W. Zuccaire Gallery, located in the Staller Center, when COVID shut down the gallery and exhibits were canceled. She tackled her studio art classes from her own basement on Long Island with materials she accumulated over several years with her own money – an amenity she acknowledges not all students have.
“Mentally, it’s draining,” she said at the time. “I don’t have the creativity I normally have; I don’t have the drive I normally have. I don’t get excited over things. Easy assignments I’ll stare at for two hours like ‘I don’t want to’ and I could have been done already. Normally, performance, art pieces, they’re relaxing and fun things, and I still don’t want to do them.”
Even as the pandemic wears on, what Lutterbie called the “healing power” of theatre endures. “It can distract you in a very positive way from the limitations the pandemic has put on our lives.” he said. “It teaches us how to empathize with people.”
If all the world’s a stage, we can only hope we’re approaching the final act of the pandemic. Alan Cumming returns to the Staller Center on Oct. 23 and Yo-Yo Ma is coming back for the 2022 Gala. But with the Delta variant now on center stage and who knows what other variants waiting in the wings, perhaps this is more like intermission.
Either way, the ghost lights will stay on.