The nights the lights went out

One year later: Philly theater artists open up about the first shutdown

5 minute read
When Theatre Horizon’s ‘The Agitators,’ starring Steven Wright and Charlotte Northeast, opened on March 4, 2020, the artists had no idea what was coming. (Photo by Daniel Kontz.)
When Theatre Horizon’s ‘The Agitators,’ starring Steven Wright and Charlotte Northeast, opened on March 4, 2020, the artists had no idea what was coming. (Photo by Daniel Kontz.)

On March 12, 2020, Bristol Riverside Theatre (BRT) opened its highly anticipated production of Cabaret, but the celebratory affair was far from business as usual. In response to the emerging coronavirus pandemic, the company canceled its traditional post-performance cocktail party, and hand sanitizer was readily available throughout the building.

The state of Pennsylvania had reported 16 cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, by that point. Although Broadway, Carnegie Hall, and the Metropolitan Opera announced suspensions earlier that day, many held out hope that smaller regional theaters might not be affected as much.

Despite the safety measures put in place at BRT, several patrons—this writer included—turned in their tickets. And although she had arranged publicity for the production, Carrie Gorn also stayed away. Gorn, a veteran freelance publicist, fell ill a few days earlier with COVID-19 symptoms. Her doctor encouraged her to isolate until she could be tested.

“I honestly felt very uncomfortable with the idea of being in a theater while coughing, because I had an uncontrollable cough at the time,” Gorn said in a recent phone interview. “I remember calling Bristol and saying these exact words: With everything going on, I don’t think you want me in your theater right now.”

Gorn ultimately tested negative, but the domino effect had begun. By the weekend, every theater in the Philadelphia region indefinitely suspended in-person performances.

“We had no idea”

It’s tempting to recall the heady early days of the pandemic with something close to nostalgia. Perhaps due to the theater’s prevailing “show must go on” mentality, few gave much thought to the idea of a prolonged industrywide work stoppage. Closures were viewed as a temporary inconvenience; many expected to be up and running again by mid-April 2020.

The first presumptive COVID-19 cases in the region appeared in Norristown—but when The Agitators opened on March 4, 2020, in that city, you wouldn’t have sensed any panic. Representatives from Five Saints Distilling poured cocktails pre-show. People hugged and chatted at intermission. The only coronavirus concession may have been a longer-than-usual bathroom line caused by extra-diligent handwashing.

“We opened on a Wednesday and went through the weekend, and I was thinking this stuff is far away from me,” said actor Charlotte Northeast, who played Susan B. Anthony in The Agitators. “Then it started to creep closer, but I never thought anything of it. That final Sunday, March 8, was our last show. We had no idea.”

Northeast got the news that The Agitators was permanently closed just hours before the next scheduled performance, also on March 12.

“I dropped my son off at Lego club at the Collingswood public library, and I knew that in about an hour, I’d pick him up, meet the babysitter at the house, and I’d head to Norristown for my Thursday night show,” she said. “I left the library, and my phone goes off, and it’s Nell [Bang-Jensen, Theatre Horizon’s artistic director]. She said, ‘The county’s been shut down. The show is done.’”

At the same time, Northeast’s husband, actor Damon Bonetti, had just begun previews of Gore Vidal’s The Best Man at Walnut Street Theatre. The next few days at home became a waiting game for the couple to see when performances would be halted. The closure eventually came on March 15—the last production in Philadelphia to pull the plug.

“Damon and I have a very dubious distinction in Philadelphia,” Northeast said now, punctuated with a hearty laugh. “Mine was the very first show to close because of the pandemic, and his was the very last.”

Healing as well as heartbreak: Danielle Coates and Ang Bey in ‘Candles.’ (Photo courtesy of Philadelphia Young Playwrights.)
Healing as well as heartbreak: Danielle Coates and Ang Bey in ‘Candles.’ (Photo courtesy of Philadelphia Young Playwrights.)

“A sense of hope”

In Center City, Ang Bey was in rehearsals for The Niceties at InterAct Theatre Company, an intense two-hander about the generational divide between a white college professor and a Black student. It was to have been the Philadelphia native’s most high-profile role to date.

“We started rehearsals with a sense of normalcy, like nothing was going to change in the flow of the rehearsal process,” Bey told me. “After that first week of rehearsals, the news really started to pick up. I remember reports of the virus starting out in Pennsylvania in Bucks County, then coming down to Norristown, and then it finally got to the city. We really started having more serious conversations about it in the rehearsal room.”

Bey watched the decisions other live venues were making with interest and dread. When the Arden Theatre Company canceled its run of A Streetcar Named Desire, they figured it was only a matter of time before similar news followed.

“We were maybe two days out from our designer run,” Bey said, referring to the designated rehearsal specifically focused on shoring up the creative elements of a production. “I had this gut-wrenching feeling that the administrative team at InterAct was waiting for the right moment to tell us that we wouldn’t be proceeding.”

The other shoe dropped during the designer run. InterAct artistic director Seth Rozin gathered Bey, costar Janis Dardaris, and director Kathryn “KC” MacMillan in the administrative offices of the Drake Theatre during a pause in rehearsals and broke the news. But there was a silver lining.

“They said they were closing down the show, but we want to do it next year in person,” Bey said. “And they said they only want to do it if you all—Janis, Ang, and KC—want to still be involved in the project. We were all in tears, all crying, but there was still a sense of hope for next year. Next year seems so far away, but maybe that’s exactly what we need.”

Look out for Part 2 of our One Year Later series, which will explore creativity in quarantine, pandemic isolation, and the intersection of social justice and the theater industry.

Image description: A photo from Theatre Horizon’s March 2020 production of The Agitators. It shows actor Steven Wright, a Black man, playing Frederick Douglass alongside actor Charlotte Northeast, a white woman, playing Susan B. Anthony.

Image description: A photo from the January 2020 production of Candles from Philadelphia Young Playwrights. It shows Ang Bey, a Black nonbinary actor, embracing actor Danielle Coates, Black woman. They’re both smiling.

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