EDITOR’s NOTE: In these distressing times, we need the arts more than ever, but the pandemic has wreaked havoc with performance and exhibition schedules. Over the next few weeks, BAMirror writer George Basler will be reporting on how local arts organizations are “Coping with COVID.” 

By George Basler

EPAC uses technology to stay active

Call it a sign of the times in the year of COVID-19.

The Endicott Performing Arts Center is now in rehearsals for the rock musical Tommy, which will be performed live on stage at the Robert Eckert Theater in mid-November.

But audience members will not be allowed in to see it. Instead the production will be broadcast over EPAC Digital, a new online platform. Audience members can gain access through the EPAC website (endicottarts.com) for the performances 8 p.m. Nov. 12-14 and 3 p.m. Nov. 15..

EPAC used the same format over the summer to stage a production of The Music Man, Patrick Foti, artistic director, said. To stay safe, performers wore masks and kept socially distanced on the stage during rehearsals and performances,

The company turned to this approach after COVID-19 shredded its spring season. A production of Camelot, set for April, was canceled. The summer program for children suffered the same fate. Enrollment in the School for Performing Arts, which offers private and group lessons in acting, music, and dance, dropped some 70 percent.

“It hurt terribly. Most of our people work on stipends, and there was nothing for them to do,” Foti said.

Thankfully, the school’s enrollment numbers, while still less than pre-pandemic levels, are on the rebound as “little by little people are feeling more comfortable,” he said.

No question, technology has helped EPAC get through a difficult time, he added. While online productions, such as The Music Man and the upcoming Tommy, lack the immediate feedback of live spectators, they can reach audiences beyond the four walls of the theater, he noted. This includes grandparents who are living in nursing homes and people living in different parts of the country.

“That’s been a positive,” Foti said. For this reason, he foresees EPAC continuing to broadcast shows over EPAC Digital even after the theater opens again for live audiences — whenever that may be.

EPAC also has launched a new initiative to stay creatively active during the pandemic. Puppet Tree Theater, a series of prerecorded puppet shows for children, is broadcast free of charge at 8 a.m. Saturdays on EPAC Digital. Each show is then available through Wednesdays for viewing on the online platform.

Since it started in late September, productions have included versions of Hansel and Gretel, Jack and the Beanstalk and Little Red Riding Hood. Performers use hand puppets, marionettes and full-body puppets that EPAC has accumulated over the years.

“The kids needed something creatively, and so did we,” said Foti, explaining the reasons behind the shows. While they are available at no cost, donations are welcomed.

To help cover its costs, EPAC staged a Cell-a-Thon in May and is now planning a second 12-hour Cell-a-Thon for the first weekend in December, Foti said. Friends and performers will send in pre-recorded videos that will be shown live by an emcee and streamed across YouTube and Facebook. People can call with donations.

Besides this, EPAC is planning a pre-recorded show, Best of “The Nutcracker,” for the second weekend in December, Foti said. The show, to be broadcast over EPAC Digital, will consist of sections of the ballet performed by the company in previous years.

Plans are in the works to hold EPAC’s 12-week spring workshop for young people, as well as its summer workshop, Foti said. A production of the musical Man of La Mancha, to be done in collaboration with Theater Street Productions, is still booked for next September.

The company is “up and running,” he said, and working to return to normal.

Goodwill Theatre floats plan to reopen

The Goodwill Theatre in Johnson City has set next March as its targe for restarting programs at the Schorr Family Firehouse Stage.

But CEO Naima Kradjian knows it may not be realistic to open indoors. So, Goodwill is going “back to the future,” the 1800s to be exact, to develop an alternative plan. The company hopes to erect an 80-foot-long tent in its parking lot for outdoor performances.

The idea is a throwback to the mid-to-late 19th century when tent shows were a key part of the entertainment industry. Companies would travel from town to town, set up tents and perform for local audiences.

Pitching the tent would allow Goodwill to host performers in the spring, summer and fall, Kradjian said. The company would set up the seating under the tent so that audience members can socially distance from each other.

The plan is an ambitious one and must clear some hurdles to become a reality, Kradjian acknowledged. The company will have to obtain permits from state and local officials and demolish a building it owns on Broad Street to create a new parking area.

Goodwill also will have to solidify funding, Kradjian said. This involves submitting requests for a grant and approaching potential local sponsors for contributions.

Still, Kradjian remains hopeful that Goodwill will be open for performances in the spring. She thinks people are starved for the live entertainment that has been the company’s mission since the Firehouse Stage opened in 2007 to host local performing groups and bring touring performers to the region.

Kradjian emphasized that, while COVID19 shut down live performances, the theater has not been completely dark.

In September, production teams and actors from the New York City-based Prospect Theater Company came to Johnson City to film four short films. The films are part of Prospect’s VISION series, which features six original short films exploring the intersection of music and theater.

The collaboration between Goodwill and Prospect stemmed from a relationship that the two companies established more than a decade ago, Kradjian said. The relationship has included staged readings and, most recently, the musical The Hello Girls, which ran Off-Broadway in New York City.

The production teams from Prospect shot inside the Goodwill Theatre over a four-week period. To ensure safety, United Health Services donated $12,000 for personal protective equipment and regular COVID testing while the production teams were here, Kradjian said.

Three of the four films — The Band at the End of the World, Lady Lawyer Lockwood Rides Her Tricycle and UNRAVELL’D –– have been released on YouTube. A fourth, Lady Aspara, will be released on Nov. 18. A behind-the-scenes video comes out Nov. 19.

Two of the films have special ties to the community, Kradjian said. Lady Lawyer Lockwood Rides Her Tricycle focuses on Belva Lockwood, a groundbreaking 19th century American lawyer who operated a school in Owego at one point in her career. The building now houses the Belva Lockwood Inn.

The other film, Lady Aspara, stars Angel Desai, who grew up in Binghamton before becoming a Broadway, television and film actress and musician.

The September project gave Goodwill some national exposure and brought money to the community, because the production teams stayed in local hotels and dined at local restaurants, Kradjian said.

Besides this, the collaboration gave Goodwill the expertise to produce its own video, Kradjian said. Plans are now in the works to film a version of Spoon River Anthology, based on a collection of free version poems by Edgar Lee Masters. Doug Beardsley, a local musician, has written songs for the production. Expect a January release date, Kradjian said.

Still hosting live performances remains Goodwill’s main mission, she said. Prior to COVID-19, the theater was hosting some 65 performances a year, and audiences were growing at the rate of 15 percent annually.  “We were becoming a habit for a lot of people,’ Kradjian said.

She expects that to still be the case when things go back to normal.