The first live theater production in the Tampa Bay area is taking place in a tiny Ybor City theater with more virtual audience members than people in the house. But The Meredith Brothers and other planned live shows have drawn concerns as Florida breaks records for coronavirus cases and deaths.
Tampa Bay’s arts community, like the rest of the country, came to a halt in mid-March. Even as other parts of society are starting to open up, few have endorsed the idea of being in a small, enclosed place for hours. Broadway has gone dark and will stay that way until 2021. After a sold-out series of lobby cabaret shows, Ruth Eckerd Hall has cleared its calendar until late August.
But a few local theater companies are testing the waters. Despite elaborate plans to require masks and keep the audience and cast members separate, one stage manager called it “an example of very careful carelessness.”
Starting last weekend and running through July 26, the LAB Theater Project in Ybor City has been staging The Meredith Brothers, a live character drama.
Meredith Brothers features two actors who sit across a six-foot table from each other, performing before an audience that has just 10 chairs in a space that could house at least 50. Their biggest night so far has had six people in the audience and 12 tuning in with virtual tickets, said Owen Robertson, founder of the LAB Theater Project.
LAB Theater started five years ago as a nonprofit professional company devoted to works from emerging playwrights. Early this year, it moved into its new space on Henderson Avenue in Ybor City with plans to open the season in April. The timing couldn’t have been worse.
Without the endowments and fundraisers that larger theater companies have, Robertson said they modeled their plans on a Berlin theater company that managed to reopen live shows with lots of precautions.
“It’s do or die,” Robertson said. “If we don’t have some kind of revenue, whether virtual or in person, we don’t have a production. The landlord has to be paid.”
Director Caroline Jett held rehearsals via Zoom and picked a play with just two actors to make it easier to stage them at a distance for a show that was already on their schedule for this season.
“I am very fortunate to have these two actors who are consummate professionals and I would give them feedback just like I would do in the theater,” Jett said. “It’s just that we were all in front of our computer screens.”
LAB Theater has plans for more productions and is still doing its scriptwriting classes via Zoom, where professionals mentor the writers and actors read the scripts.
“I think this time has shown just how crucial the arts are for people,” Jett said. “We’ve turned to music and live streaming and TV shows and movies. I don’t think live theater has to be unsafe. We are combining a very safe environment for the audience as well as for those who feel compelled to stay at home.”
The Francis Wilson Playhouse in Clearwater had announced an August schedule for Beauty and The Beast, but recently announced that it will be delayed. But at Largo’s Eight O’Clock Theatre, there are rehearsals going on for The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, a popular musical comedy that is set to run Aug. 7-16.
With only nine actors in the cast, Spelling Bee lends itself to distancing, a spokeswoman said. The theater, which is located at Largo Central Park, has set up cabaret tables of two and four people each to separate the audience. Masks and temperature checks are required. The audience will be taken directly to their seats instead of roaming the lobby.
The play has been rewritten to set the spelling bee during the time of the 2020 coronavirus pandemic, so all the actors are at their podiums wearing masks and spaced apart. The comic element of a “comfort counselor” steps up to disinfect the microphone after every time it’s used. The orchestra will be backstage so they can be spread out, and there will only be 120 seats available for the show instead of the usual 340.
“We had to cancel some shows and we really took our time to find something we can safety do,” said spokeswoman Sarah Roehm. “Frankly, we won’t make much off doing a show with such limited seating, but we wanted to make this available to our community. We realize it is walking a fine line. The second any state or city government tells us this isn’t safe, we will shut it down.”
Christopher Rutherford, who has worked as the stage manager and director on numerous productions at American Stage, Ruth Eckerd Hall, the Straz Center and Eight O’Clock Theatre, among many others, called these productions “an example of very careful carelessness.”
Even with all the extra precautions being taken, the Centers for Disease Control has called these types of indoor gatherings a higher risk of spreading the virus.
“I can’t wait for theater to return,” Rutherford said. “I’m literally a starving artist as my industry is on a hiatus. But this pause is only a momentary sacrifice and it is a worthy one. We shouldn’t gather groups together.”
In the Meredith Brothers show, two brothers have an animated discussion of their troubled childhood.
On a recent Sunday performance, Larry Corwin, as Spencer, made use of his body language to convey his discomfort as the son always considered “slow.” Michael McGreevy, who plays the gifted son, prowls the stage. He is trying to make sense of what their parents had done to them.
Both remark that their lives weren’t as messed up as you would expect. They got by, and Spencer spouts what feels like a motto for the times:
“Happiness,” Spencer says, “is when nothing happens.”
If you go
The Meredith Brothers: A two-person play about brothers who were separated early in life. Shows are 8 p.m. Thursday-Sunday and also 3 p.m. Sundays through July 26 at 812 E Henderson Ave., Tampa. You will receive an email with your time to pick up your tickets to aid in social distancing. Masks required. You can also buy livestream tickets to watch the show virtually. $28. labtheaterproject.com.
The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee: The musical comedy is scheduled to run Thursdays through Sundays, Aug. 7-16. $28.50. Tickets are sold in cabaret tables of 2 or more. Masks required. 105 Central Park Drive, Largo. largoarts.com.
Beauty and the Beast: The classic French fairy tale was scheduled for Aug. 20-Sept. 6, but organizers have said that will be delayed. Tickets will be honored on the rescheduled date. 302 Seminole St., Clearwater. franciswilsonplayhouse.org.