The greater New York City area and theater community have consistently proven to be a prosperous pairing. Many New Jerseyans, in particular, grow up frequently making the trek into Manhattan to take in the bright lights of Broadway. Thus, Hudson County residents have had a plethora of opportunities to take up amateur acting. Yet, with indoor crowds slated to be a final phase addition in the reopening process, local performers have lost their canvas.
Like most industries battling the COVID-19 pandemic, local theaters have developed a knack for creative innovation. The movement from stage to screen has been a fascinating one. When coronavirus hit the tri-state area, the theater industry was one of the first to shut down. Quickly needing a means of staying afloat, directors across the area swiftly transitioned their business models to that of a movie studio as opposed to a performing arts center. For the foreseeable future, many theaters will film their acting troupes performing shows and put the final product online for patrons to view.
One such theater that has been particularly opportunistic throughout the past several months is the Saddle River Youth Theatre in Allendale, New Jersey. The Bergen County-based theater quickly embraced its chance to continue helping students hone in on their craft through movie making. Christopher Barker, Executive Director of the storied theater since 1996, had this to say on his mindset when the pandemic was in its infancy, “we just had to knuckle down and ask, ‘how can we adapt?’ Within days we extended rehearsals through Zoom, and started posting virtual concerts that students filmed themselves on YouTube.”
As the virus’ effect lessens in the New York City area, companies have slowly transitioned to in-person shoots. While it has been greatly appreciated by actors to no longer practice their art form on a computer screen, these on-set productions have not gone without hiccups. Stage managers and box office representatives became cinematographers and editors in only a matter of days.
Alexandra Nolan, Managing Director of the Saddle River Youth Theater, cited that families may have initially felt overwhelmed by these changes. “There was a learning curve for students who were adjusting to a Zoom-based school day, and then had to manage a commitment to the theater in the evening,” she explained. Her and Barker greatly respect the resiliency of member families, and remarked that it will be a pleasure to see students predominantly in-person moving forward.
Seeing this change through the eyes of a traditional theater director brings a unique perspective to the table. Directing for the camera presents a multitude of opportunities and potential setbacks. Barker, having studied film in college, had the luxury of being slightly more proficient in this process than competitors.
“I loved it, the rush of getting the shot you need, and especially the idea of being creative on your feet. I like doing multiple takes and giving the actors a chance to do something over,” said Barker. He then elaborated on how in live theater, an actor only has one or two chances to put their best foot forward. Contrariwise, filming provides ample time to showcase the best of what the talent has to offer.
There are also many differences a traditionally trained stage actor must be cognizant of throughout a filmmaking process. “You are always within that square. Everyone has to be aware of that… Blemishes from the costuming department are also easier to catch when a camera is right there whereas, on stage, nobody will notice if a tag is sticking out on an actor’s costume far away,” Barker remarked. Nolan also noted a few dissimilarities that theater actors were quickly forced to adapt to. Most evidently, she sympathized with some performers’ lack of awareness in regards to where the camera was placed throughout the first several days on set.
Regardless, Nolan, also a veteran of the movie production operation, highlighted that students have accomplished astounding feats since March. The Saddle River Youth Theatre team was able to put out an extremely well-received, full movie of Disney’s “The Lion King.” This socially-distanced shoot took place outdoors over the course of the last few weeks of June. In spite of a tight-knit, three-day shoot, Barker ultimately praised the cast’s work, calling it “remarkable.”
With a myriad of summer programs starting up, Barker said he feels the community will continue propagating this new normal. The routine, up to this point, largely involved a virtually-based rehearsal and showcase process. Yet, as Governor, Phil Murphy continues to lift restrictions, the Saddle River Youth Theatre will follow in the steps of several other community theaters to offer a safe, partially indoor, and mostly outdoor summer experience. State guidelines are being strictly followed by directors in preparation for an in-person set atmosphere.
Despite unfortunate circumstances, the prevailing attitude from actors and directors alike has been one of positivity. Thus, a multitude of constructive ideas have been conceived. In the Saddle River Youth Theatre’s case, a host of new workshops could be on the horizon. Acting for film and YouTube, in addition to an editing class were mentioned by decision-makers for the award-winning theater as possible additions in the future.
In the midst of these uncertain times for community theaters, a productive approach to each challenge has been taken. This is similar to how these artists have handled other setbacks historically. “Broadway Cares” and “Equity Fights AIDS” were founded in 1988, at the peak of the AIDS epidemic, and have since raised over $300 million for the cause. When the historic Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn, New Jersey was in financial ruin a decade ago, locals signified their emphasis on the arts by contributing $300,000. Despite a majority of spaces being closed until 2021, the theater community has demonstrated that it will not cease to continue creating art.
“The show will go on.” This timeless and simple theater expression is what Barker ended most of his Spring communications with. The phrase has represented productivity and perseverance. This community is far from beating what has been the most challenging predicament in decades. Yet, the confidence and reassurance that controlling powers in the industry convey will make it difficult for local theaters to go down unchallenged.