“It’s a strange thing to add to your bio: the first mid-pandemic actor to perform in front of a live audience,” said Mark H. Dold with a laugh.
While not his intention, or even something he was aware of when starting the rehearsal process, Harry Clarke, a one-man comedy thriller at Barrington Stage Company, is one of just two live shows in the nation to open following the coronavirus pandemic.
The other is the Tony award-winning musical Godspell about Jesus and his disciples, performed at Berkshire Theatre Group. In the entire country, only two live theatrical productions were approved by Actors Equity Association. And they are both in Pittsfield.
“We didn’t think we were going to be the first,” said Julianne Boyd, the Artistic Director of Barrington Stage Company and director of Harry Clarke. “We just thought, we’ll do what we can do, and it will just be for us.”
Harry Clarke was set to open indoors at the Boyd-Quinson Mainstage, but after the delay of Phase 3 health protocols in Massachusetts, the show quickly shifted to perform under a tent at the Polish Community Club. The piece follows shy Midwesterner Phillip Brugglestein as he moves to NYC to start a new life under a new identity — an alter-ego he has taken shelter in since he was a child as protection from a brutal father: the outgoing and impulsive Harry Clarke from London, England. Dold not only plays Clarke but also the nearly twenty other characters he encounters throughout the 90-minute show, ranging from parents to lovers.
“Being the only person onstage is really exciting, and thrilling,” said Dold, who has never done a solo show before. “But also it is simultaneously super terrifying.”
While new to the one-man show scene, Dold is not new to BSC. Having first performed with the company in 2004, he became an associate artist in 2012, forming a professional and comfortable relationship with Boyd and the space itself. He says this familiarity makes the social-distance rehearsal experience less “peculiar” than he would otherwise imagine.
“Julie can wear a mask in front of me, because I know what she looks like,” he said. “I know what her laugh is like, I know what her smile is like. I can’t imagine what it would be like to be working with a director for the first time whose face I literally could not read in a building whose stairwells and bathrooms and green room I wasn’t familiar with.”
This familiarity allows Dold the same acting experience and process he is used to from other productions. “My job still feels very much the same, and my technique and approach to character hasn’t changed, but everything around it is really new. I take great comfort in the similarities of working with Julie and working for this theater.”
As a director, Boyd agrees that her job has remained quite similar to prior productions, but her duties as an Artistic Director have shifted. “I don’t think the directing is really very different… it’s just been one actor in the room with me with the stage manager and assistant,” she said. “The biggest change is in the building itself, and having people feel comfortable and safe being in that space.”
To prepare for the planned indoor arrangement, she made “monumental” changes to the theatre. She and her team had to remove every other row of seating and every pair of seats within each row, reducing capacity from 520 to 163 seats. They also changed the air conditioning system to ensure filtered and circulated air. Now outdoors, it will be performed under a tent with the same social distancing, temperature checks, paperless tickets, and required masks for audience members.
Just a mile away, at Berkshire Theatre Group, Godpsell actress Alex Getlin also does not feel as big a shift as she expected in rehearsing in a pandemic, partially due to the comfort Dold mentioned in a familiar company; this is her third summer at BTG.
“I keep joking to people that I feel like I’ve quarantined every summer doing regional theatre here, because the only thing to really do are activities outside and in large open spaces playing games with your cast,” she said. “It feels relatively normal spending time with the cast this summer. The only difference really is that we’re wearing masks when we are inside, and we stay six feet apart.”
The show is being performed on a 40-foot stage, making distancing possible even in a choreographed musical. “It’s all going to be calculated out to a tee,” said Getlin. “So much of theater and musical theater is about singing to another person, which is now much farther spaced out than we would normally.”
Godspell is structured as a series of parables, primarily based on the Gospel of Matthew, interspersed with music set primarily to lyrics from traditional hymns. The show stars Jesus and Judas, and eight non-Biblical characters with a song each, such as the hit “Day by Day.”
“It is a show that is about going back to basics and remembering what our core values are,” said Getlin. “We are going through all of these parables that were written so long ago as a cast of young people to apply them to now, to be reminded of what it is as a civilization that we want to live up to and promote as a people. It feels really important right now.”
The show is set in the present day, during the pandemic. Some scenes have actors in masks or behind clear screens to prevent the spread of germs through singing.
While Dold does not have to worry about the health concerns brought about when singing or sharing the stage with other actors, he also feels the importance and relevance of his show. It is a story of “one man in isolation, sharing a slice of his life,” said Dold. “David Cale wrote from a place of isolation, telling the story, in a weird way, of his former life. We are all kind of experiencing that right now, we’re thinking about the way things used to be or how we got where we are right now.”
Just as it will be impossible for audience members at either show to ignore the connection to the present day, it is also constantly on the minds of all involved in the productions. “This performance that is happening is not about me at all,” said Dold. “This is so much more about this collective moment where everybody is choosing community and hope and the future. I want people to come not necessarily to see me, but I want them and us all to remember what it’s like to come together, to share something and form a community.”
Boyd agreed. “We have to find a way to do live art and live theater,” she said. “We’ve thought every step out and every scenario about doing this safely and have made necessary adjustments. It would have been easier for us to just close the show and cancel it, but we thought that it was a challenge, and perhaps we could meet it and try to do it. It seemed possible and people were cheering us on, and now we can help other theaters find a way.”
Boyd has been sending her various documents to theaters around the country: research on techniques used in Europe and Asia, and protocols developed with Berkshire Medical Center to support the possibility of live theatre beyond the Berkshires.
“If this works, we can create a prototype or precedent for other theater companies to start doing this safely,” said Getlin. “It’s not lost on any of us how fortunate we are, to be given this opportunity to just be working on a piece in any capacity. We feel really honored and we’re taking it really seriously.”
As actors whose job is to help others imagine alternate possibilities, both Getlin and Dold believe that the creative community will continue creating art and moving forward, even in rehearsals filled with masks and temperature checks.
“There is something beyond this,” Dold said. “There is a future, there will be health again, there is community again. This is our baby step into it.”