Without doubt the performing arts have been one of those hardest hit by the worldwide pandemic that has derailed much of the world. As Saginaw’s Pit & Balcony Community Theatre prepares to embark upon their 89th season of theatrical productions, P&B Executive Director Amy Spadafore is determined to fulfill a commitment “to the community and ourselves to remain as nimble as possible.”
“Back in March we had the option to not stage any productions until 2021 or going strictly virtual; and looking back on the last six months we had more options than we initially thought,” she reflects. “But mainly, we wanted to be a place in the community that gives people that sense of normalcy back as soon as we can, so we can still be a place where people can create and do the things that fill their needs and make them feel good. All of our decisions revolve around the idea that we are going to provide whatever experience we can as soon as we can and do so safely.”
Insofar as the artistic and performance community has been hit the hardest during this pandemic, fortunately Pit & Balcony was able to receive financial assistance to help shepherd them through this crisis for the past six months. “We were happy to receive some money from Dow Chemical very early on. Dow put a considerable amount of relief funding into regional performing arts organizations and non-profits, so we were very happy to get some of that assistance in the beginning,” notes Amy.
“We also got a grant from the Michigan Arts & Cultural Affairs recently and have been seeking other funding, which we are always seeking as fundraising is a major part of our operating base,” she continues. “People throughout the community have been very supportive. Sometimes when these things happen, we’re all hurting but feel a need to give back as it gives people a sense of purpose. We had somebody come in the day after we had to close back in March sitting outside the front door saying they were here to give us a donation. He was going to all the arts organizations and making donations that day, which is very humbling.”
Insofar as other regional theatrical organizations such as Bay City Players and Midland Center for the Arts have been staging virtual productions over the past six months, Pit & Balcony also decided to stage a couple productions using Zoom platforms.
“It’s definitely different staging a production virtually and trying to jump into it with limited resources and infrastructure is a difficult thing to do,” reflects Amy. “We are also limited by licensing and had to choose productions within the public domain. Because Midland was doing Shakespeare this summer and Bay City Players were doing Michigan playwrights, we decided to focus on female centered and Feminist works; but for us given limited resources, we got to the point where we decided to focus on our Mainstage and the upcoming season and what we could to do move forward with that.”
“The inside joke in the theatrical world is that the theater industry has been trying to die for hundreds of years, but it can’t be killed,” smiles Amy. “It’s definitely been difficult for the industry and performers because they feed off the energy of a live audience. Take a comedy, for example, how does an actor play comedy without the energy of an audience? It’s very difficult to effectively do.”
Given the obvious challenges involved with navigating a contemporary regional theatrical company through these precarious waters, for their 89th Season of productions Pit & Balcony has had to make a few modifications.
“Back when we announced the season on April 1st nobody knew these lockdowns would still be going six months later,” reflects Amy. “We shaped the season relying upon the assumption we would be in Phase 5 of re-opening by now, which allows venues to operate at 25% capacity; but as we got into the month of August, which is the time-frame we wanted to audition for the first show of the new season, we knew some changes needed to be made.”
“Once it became clear we wouldn’t be able to stage a live production in October, we had to go back to the publishing companies for all the plays we’d scheduled for the season to request streaming rights for all the shows,” continues Amy. “A number of shows do not get streaming rights from publishers, so we thought the best way to approach this new season would be by doing a combination of live and virtual performances.”
Kicking things off this season on Thursday, September 24th will be a virtual fireside chat called ‘Home From Away’ that will feature Saginaw natives and Pit & Balcony alumni Brian d’Arcy James and Paul Walter Hauser, who will join Amy for a discussion about all things Saginaw, Broadway, and Hollywood. They will also take questions from community members and relish in the feeling of being ‘home’ from away. Tickets for this live stream, which starts at 7:00 PM, can be purchased on showtix.4u.com which can be accessed on Pit & Balcony’s website.
Paul Walter Hauser began his career in the Midwest, performing stand-up comedy, which led him to Los Angeles to pursue comedic acting and writing. In his first few years, he booked roles in the popular comedies "Community", "Key & Peele" and "It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia". But Paul is equally passionate about drama, having worked opposite a range of dramatic actors including Adam Driver, Margot Robbie and Sam Rockwell. Paul was last seen in the Oscar-winning films "I, Tonya" and "BlacKkKlansman", and as the titular character in Clint Eastwood's "Richard Jewell". He can currently be seen on Netflix in the series "Kingdom" and "Cobra Kai", as well as Spike Lee's latest "Da 5 Bloods". He is a graduate of Valley Lutheran HS.
Brian d'Arcy James is an American actor born in Saginaw and known primarily for his recurring role as Andy Baker on the Netfix series ’13 Reasons Why’ and for his Broadway roles portraying King George II in the musical ‘Hamilton’ and Quinn Carney in ‘The Ferryman’. In 2015, he portrayed Matt Caroll in the critically acclaimed drama film ‘Spotlight’, which won the Academy Award for Best Picture.
“We had to unfortunately scrap our season opener, Murder on the Orient Express, altogether because we couldn’t get the streaming rights,” continues Amy, “so have decided to replace it with The Winkleigh Murders by Don Nigro.”
“This play hasn’t been published yet, so I’m not sure if this will be the world premiere, but I can’t find any record of it being produced publicly yet. This will be a streaming exclusively digital production through Showtix4u.com that gives us the ability to stream and ticket performances digitally. Patrons simply go to our website at PitandBalconyTheatre.com and can purchase an access code that’s unique; and all our season ticket holders who purchased Flex passes can get a coupon code. If they don’t wish to attend any virtual performances, they can use their flex pass for any shows we stage in the future.”
“We anticipate doing some live performances this year, but The Winkleigh Murders virtual performances will take place November 13-15th with three virtual productions. This show has a five-person cast, so it can be socially distanced and masked; and director Todd Thomas is familiar with our stage and already has the production blocked, “ notes Amy.
The story involved with The Winkleigh Murders was inspired by an old Edwardian photograph sent to the playwright by a girl in a boxcar. It evolves as a dark comedy that turns out to be about the end of Western civilization.
The narrative takes place on the Winkleigh estate, in Devon, overlooking Dartmoor, early in the twentieth century. Bronwyn, the young and beautiful orphaned heiress of Winkleigh, and her companion Imogen, the orphaned ward of Bronwyn's late parents, are entertaining their house guests, two very different friends of Bronwyn's dead brother Edward, by taking photographs and flirting, while Willy - the gardener's bastard son - looks on, lusting after the women and dreaming of murdering the men. Repressed desires, brutal violence, and a labyrinth of increasingly disturbing family secrets make this extremely funny and sardonic mystery rather like an Edward Gorey drawing come to life.
“We’re hoping to keep the rest of our season productions and dates as they were,” states Amy. “However, unfortunately we are not going to be able to stage ELF (the Musical) because there are too many health risks with musicals - the cast is quite large and the extra expulsion of air involved requires that all musicals use face shields, so it’s a matter of infrastructure and resources.”
“Instead of ELF, we’re staging a one-woman show titled The 12 Dates of Christmas that will also be staged virtually on December 4-6th. If we can prepare to open for live performances again, which we’re hoping to do, we may bring something else in.”
Written by Ginna Hoben, The Twelve Dates of Christmas has an off-beat and contemporary flare to it. Involving a character named Mary, after seeing her fiance kiss another woman at the televised Thanksgiving Day Parade, her life falls apart just in time for the holidays. Over the next year, Mary stumbles back into the dating world, where "romance" ranges from weird and creepy to absurd and comical. It seems nothing can help her growing cynicism, until the charm and innocence of a five-year-old boy unexpectedly brings a new outlook on life and love. This heartwarming one-woman play offers a hilarious and modern alternative to the old standards of the holiday season.
Bringing order to the chaos wrought by this health crisis is enough to try the temperaments and constitution of any organization, but Amy and the Board of Directors at Pit & Balcony Community Theatre have done a top-notch job at navigating these precarious waters.
“As things get back to normal Pit & Balcony will start to look and feel different,” concludes Amy, “and people will find it the kind of place that is warm and open to the entire community. We are working very hard to achieve that goal. We’ve got to get over this crisis and even when it’s over and we have a cure or vaccine or no more cases, the big question then becomes how comfortable are people going to feel about gathering?”
“Everybody has a different risk tolerance, but I want to assure everybody we are here for the ride and intend to continue to make Pit & Balcony a viable and expansive resource for the entire community.”
16th November, 2023