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‘You Just Need The Words:’ Coronavirus Forces Theaters, Stage Artists To Get Creative

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As Gaston from “Beauty and the Beast,” Alec Hadden swaggered onstage, raising his eyebrows to punctuate a piano note as he belted an operatic baritone vibrato for his solo “Me.”

Hadden, 27, of Jacksonville, flirted with a camera filming during the musical as if it were his Belle. The actor lured his audience with comedic timing, but it wasn’t in person. It was virtual.

Actors and stage companies across Florida and the nation have moved their performances online after the government forced theaters to close last month because of the coronavirus.

Hadden performed in an event called “Artists Helping Artists Virtual Cabaret” that was designed to raise money for local actors who are now jobless. Viewers paid a minimum of $5 through Venmo or CashApp to watch the performance. They could also tip performers throughout the stream.

Video courtesy of Josh Andrews: Alec Hadden, Theo Canty, Josie Frein and Samantha Wicklund — all Jacksonville-based actors — sing various musical theater songs such as “Me” from the musical comedy “Beauty and the Best”, “Cool” from “West Side Story”, “I Miss the Mountains” from the drama “Next to Normal” and “Will He Like Me?” from the comedy “She Loves Me” in the virtual cabaret at the 5 & Dime Theatre in Jacksonville.

“We just get to have a moment where you can just be creative and be ourselves,” Hadden said, “and show that whatever harm this disease is doing to the country – to the world – is not going to stop creatives from being who they are.”

Actors, directors and other theater employees are trying to keep art alive even as they – as independent contractors – can apply for unemployment and receive benefits per the massive federal stimulus package bill.

Actor Alec Hadden sings the comedic solo “Me” from the musical “Beauty and the Beast” in the first virtual cabaret put on recently by the 5 & Dime Theatre in Jacksonville. (Image courtesy of Josh Andrews)

Hadden was cast in the musical “Singin’ in the Rain” until Alhambra Theatre & Dining closed on March 16. He was trying to apply for unemployment, but he was unsuccessful, just like many other Floridians unable to file their claims, according to the Tampa Bay Times.

“My hope, I think, is that this will eventually solve itself, and we’ll be able to go back to some semblance of normality,” Hadden said.

He and more than 40 other local actors pre-recorded their musical performances at the 80-seat 5 & Dime Theatre in Jacksonville on March 24. Their first two performances aired on Facebook through a Vimeo link on March 28 and April 4. Both received an unexpectedly large amount of viewers, Hadden said. The cabaret had 95 viewers its first weekend and 101 its second, according to director Lee Hamby. Two more performances will air on April 11 and 18.

Erin Balazs Barnes, 42, is an accompanist and performer in the same virtual cabaret as Hadden. She’s considering teaching music and voice lessons over Zoom if COVID-19 continues for much longer. But with three children and at six months pregnant, Balazs Barnes is fortunate that her husband still has his job as a manager at CSX Intermodal Terminals to support their family.

Recording content for online wasn’t as complicated, she said. Each of the 17 actors met at the 5 and Dime to practice their songs alone before doing so together in front of the camera. 

Balazs Barnes said she made over $250 in donations and tips the virtual cabaret’s first weekend.  

“I was really impressed by how many people tuned into our first week,” she said. “That project was really an exciting thing for all of us.”

Company members of The Hippodrome State Theatre in Gainesville are participating in an online streaming series called “The Hipp at Home.” Nicole Daenzer, the managing director, said the series features actors and staff performing monologues, songs and stand-up comedy, and playing instruments – all from their own apartments.

“The Quarantine Play,” a virtual performance hosted by the Hippodrome’s education department, will be broadcast on the theater’s Facebook page soon, Daenzer said. It will include videos of children from the summer camp program doing monologues stitched together by the director.

Actress Samantha Wicklund sings “Will He Like Me?” from the musical “She Loves Me” in the 5 & Dime’s second virtual cabaret. (Image courtesy of Josh Andrews)

“We’re doing a lot of really cool stuff,” Daenzer said. “We have a bunch of videos that are ready to go out every couple of days.” 

The theater is observing the Actors’ Equity Association’s rules about virtual auditions and casting calls, considering no more than two people can enter a theater at a time, she said. 

AEA states that no equity theater can accept virtual auditions until it has seen live ones first. 

Ocala Civic Theatre Artistic Director Katrina Ploof said she and its other artists are also virtually bringing art into their community. Some of the actors will soon livestream a performance of different musical theater genres at the Reilly Arts Center. Ploof said there will be two actors in the venue at a time, with both standing six feet apart while singing.

Virtual performances and livestreaming can be a slippery slope in a time when theaters aren’t making any money and people can watch so many other things for free, Ploof said.

“I realize everybody’s rushing to get content out there,” she said. “We’re rolling out slowly, because we want what we give to our audiences and our constituencies to be really good.”

Ploof is also hosting “Play-Time with Katrina,” featuring virtual readings of the theater’s upcoming plays. The theater also started teaching online enrichment classes on March 31.

The Laboratory Theater of Florida in Fort Myers is hosting virtual casting calls for readings and performances as a part of what artistic director Annette Trossbach called a “social distance series.” Trossbach said the series will tentatively present virtual productions of “Macbeth,” “Charmed” and “The Realish Housewives of Fort Myers.

“Macbeth” will stream Saturday on Zoom with actors from all over the United States as well as the United Kingdom, Australia, the Netherlands, Puerto Rico and South Korea, Trossbach said. The cast will appear in the gallery format, so all actors are seen reacting to each other.

There will be no props, no costumes and as limited movement as necessary.

“You just need the words,” Trossbach said.

Trossbach, also an actress, said theaters are striving to help maintain a sense of community when the public is directed to shelter at home. 

“We are, as artists, compelled to do something at this time,” she said. “The show must go on in one format or another – and we all have to think outside the box.”

About Emma McAvoy

Emma is a reporter for WUFT News who can be reached by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing news@wuft.org.

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