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The Show Must Go On: The return of live theater in the Southern Tier

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(WBNG) - When the COVID-19 pandemic shut down the world last March, our lives changed in an instant.

One of the industries that felt the impact immediately was the performing arts. Performers, directors, choreographers, costumers, set designers, producers, and everyone in-between faced new challenges.

The Forum Theatre

"The world had changed," said Pam Ondrusek, the Board President for SRO Productions, "We weren't sure when we were going to be able to perform again."

Albert Nocciolino, President of NAC Entertainment that puts on the Broadway in Binghamton Series, said National Tours had to stop in their tracks.

Escape to Margaritaville National Tour

"We had shows on stages in several cities, trucks unloaded, audiences ready to come, in fact, engagements already started so the first thing we had to do was deal with that," said Nocciolino.

"The entertainment industry is totally dependent on what happens in these seats here," said Know Theatre Artistic Director Tim Gleason, "So we were taken aback and we tried to shake off the punch. Part of our lifeblood is being able to tell stories. So we just said what are we going to do."

Local performers like Jessica Nogaret Sedelmeyer said while initially shocking, many dove right in to figure out how to continue doing what they love.

"I have yet to talk to an artist where they felt like they lost hope," said Sedelmeyer, "We've all been collectively like ok this is what we are going to do now, here's that what if, here are the different ways we're going to bring stories to our audience."

Local community theaters realized they were going to have to take a dive into the world of virtual performances.

"It seemed pretty quick, we tried to make a transition to a digital platform," said Joe Foti, Executive Director of EPAC, "Serving the community, but in a new way and using technology and using the internet to entertain people."

For many theaters and their performers, performing virtually was uncharted territory.

Binghamton University graduate Aaron Penzel performed in a number of all virtual productions. He said actors and directors had to become more innovative in the way they shared their performances with a web audience.

"We would actually rehearse on our own. We would call each other on zoom and record ourselves exchanging our dialogue so that we know how the other would respond," said Penzel, "When we both filmed separately we would actually play that recording in our ears when we filmed so that we had something to respond to."

Joshua Sedelmeyer, a local actor, said it was nowhere near the same

"So on a screen, you don't always get the energy necessarily that somebody is sending you, you can't feel those vibrations, you don't get the nuance in their voice or their movements or their face, " said Sedelmeyer, "So a lot of my reactions are more rehearsed than usual."

Gruesome Playground Injuries, KNOW Theatre

When regulations started to come out and those within the same households could congregate some theaters, like Know, did shows with couples that they filmed and then streamed to viewers.

But local director, Scott Fisher said that still presents challenges for the performer.

"You don't have that energy and that give and take. You don't know how it's landing. It's hard to sing into a void, it's hard to perform into a void," said Fisher

"For a lot of performers in community theater it's also a really big social aspect of what we do," said Megan Germond, a local actor, "All of a sudden there is a family of people that you're not seeing anymore."

Theaters absence also took a financial toll on the Southern Tier.

"Look, when there's a show at the Forum we feel it and that's been absent, and that economic impact has been devastating for everyone. It's impacted jobs, it's impacted businesses, it's impacted our communities," said Nocciolino, "Because we work in the kind of venues we do, we don't have 50-60,000 seat venues and we don't have television contracts, we don't have revenue coming in, we are 100% dependent on ticket sales. So if you look at that, that meant we could only function at 100% capacity which is why we're at the end of this reopening process."

Theaters that hire actors in the Actors’ Equity Association are also forced to be on pause because new guidance has not been put out to match the loosening restrictions on the state level.

Many local community theaters relied on grants and the Pay Check Protection Program to keep the lights on, but also got support from their loyal and generous patrons.

"We got assistance, federal assistance, local assistance, we reached out to the community, which we saw a huge response with," said Foti, "We're a community-based organization, to begin with, so we're always supported by the community but this was on another level."

But live theater with audience members is slowly making a comeback on both the national and local level.

"National tours have started putting together the cast, started building the sets, started building the costumes, that'll take 3 or 4 months and that's what we're doing right now, gearing up to get ready to go out on the road in September," said Nocciolino.

As for local community theaters, EPAC just had their first audience members back and SRO productions presents HONK the musical in June.

Honk the Musical, SRO productions

"It ticked off so many boxes for a way to come back," said Fisher who is directing the production, "Not the least of which it gave us a chance to mask the performers but still allow the audience to see the faces of the puppets. It gave us a chance to social distance because the puppets provide that naturally."

That particular show is also showcasing the different ways those on the creative side kept up their art during the shutdown.

"This show has saved me psychologically because a lot of performers, actors, scene designers, costume people, everybody they don't have anything to work on," said Robert Rogers, who made all of the puppets for the show, "This has sustained me."

As theaters prepare to welcome back their audiences, there is a heartfelt appreciation for what was lost.

"You get frustrated when you don't get something right away but at the end of the rehearsal you're still like god, it felt so good to be here," said Germond, "If you don't get a dance step right away, still it's like, I'm so lucky to be here right now, so thankful that this is happening again because it didn't for so long."

Along with important lessons learned along the way.

"I think that the most beautiful thing about art is it can be art no matter where it is done. No matter how it is viewed. Actors are adaptable, art is adaptable," said Penzel.

Each theater and venue will have its own guidance in terms of capacity, mask-wearing, and vaccination status so it is important to check in with each venue before you catch your next performance.

Kaitlin Pearson

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