Few things in the life of the Outer Cape have been hit harder by Covid than theater. Live outdoor cabaret performances resumed after the lockdown, and the Provincetown Tennessee Williams Theater Festival managed to put on a play in the Grace Hall parking lot to a drive-in audience. These signs of theatrical life were an inspiration to David Drake, artistic director of the Provincetown Theater, who desperately wanted to bring his company back onstage. Virtual events helped maintain a connection with his audience, but live theater has no substitute.
By September 2020, he realized it was likely that playing indoors in summer 2021 would not happen. “We lost 90 percent of our income from ticket sales last year,” Drake told the Independent. “We can’t afford to do that again. We just didn’t know which direction the country and Covid were going. But by the beginning of March, with Biden in office and vaccinations happening, I came up with a plan.”
That plan was to create an outdoor stage in the theater’s parking lot, behind the building at 238 Bradford St. Drake had been meeting with Christopher Ostrom, producing artistic director of the Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theater, and Janine Perry, artistic director of Cape Rep in Brewster. “How do we go outdoors?” Drake asked. “We’re different ships, but we’re all in the same storm.”
The other theaters had an edge: WHAT already had permits for outdoor productions on its property. And Cape Rep already had an outdoor stage.
“I started reaching out to our abutters,” Drake said. There was also the problem of which plays to put on. The postponed slate from 2020 was unworkable. “Because we’re a non-union theater, we’re not allowed to issue guest contracts to performers. Two of the shows had Equity actors in them,” Drake said, referring to Actors’ Equity Association, the performers’ union.
His board wanted him to limit casts to four actors or fewer to hold down costs. One postponed show, Jerker, a play about gay phone sex, would fit that limit, but it would have to take place in daylight, because of nighttime noise considerations. “It needs darkness,” Drake said. “In daylight, it’s camp. Sex in daylight is unromantic, unsexy. You’re looking at the wrong things.”
Choices were limited. “I didn’t want to do Love Letters or The Gin Game,” he said. “No one would come unless I got Ryan Phillippe and Reese Witherspoon. I wanted to do The Skin of Our Teeth. I thought it would speak to our time — it’s funny and weird. There’s a giant pet dinosaur that could live in the parking lot. We could use a car to drive the actors out. But it had a cast of six.”
He budgeted without concessions. The theater lacked an outdoor liquor license and would need to build a kitchen to serve the required food. “If you do the math, it won’t work,” Drake said.
Despite opposition from some abutters, the licensing board granted permission on April 13 to set up an outdoor stage. Drake is basing his revenue estimates on 44 seats, but he’s hoping that the town will allow him more, based on the size of the parking lot. The theater is turning its indoor space into larger, safer dressing rooms.
Most Cape theaters have not announced their summer schedules yet, but Drake offered a tantalizing tidbit: for one weekend in late June, he’ll present Neptune, by Timothy DuWight, an autobiographical piece about being Black and gay. The two remaining productions will be announced next week.
Ostrom, at WHAT, is putting on four summer shows: two on the main stage in front of the entrance, for four weeks each; one limited-run event in the middle of the summer; and one show for kids in the tent out by the highway.
“We plan on announcing by May 1,” Ostrom told the Independent. As an Equity house, WHAT follows union safety requirements. “We are a fully ‘bubbled’ company,” he said. “Because performers will be rehearsing and performing without masks, anyone who is onstage or interacts with those people is bubbled — tested weekly and quarantined if someone shows up positive. Those who don’t interact are working remotely. Six-foot social distancing applies to everyone. That’s been kind of a fun challenge to take on.”
The actor-run Harbor Stage Company at Wellfleet Harbor was forced to wait out 2020. “We know that we will be back in the building for summer 2021,” emailed artistic director Robert Kropf. “We’re presently working through exactly what configuration we’ll use — if at all. Union concerns and safety protocols, ever shifting, require great resourcefulness. We’re hopeful that by August, we’ll be onstage again. The charm of the harbor, its rough-and-tumble-ness, is not easy to re-create elsewhere. Anything outdoors could remove us from the location proper, which we’re looking at as we wrangle out exactly what this summer will look like. The main challenge is remaining true to what we do and the way we do it.”