During the height of the pandemic, writers could write. Painters could paint. And even if they couldn’t perform live, musicians could play. But theater actors? Without a live audience, there is no theater. Here is Harbor Stage’s Brenda Withers in her own words, discussing what the past year was like for the Wellfleet theater company.
It was devastating. It really was. Even before we started Harbor Stage, the four of us (Jonathan Fielding, Stacy Fischer, Robert Kropf, and myself) had been coming here for years. It’s been a decade-plus of our lives and our identity as both people and artists. And now all of that was missing.
The entire 2020 season was planned. The brochures were designed and ready for printing. We had offered people jobs. So, not only were we disappointed — we had to disappoint so many others.
But all found other outlets. We wrote. Created online. Bob made music. And like every other company, we made a foray into Zoom. But it wasn’t the same. We did make a movie of my most recent play, Dindin, complete with a full film crew and even a Covid officer as required by the Screen Actors Guild. It’s in post-production now.
But we also spent a lot of time thinking about whether we would have to re-balance our lives. Theater is hard in a pre-pandemic world. It’s a niche art form. We didn’t know with any certainty that theater or Harbor Stage would ever be back. And we couldn’t pretend that online theater is theater. We wondered: was it time to think about other jobs or professions? Open a B&B? Go back to school?
The anchor was that we had each other. We could check in with people who were on the same page. Most actors don’t have that. They’re freelancers. Usually, they’re not part of a company that they’re aligned with emotionally and artistically. If one of us had decided we just couldn’t do this anymore, it would have been the piece that knocked this whole thing over.
But as soon as the vaccine hit, we started working on how and when to get together and how to plan the season. We were fortunate to receive a generous grant from the Mass. Cultural Council. And the community here was incredible. Not a single 2020 season subscriber asked for their money back and many made additional donations. We expected support, but this was overwhelming.
Still there were lots of challenges, and questions. Would people want to attend theater indoors? Be willing to wear a mask? We ultimately decided to require masks for anyone without proof of vaccination. We looked for outdoor spaces, and the town was really helpful, but the kind of plays we do just aren’t outdoor plays. They’re not big theatrically.
Union staging was another challenge and the reason why we haven’t opened sooner. Most of the union was so focused on getting the big city theaters up and running for the fall that it was hard to get any attention and support for summer theater.
We’re so thankful for this community. The people who come here aren’t just here to eat and have a good time. They come here to grow. To find something bigger, to experience new ideas. I think the reason that we’ve gotten better as artists and can serve this community in a deeper way is that we’ve grown together. We take a step; the audience takes a step with us. And that encourages us to take new chances.
It’s a great metaphor for theater in general. If you start a scene and you try something and the audience goes with you, your performance improves. Always. Because you’re confident and you say, “They get me.” And it opens up new ideas for you as an artist. And none of that exists without dialogue. And that dialogue with our audience here, on the Outer Cape, was on display during the pandemic. It was a beautiful gift. And we could not have made it otherwise.
The event: Stand Up If You’re Here Tonight by John Kolvenbach, starring Robert Kropf; Dindin by Brenda Withers
The time: Stand Up, July 29 through Aug. 20; Dindin, Aug. 11 through Sept. 5.; Wednesday through Saturday, 7:30 p.m.; Sunday, 5 p.m.
The place: Harbor Stage, 15 Kendrick Ave., Wellfleet
The cost: $25 at harborstage.org