‘The pandemic is destroying the arts’

No ‘lights, camera, action” yet in Sussex County, as suffering theatrical organizations remain hopeful of re-opening soon, and committed to fighting to the end.

08 Sep 2020 | 12:25

Theaters were some of the first venues to be shut down during the coronavirus pandemic. They’ve gone without income all this time, and no one knows when they will be able to reopen. But when they do, they’ll be ready, with the help of their supporters.

Jonathan Peirce, president and CEO of The Newton Theatre, said the theater has an extensive reopening plan in place. But until that moment comes, the theater will continue to struggle.

“We have had no income for more than six months, but the bills continue,” he said. “We ask everyone to support the Save Our Stages Act (saveourstages.com). It really is a lifeline we all need to survive.”

The theater’s reopening plan includes nightly cleaning with foggers, sanitizing stations in the lobbies, face shields, and daily temperature checks for all employees and patrons, Peirce said.

“We will stagger entry and exit to minimize contact between patrons also,” he said. “The number of patrons allowed in the building will be set by the governor, I believe.”

The theater’s Academy has done some virtual classes, and some new virtual performances with artists are also being planned. But Pierce said the theater is committed to getting up and running as soon as it is legal and safe for its patrons. “Without the community, we don’t survive,” he said.

The theater is asking its patrons to hold on to their tickets for the re-scheduled shows. They will be allowed to exchange their tickets for another current show or use it as a credit toward a future show.

“It is the only way we will survive,” Peirce said. The theater is a nonprofit organizations, so donations, which may be made through, its website, are tax-deductible. “Any amount helps,” he said.

For updates and to make a donation, visit skypac.org or facebook.com/TheNewtonTheatre.

Drama Geek Studios

When Drama Geek Studios in Newton held in-person auditions for “Annie Jr.” and “Sister Act” on Aug. 29, it was not a cattle call. Director Josh Reed said everyone auditioning received a scheduled time, so that there was no unsafe influx of people.

Both shows will be performed virtually. There will be two in-person rehearsals a week and two online rehearsals, Reed said. “For rehearsals, we will adhere to the same protocol laid out for the audition process,” he said. “At the end of every rehearsal the common areas of the building that are being used will be cleaned and disinfected. The performances will be shown through an online platform that folks will be able to purchase tickets for.”

Reed said the pause in everyday studio life allowed for some updating and refreshing of the studio. But, he said, “the pandemic is destroying the arts. Theater is meant to be live, and while we have been able to do some live, virtual shows, it is not the same. As artists and audience members alike it is the human connection that makes live theater so amazing. That connection between audience and cast is what makes it so thrilling. To be able to look into an audience and see or hear reactions is priceless and makes all of the hard work we do worth it.”

Drama Geek has had to cancel several shows, but, Reed said, “We are still here fighting for the arts and will fight until things either return to some type of normal or until my last breath. Whichever comes first. When Winston Churchill was asked to cut arts funding to support the war effort he responded with, ‘Then what are we fighting for.’ That sentiment is as true now as it was then, and a motto Drama Geek Studio stands by.”

The Growing Stage

Since closing its doors in March, The Growing Stage in Stanhope switched to a virtual platform, The Growing Stage TV: Online Creative Arts. It offers weekly themed activities that children and their families can do offline, said marketing manager Danny Campos.

“Our Creative Arts Academy offered virtual acting, singing, and dancing classes on Zoom, and we just wrapped up a two-week virtual summer arts camp,” Campos said. “In July, we launched our first virtual production of ‘Jungalbook’ (based on the Mowgli stories of Rudyard Kipling) featuring an all-youth cast.”

This month, the theater will kick off its 39th season with a virtual livestream concert live from its home, the Historic Palace Theatre. “The concert will feature a Growing Stage favorite and three-time Grammy nominated artist, so stay tuned for details,” Campos said.

Like other theaters, The Growing Stage has not been given the okay to teach indoors. “It is very challenging to social distance, wear masks for acting, singing and dance classes,” Campos said.”Plus, theaters seem to be a part of Phase 3, so we’re waiting for more guidance from our state government.”

The Growing Stage has retained most of its students which Campos says “speaks to the importance of the arts and the type of programming we are offering.”

Acting-a-Part

Erika Lupo-Beebe, owner of Acting-a-Part in Sparta plans to reopen in the fall with reduced class sizes, masking, and social distancing. Once-a-week classes will include: Tiny Theater, Little Actors Jr., Little Actors Advanced, Rising Stars, Hamilton Musical Review, Rising Stars One Film, Talent Agency Prep, and Boot Camp, and two mini series, Improv and Make Your Own TV Show. There will be waiting lists.

“We’ve scaled what we are offering to accommodate what’s going on,” Lupo-Beebe said. “We will be streaming our performances so that only the kids will be in the theater.”

She talks about the fall with caution. “We’ll make sure that everything is safe and according to guidelines before we open our doors,” she said. “Should this not be available, we would move to Zoom, or something of the like.”

The Cornerstone Playhouse

Founded in 1976 and located in Sussex, The Cornerstone Playhouse embraces anyone with a love of the theater -- be it onstage, or in behind-the-scenes production. The theater’s Facebook page conveys the dire straits in which it has found itself.

“All of our income is from ticket sales, donations and small grants. We haven’t been able to run a production of any kind since the last show of ‘A Christmas Carol, The Musical’ back in December,” said Mario Poggi, the vice president/building manager/business manager and organizer of the theater’s GoFundMe site. “The problem is that we have a building to support, a large historic building. With no income, except for a re-grant from the Sussex County Arts and Heritage Council, for which we are very grateful, in all this time, the bills are piling up. Electricity, gas, water/sewer, internet, phone, state certificates, inspections, building maintenance and copier lease are all overdue.”

If theaters are permitted to reopen at 25% capacity, as New Jersey gyms and restaurants were recently allowed to do, The Cornerstone will reopen. “When we put on a show, we have to buy the right to the show so hopefully, they would be lenient and let us do more performances to make up for the theater only being at 25% capacity,” Poggi said.

Whatever happens, survival will be difficult. In addition to the expected reduced capacity, the costs of implementing COVID-19 precautions present an extra financial burden.

“We refuse to give up though but it is starting to look like it could be the end of Cornerstone,” said Poggi. “The donations have been great, but we need to keep that going.”

“Theater is meant to be live, and while we have been able to do some live, virtual shows, it is not the same. As artists and audience members alike it is the human connection that makes live theater so amazing. That connection between audience and cast is what makes it so thrilling. To be able to look into an audience and see or hear reactions is priceless and makes all of the hard work we do worth it.” --Josh Reed, Drama Geek Studios