Nothing beats being part of the audience for a great show.
Over the last year, however, those audiences have gotten smaller — in many times, confined to the couch in one's living room.
One of the myriad tragedies of the COVID-19 is the effect it's had on theaters — both of the movie and live play varieties. With major theater chains closing their doors, big budget blockbusters seeing postponements or going straight to home viewing, and the ever-increasing presence of streaming services, it's been a rough time for the film industry, with box offices around the globe taking a financial hit in the billions. Theatre has also taken a hit, and not just on Broadway; small companies all over the U.S. have had to reinvent themselves or fade away.
Here in Somerset, things are no different. Opportunities for live viewing of entertainment have been impacted by concerns over the coronavirus, but most venues in the community have found ways to survive nonetheless — after all, the show must go on.
AT THE MOVIES
Any given Friday or Saturday night in a normal year, the parking lot of Somerset Cinemas 8 would be packed. Since last spring, it's been considerably easier to find a parking place.
"Most theaters in general are at about 10 to 15 percent of what we used to do," said Assistant Manager Mark Combs of the theater's business. "Staffing goes down — we used to have a dozen employees."
That number is now down to about five, but Combs is one of them, and has been for 14 years. He's seen a lot take place in the movie theater business over that time, but perhaps no era more challenging and uncertain than this one.
Somerset Cinemas 8 closed in March as the first wave of COVID-19 shutdowns hit, but at least it came back in June; across U.S. 27, Showplace Cinema closed last March as well, and its fate was permanent. The Highway 27 Drive-In was able to show movies more normally during the summer, but that was with parties confined to their own cars, and they, like the re-opened Somerset Cinemas 8, were affected by the lack of output from Hollywood, having to show a number of longtime favorites instead of new releases.
"For a good six months or so, we were playing classic, older releases, like 'Jaws' or 'E.T.' just to stay afloat," said Combs of Somerset Cinemas 8. "The (new) movies have been few and far between. Christmas Day was the the first time since opening back up that we were playing all new releases."
Thanks to one of the few real tentpole flicks of 2020, "Wonder Woman 1984," business picked up around 20 percent or so at Christmas, noted Combs. But that's only a drop in the popcorn bucket in the grand scheme of things.
"A lot of people just aren't coming out to the movies right now," he said. "It's one of those expendable things. They have other outlets."
He added, "Different studios are doing different things. Warner Brothers (is releasing films on HBO Max and in theaters at the same time. With a big movie like 'Wonder Woman,' that cuts (theater business) at least in half. Universal did a 17-day window release in theaters, but after that third weekend, (the film) is out on VOD (Video on Demand), so people have options."
But it seems difficult to imagine that there weren't be a place for the movie theater in society, even if it wasn't on the scale it once was. Even the food is a big deal to people — during the shutdown period, Somerset Cinemas 8 did curbside pick-up service on concessions, just to let people know they were still in business.
"A lot of people don't know we're open," Combs said. "They come in and they're surprised."
The theater has taken COVID-19 precautions such as cutting seating down by 50 percent, though that hasn't had a tremendous impact, said Combs. Customers are asked to wear masks into the building but can take them off in the theater itself once seated and distanced from others to watch the movie. Employees wear masks themselves and work behind a glass barrier, and customers can swipe their own credit cards to keep things "more touchless," said Combs.
Like the hero in that big action movie, theaters will find a way to succeed.
"If a theater goes under, they can still come back via a different owner," said Combs. "It's in the interest of studios to make a much money as they can. I don't see why they wouldn't want to make money on both ends, but I don't think (theater business) will come back the way it once was. The days of 16-theater multiplexes are probably over. Small movies for adults, dramas, are probably going to play for a lesser amount of time, if at all. But theaters will always be the best way to watch a big movie. If streaming services take over, we might not see any big movies because theaters have to have incentive to spend a billion dollars to make a movie."
ON THE STAGE
Flashback Theater Co. (FbTC) has only been around since the last months of 2014, but it's managed to make a name for itself as a semi-professional theater company in the area, using local talent to produce high-quality shows with limited resources, such as "The Importance of Being Earnest," "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead," and the operetta "Pirates of Penzance."
The theater was looking at another season of three productions through the last half of 2020 and into 2021, but COVID-19 concerns interrupted the performance, so to speak. FbTC still managed to stage "Hazard County" by Allison Moore in July but only by doing it outdoors, with the actors wearing clear face shields and an audience in masks.
"We do believe things like (those precautions) will be elements this year as well," said Schoch. At least there is a "this year" to speak of. Flashback is still looking at doing two shows this summer, one in June and one in July.
In the meantime, FbTC has launched its own Patreon community — sort of a subscriber service for content via the website www.patreon.com. Currently, there are 41 subscribers, who can make monthly contributions of different dollar amounts and receive increasing amounts of benefits in return.
"We started the Patreon platform to engage our supporters and make sure we had a way to survive," said Sommer Schoch, Flashback's Producing Artistic Director. "It's also been a way to keep our artists engaged. We've been putting together digital content as much as we can. There have been a couple months where we've had to go on hold, but we've (provided via Patreon) online short plays, podcast episodes, radio dramas, and artist updates and archival footage have also been shared."
Schoch noted that as long as one person in a household subscribes, anyone has access to the content, which has included original material by local writers and actors, and those subscribing for $25 monthly or more will have access to in-person content when available.
"It's kind of like a Netflix or Hulu, for us," said Schoch. "That's been an easy thing for people to understand at this point."
One major FbTC feature was the Let's Play! series, which used theatre games and other projects to create an educational outreach program that also served as a "social atmosphere for artists," as Schoch put it. That too has been put on hold due to coronavirus-related issues, but FbTC is currently working on a way for it to come back virtually this spring, "to rejuvenate the (theatre) community which has been very scattered," said Schoch.
"One of the challenges is that we're competing with other online content which has better resources," she added. "With it being local theatre, people understand that if they want in-person events to come back, they need to support us in these things right now."
Another major player in local theatre is finding ways to provide acting opportunities without a live audience. Steve Cleberg spent more than three decades as director of Somerset Community College's Drama program. He retired at the conclusion of the last school year, but has been busy in his newfound free time.
"After I retired, I started working on some private writing projects, and it occurred to me that a lot of actors didn't have the outlets that they had before the virus to perform, so I tried to think of something we'd done (that lent itself to) getting as few people together in as short a period of time as I could and creating a film project out of that," said Cleberg.
One standalone short film, "In the Basement" — a modern take on Molière's "The Imaginary Invalid" — was created using videoconferencing technology and debuted on YouTube in August. But Cleberg wanted something that he could turn into a web series.
"I wanted to keep as many people as possible performing and still maintain some sort of safe standards," said Cleberg. "Strangely enough, I was thinking that I wanted to find a project to be like a film version of 'Spoon River Anthology,' that we did at the college, and then I thought, 'Why not just do 'Spoon River Anthology' itself?"
"Spoon River Anthology" is a series of monologues published in 1915 that is in the public domain. Cleberg's SCC program performed it on multiple occasions over the years, but the nature of the work — individual characters, most of them fictional, from a small fictional town called Spoon River, now deceased but telling their stories from the afterlife — would translate well to individually-recorded performances.
"I started sending invitations to actors to do roles and every couple of days, I do one," said Cleberg. The actor gets into character and is shot from multiple angles, delivering their monologue. Their filmed person is laid over a series of period-inspired images set to music.
So far, two collections of the "People of Spoon River" project have been produced and put on YouTube on the Cleberg Studios page — one called "Headstones," a random assortment of stories of reflective townspeople, and one called "The Pantier Saga," about the tragic affairs of one of the community's most visible couples and their wayward son. A third, focusing on the artists of Spoon River, is currently in production.
Featuring local talent, the videos are free to watch on YouTube, and provide tremendous acting exercises for the performers.
"It's a great acting challenge, to find specificity and what seems to be deep-seated urges from the characters," said Cleberg, who also appreciates that the format allows for performers like Joe and Sherri Reese and Theresa Kibby to utilize their musical gifts.
"I'll probably do them until I get tired of doing them," said Cleber. "Even when things clear up, they've turned out to be such a great little web series ... I'll probably do this until I run out of monologues or I feel it reaches an organic conclusion."