On March 3, when E. Faye Butler took her final bow on the set of Fannie: The Music and Life of Fannie Lou Hamer, Asolo Repertory Theatre successfully accomplished what theatres across the world have been struggling to do for a year: to create. Each night, a maximum audience of 200 patrons sat under the Florida sky to see the production, chairs organized in pods of two and distanced but united in the time-honored tradition of experiencing live performance.
Since March 2020, COVID precautions have caused theatre to largely shift to a digital format, re-defining what the art form could be but leaving the arts community craving more substantive experiences. Zoom readings, virtual musical concerts, and more have replaced traditional theatre. But this temporary solution is largely unsustainable for the many people that theatre employs. At present, Be An #ArtsHero estimates approximately 2.7 million artists including theatre workers are out of work. Many artist are struggling to simply stay afloat during this time of crisis.
With Fannie, Asolo Rep has taken a large step forward in re-imagining what theatrical production can look like as the arts community seeks to rebuild. The show marked the Sarasota theatre company’s first full production since the COVID-19 pandemic forced stages across the United States to go dark.
Written by Cheryl L. West, Fannie follows the events that led Fannie Lou Harmer from her life as the daughter of a share cropper in Mississippi to co-founding the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. Directed by Henry Godinez on an outdoor stage in front of the theatre’s entrance, the production played Asolo Rep February 20 – March 3, the first stop in the show’s rolling world premiere in association with the Goodman Theatre and Seattle Rep.
There is an odd juxtaposition between this one-woman show and the schedule to which Asolo Rep was accustomed. As a repertory company, the theatre was used to a packed season. In fact, in March 2020, the theatre had three acting companies in residence: one finishing a production of Into the Breeches in its 535-seat main auditorium, another company in tech for The Great Leap in its 165-seat venue, and the third preparing to debut Frank Galati, Stephen Flaherty, and Lynn Ahrens' new musical Knoxville.
The pandemic would alter those plans and the theatre's trajectory. But where Broadway had clear guidelines, many regional theatres were left to figure out how to navigate on their own. And without guidance, the future of the company was left to Producing Artistic Director Michael Donald Edwards. “Everyone was asking, ‘What are you doing?’ like I had some kind of insight,” he explains. “And I would say, ‘I know what you do. I'm getting the same information. I'm reading the same stuff.’ [The government] kept giving more and more responsibility to local people. We were getting so little direction from the local, state, and federal level, and basically the decision was being left to us. I said let's follow the CDC. As the numbers started to skyrocket, I got together with my director, assembled everyone in the theatre and said, ‘We're sending you all home. We're closing down.’”
The announcement would be made to the public shortly thereafter. In a press release on March 19, 2020, Edward wrote, “It is absolutely heartbreaking that the companies of these shows, which have done some of the most remarkable work I have seen in my 14 years in this position, will not have the opportunity to perform this season on our stage. These decisions were not made lightly, but we deem them necessary to support our community’s and the world’s efforts to respond to the spread of the virus.”
The effects of canceling the season were immediate and far reaching. Not only would canceling mean ceasing production and ending work for many of the company's employed artists and staff, several artists needed to be housed, stranded after having subletted their apartments to go to Florida for their contract. And as a subscription-based theatre company, canceling required calling each of Asolo’s subscribers to give the options to either receive a refund, offer their subscription as a donation, or put it into an account for the next year. “It was a logistical nightmare. But you know what? Everyone in the organization rose to the occasion and knew that it was the right thing to do.”
With an empty theatre and a community looking for engagement, Asolo Rep trekked forward with virtual programming, creating recurring events like Monday Musical Moments and From the Archives—series that looked back into company’s production history—as well as online readings, interviews, master classes, and more. But Edwards says the theatre’s usual audience, many of whom were uninterested in on-screen events, were craving more.
“Our subscribers are older. They don't love digital media. [They were saying] we want theater. And I said we've got to find a way to produce. So we know we can't go inside, which is where we do everything for the time being. We have to find a way to perform outside.”
The decision was complex. Not only did Edwards have to assess the usual cost of production, alongside the cost of creating a theatre outdoors and implementing new COVID-19 guidelines, he also had to weigh the ethics of staging shows in-person. How could he ensure the safety of both his artists and his patrons? But how would waiting to re-open financially affect the theatre’s employees on a personal level?
“My sense of responsibility was heightened by the fact that we got two rounds of payroll protection funding and other money from the CARES act. With that, I think, comes a civic responsibility: once we take [those funds], we've got to make the effort to do something even if we were going to lose money doing it. We're able to keep a lot of people on payroll. We have the [warm Florida] weather. We can build a show.”
There is a big gulf between the desire to perform outside and making it happen, though. So taking into account the high rate of COVID cases in Florida, state public health restrictions, and regulations from the theatrical unions, Asolo Rep began breaking down the process of producing, piece by piece. Despite the enormity of the task, Director of Production and Operations Vic Meyrich and Associate Production Manager Mike Rodgers say it was business as usual. As production staff, daily, their jobs are to figure out how to overcome obstacles to ensure a smooth theatrical pro “Making theater is making theater. We invent things every day—when the pandemic hit, we just had different problems to solve,” Meyrich explained.
Rodgers elaborates “When we first shut down, the immediate question was how do we get people back to work? Well, to get back to work, we have to re-open. And in order to re-open, we have to make theater safe. So the managing director, the general manager, and our production station manager (who is a full time staff member) got together and created what we called the ‘Re-Entry Committee.’ And we just started researching. We just broke theatre down to its simplest form. How each department goes through a day and then how do we make that day as safe as possible for our people.”
“Each union put out a different set of guidelines that needed to be followed to reopen and there was also an Advanced Safety Alliance study that was done. And then we also consulted with Dr. Kirk Voelker, who is the head of COVID-19 response for Sarasota Memorial Hospital. We took all of that information and created a 23-page document.
Once broken down, Meyrich and Rodgers had to re-assemble the production process with COVID safety in mind: How often are creators and staff required to take a coronavirus test? How to hold a costume fitting with minimal contact? What do the traffic patterns in the scene shop need to look like to ensure safe distancing. Even, how can the administrative staff safely use the copy machines?
But guidelines are only ideas until they are implemented. Much like the process of creating a show, they need to be rehearsed and fine-tuned. The first opportunity came in the form of the company’s December holiday concert, We Need a Little Christmas, filled with local performers and then a concert with Broadway’s Laura Osnes, both of which were produced with concert contracts. With the ability to perform distanced, it allowed the company to implement and refine its plans before leading up to a full production. But making a theatre piece would be much more involved process—even just as one-woman show, Fannie needed to be approved by The Actor’s Equity Association, Stage Directors and Choreographers Society, United Scenic Artists Local USA-829, and IATSE Local 412.
It would take a lot of effort, but as an artistic director, Edwards viewed the work as a vital. He wanted the theatre to speak to the issues in his community. Not only was the world reeling from the effects of the pandemic, it was also navigating conversations around race, the Black Lives Matter movement, and making a more equitable nation, on and offstage. “That's been a big thing to wrestle with on a personal level. And as an artist, who am I talking to? What am I saying? Am I the right person to say this? Do I have the right to talk about this?” While the pandemic has taken so much, if it has given anything, it has imploded the typical structure and schedule of making theatre, giving Edwards the flexibility to address these questions head-on.
But Edwards is quick to note that the idea of doing Fannie at Asolo Rep actually came from the show's star, E. Faye Butler. Butler was in conversations to work on another project with the theatre company, a project that was postponed due to the pandemic. Still, the two wanted to find a way to work together and the actor brought up her experience with Fannie. For Edwards, the idea grew into a plan, noting the importance of the story and the feasibility of producing a one-woman show. The artistic director wanted to give the show the life it deserved.
“In the seasons that we were doing before all this, we would have put it in the small theater. As a one woman show, [ordinarily], it would be too risky to put on our main stage. But now, we could give it a big production. We’re outside, and it’s the first play we’ve done since March began last March. So we did—we gave it a big production.”
Butler doesn't take the big production for granted. She had been attached to Fannie following previous collaborations with playwright Cheryl L. West, even doing the workshop of the play with the Goodman Theatre in November 2019 in preparation for a 2020 premiere. The pandemic stunted those plans, but Butler couldn’t give up on the production. “I thought we can't let Fannie’s message go. Here we are in an election cycle. We're in the middle of a pandemic. Unrest is happening. This is Fannie Lou territory. She gives us hope—she was a woman that believed that no matter what your circumstances were, no matter how bad it gets, no matter how you feel down and distraught, there's hope. You have to keep fighting, and you have to keep telling the truth.”
Where there was a will, there was a way. Still eager to tell Fannie Lou Hammer’s story, when the Goodman Theatre was unable to perform the play at their venue in 2020, the theatre worked with Butler and West to condense the play into a 40-minute version, traveling with a small mobile stage through parks in Chicago in the summer. But suddenly, with Asolo Rep, the project for which she was so passionate was going to receive a larger life.
While Butler was grateful for the opportunity to make theatre again, performing also came with a sense of pressure. Staging a show meant mandatory daily pre-screens, temperature checks to enter the building, COVID testing three times a week during the rehearsal phase, and then testing twice a week during the performance phase as well as constant building cleaning and maintenance.
“They totally restructured their theatre, which is something all theatres are going to have to do. It has to be touch-free. The minute I walk into the outside lobby, there's something for me to sanitize my hand. Of course, I have masks on. Remember how you are so used to sharing with people in rehearsal rooms? Now, I have a plastic box, that has tissues, pens, highlighters, clips, staplers—anything I need during the course of a rehearsal. Props have to be wiped off and handed to me with a glove. Or put where I can pick them up and put them back down. There's no reason I don't know my stuff when I walk into the rehearsal room. When you step into the room, everybody’s ready for you.”
After planning for so long, with rehearsal, the company endeavored to build the show—creatively but efficiently—with a skeleton crew of in-person collaborators: Under Asolo Rep’s new guidelines, the rehearsal room could only accommodate the performers, the director, and the stage management team. Meanwhile, playwright, dramaturg, creative team, and technicians would have to access the studio through live-streaming, virtually watching with the help of a collection of cameras and microphones.
While effective for safety, to Butler, it also felt alien. Typically, the other collaborators in the rehearsal room become a sounding board in the creative process, their reactions functioning as vital piece of the puzzle for an actor. “One of the things that I’ve learned in this process is that you really, really, really have to trust your directors and your stage managers. They're your only way of knowing that you’re on the right path,” Butler notes. “After our designer run, my stage manager said to me, ‘We have a show.’ When you stage manager says that to you— when they can actually get away from their script for a second and say that, you know its coming from an earnest and honest place because they've been there through the rewrites to the first read through the introduction and the line changes. They've been there with you.”
But the production wasn’t designed to live in the rehearsal room—it was made to move outdoors, a maneuver that would pose its own challenges. Going from the rehearsal room to the tech stage meant creating a completely different traffic pattern and pods of artists. Director Henry Godinez was no longer able work in the same bubble as Butler. Instead, he had to remain with the creative team staff, finessing the show from a distance. The company was segmented into two, with cast and crew who work backstage being a part of one team and the front of house staff populating another. Those crews required two different traffic patterns for entering and exiting the building, separate pathways to get to different locations in the venue, multiple break rooms, and more, all to designed to minimize contact.
And then there was navigating the final and most important ingredient of any piece of theatre: the audience. Whereas a show is rehearsed and guided, patrons were an uncontrolled factor. In the end, maintaining safety for the audience was the easier part. While there wasn’t a rule book for how to create theatre in a pandemic, there were plenty of guidelines about how to create safe conditions for distanced audiences from the government and medical professionals. Among the requirements: audiences were required to have their temperature checked upon arrival, maintain masking, receive their program digitally, and forgo concessions and congregating.
While extensive, the measures were effective. During its run, Fannie saw large but distanced audiences and zero cases of COVID were linked back to the theatre. Edwards explains that most patrons were cooperative, eager to work with each other and the theatre to follow the safety protocols in order to see live theatre again. And as an artistic director, the experience of reuniting through in-person performance was profound. “People are in a live experience again, and they're having a really amazing time. If you were in the audience watching Fannie, you would feel this is a very deep human need that is not being met right now: to be in a room—or outside—together. You know, it's weird, frankly. Everyone's wearing a mask. You can't quite tell who your neighbors are. You're not actually sitting side by side. But you're in a shared space. You’re together.”
It’s that togetherness that made the step forward into theatre worth it for Asolo Rep. Reading from a previous rehearsal report, Edwards beams while describing the power of theatre, proud of every moment that bridged the deep isolation society has grown accustomed to in the past year. “I'm a little lost without making theater. That's what I've done all my life, and I understand it's deep spiritual, therapeutic value. It actualizes the core of my being. I'm surrounded by people that feel the same way. There is nothing like being in a theatre—this was a gift to the community”.
Though Asolo Rep enjoyed a successful world premiere of Fannie, the company has little time to celebrate. Rather, Asolo Rep is assessing and refining its process of producing during the pandemic, preparing for its upcoming production of Lerner and Loewe's Camelot, starring Tootsie's Britney Coleman as Guinevere. The musical, presented in a concert staging, will be the largest that Asolo has created since stages went dark in 2020; With it, comes a little bit more hope for the future return of theatre.
“I think at some point people will kiss on stage again, and maybe they might touch or shake hands,” Rodgers jokes. “But I think the way in which we make theater is altered forever. Sanitation and cleaning and health and safety, those are just part of our lexicon now. You know, the Greeks did theatre outside a long time ago, it's not like we invented outdoor theatre here at Asolo Rep. But we had to reinvent how we interact with theatre, and in years to come, this will be a story that we will be telling.”