Voices of Theatre Jacksonville share their pandemic experiences
In March, Theatre Jacksonville hit pause on its celebratory 100th season to begin navigation of uncharted territory. Responses to their recent survey made it clear—no one wants to do anything to jeopardize the health and safety of themselves or anyone else. People are the organization’s lifeblood, no one is expendable: not the camp students, patrons, actors, sound and lighting technicians, stage hands, set and costume designers and builders, ushers, or the board members.
To better understand the who, what, when, and why, Theatre Jacksonville’s General Manager Michelle Kindy conducted a Zoom meeting with the people who play the many volunteer roles at Theatre Jacksonville. She knows that many have multiple roles, most never stepping foot on stage. But without them, the stage would never be lit, the stories would never be told, and our community would be worse off for it.
Leading during COVID-19
I was invited to serve on the board of directors seven years ago and am rolling off after my tenure as immediate past president. I consider myself a patron, a friend of the organization, and a cheerleader for those who have come after me to support all the lofty and important goals set for the organization and its future.
The board and strategic planning committee’s worst nightmares are when our disaster preparedness plans are actually executed. The plans they create are for a far-off future that they hope never comes to pass. This imagined future is now for Theatre Jacksonville.
We had to react to the spread of COVID-19 quickly because we were about to host our community for the 100th anniversary events that have been in the planning for years. Our meeting to halt everything, which included two shows that had been cast: Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner and Matilda, was on March 11. Little did we know that those tough conversations and ultimate decisions were only two days before Broadway itself shut down.
We have been in the throes of deciding how we move forward. Without our people, Theatre Jacksonville is just a building. We serve patrons from three months old to seniors. So we are looking at all areas with a sharp focus on safety and a way to move forward that doesn’t sacrifice our volunteers onstage or backstage, designers, operators, ushers, or staff. Board members have been meeting via Zoom so their work is not a risky venture. We have been investigating the ways we will use technologies to move ahead with programming, like our online summer camp and class offerings. These programs now know no geographic boundaries. Students from the Eastern and Central time zones participated this summer. It was cool.
People are hungry for entertainment and escape. Everyone is bingeing on the work of artists via their devices. When it comes to Theatre Jacksonville, which has had a fairly fixed format for many years, we are innovating well so far and I trust we will figure out how to fit a square peg into a somewhat five-dimensional hexagon for the future programming.
Moving from a subscription to an all-access membership style means things are changing. And with virtual offerings, even the times that people sit down to enjoy programming will change. Being a member means I get it all, but the biggest change may be in the flexibility of when I choose to get it. I may only be interested in some of the programming but I know I have access to all of it. Necessity is the mother of invention but my current fear is not about content, you can’t crush creativity. It’s about the survival of the arts. Support for the sector is not the priority during this global crisis. I am hopeful that those who normally support the arts by attending events can see that the organizations are still there. They are working hard to fulfill their mission. They are investing in new technologies to curate future programming and still need support. Our organization will continue to innovate to positively impact peoples’ lives.
No job too small, but play your position
When I retired from the Navy, I had no theater training or experience, but I was a history buff and a lifelong learner looking for a volunteer opportunity. I jumped in with Tim Watson, our technical director, to build sets, learn sound and audio operation, and even spent my last show on the running crew, doing quick changes for costumes and revolving the three separate worlds on the stage. At Theatre Jacksonville, when you play a role that is not on stage you are just as important. Lights, sounds, and moving the sets are woven into the product and have to be perfect for everybody to be able to tell their part of the story. It was all very different. My wife and daughter think the Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner set looks like a show home and I can’t wait for everyone else to see it.
In society, there are boundaries but those boundaries are very different backstage. Without a background in theater, I had no idea of the way that everyone works as one to move the story along. It doesn’t matter that you think your job is, you need to be prepared to do whatever it takes to keep it moving. Sometimes it’s dark, it’s hot, and it’s tough. Very similar to times and tasks in the military. But in the military, the leadership reminds you that you chose this life and to suck it up. And to a certain degree, so do we when we agree to serve as volunteers. Theater people are a special breed. But managing volunteers is a delicate balance and it may be more difficult given the load that will be added to everyone roles. Policies, standard operating procedures, and the foundations will need to adjust to the current situation to ensure the security and safety of others.
Theater, television, and motion pictures are about emotional connections and we will have to continue to explore and innovate to convey these stories. But we have to ask ourselves how important this is right now. We have to make sure we aren’t putting too high a value on entertainment, given the challenges we all face every day. As a history buff, I look back to the time of the Spanish flu and I see how it sorted out. By using that perspective, I realize it may be up to two years before things change. The value may be low now, but as time passes and things shift again, the value may be even greater than they were before COVID-19. I am reminded in these times of John Adams, who while in France said, “I must study politics and war, that our sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy. And their children may study and explore the arts.”