Pivoting During the Pandemic & Planning a New Normal for Fall
By Laura Jane Pittman
Theatre Jacksonville Executive Director Sarah Boone will never forget March 2020. The organization was counting down the days until its much-anticipated anniversary jazz brunch culminating a momentous 100th season as Florida’s oldest, continually running community theater, and the final two shows of the year had already been cast.
On March 11, with coronavirus cases across the country and world rising exponentially, the theater announced its agonizing decision to cancel the remaining season, including the upcoming celebratory event. Boone spent a blurry few days adjusting to the shock of what had just happened. And then she went to the office, called her staff, and said, “Okay, what’s next?”
“What good is creativity if we don’t tap into it when we need it the most? We realized that as people withdrew more and more into their homes, outlets like art, music, and drama could help them cope and feel connected, even if they were not physically with others,” says Boone, who has been at the helm of Theatre Jacksonville for more than two decades. “And, we had kept our doors open for 100 years, so we couldn’t stop now! We immediately began thinking of what safe alternatives we could tap into without a large cast or a live audience.”
Changing Obstacles into Opportunities
The first challenge on the plate was the hugely popular summer theater arts camp. Boone and Education Director Ron Shreve put their heads together and enlisted a New York contact at Magic Box Productions to help put together a series of interactive virtual sessions for the summer of 2020 that combined entertainment and technology. The online camp sessions went extremely well, and feedback was overwhelmingly positive.
“It was so important to meet the kids exactly where they were, which was at home on their computers, but still involve them in doing, as well as seeing,” says Shreve. “The summer sessions ended up being successful and fun, and we knew we could offer similar virtual classes for future education programming, so that was a huge relief.”
At the same time summer camps were being planned, Boone and General Manager Michelle Kindy began brainstorming options for upcoming seasonal productions. They were able to quickly slate two one-person shows, Thurgood—based on the life of Supreme Court Associate Justice Thurgood Marshall—and The Belle of Amherst—based on the life of poet Emily Dickinson. And then it was down to working out the nitty gritty details. Thurgood was going to have multiple performances that were to be streamed live, a huge requirement for just one person. So, the play was restructured, and the dialogue was divided to use two actors, one playing the younger Thurgood and the other the older character. Despite some minor technological glitches (who didn’t have those last year?), Thurgood reached a wide audience during its February debut to rave reviews.
After the Thurgood learning curve, it was decided that The Belle of Amherst would be taped and shown on demand. The April production featuring Sinda Nichols was also a well-watched, highly lauded show.
“This was the first time I had done the show in four years and the first time I had been Emily in front of a camera. The experience—which was exhilarating and at times terrifying—powerfully engaged my focus and imagination,” says Nichols, who since 2010 has performed the show live across the country and internationally. “I had a unique immersion with an imagined audience, and I loved the feeling of collaboration I had with Sarah and the trust I felt in her artistic vision, even though we were in uncharted waters.”