Coronavirus closings: PSF at DeSales U. will return in 2021
Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival Producing Artistic Director Patrick Mulcahy had high hopes for the 2020 season.
Now he has high hopes for the Festival’s 2021 season.
“We were really excited about this season and we are still excited about this selection of extraordinary plays,” Mulcahy says in a March 30 phone interview hours after he announced that, “In response to the COVID-19 (coronavirus) outbreak, Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival has announced the cancellation of all performances for its upcoming summer season.”
The cancellation is Shakespearean in its irony.
Pennsylvania began shutting down in March, Friday the 13th, when Gov. Tom Wolf ordered public schools closed March 16-27, which he extended “indefinitely” in a March 30 order, after a March 25 “stay-at-home” order for Lehigh and Northampton counties residents.
Only weeks before, PSF announced it had “reached its one-millionth patron served when the historic ticket was sold to a subscriber.”
“PSF will celebrate this milestone in its upcoming 29th summer season,” stated the March 2 press release.
“The Festival’s one-millionth patron will be identified and recognized on June 12, prior to the opening night performance of ‘A Chorus Line,’” continued the press release.
“Following the performance, the audience will celebrate the momentous occasion with a champagne toast and the lucky ‘one millionth’ will be treated to a PSF prize package, including a full subscription to the 30th anniversary season in 2021.”
No champagne toast will open the 2020 season of the professional theater at DeSales University, where an average of 34,000 to 40,000 Shakespeare buffs and theater fans flock to the scenic Center Valley campus in Upper Saucon Township to bask in the glorious language of The Bard during splendid productions of Shakespeare’s plays, as well as of musicals and classics of the American stage.
“The word ‘million’ appears fourteen times in Shakespeare’s works. We are honored to use it this once in celebration of a landmark moment for the Festival,” Mulcahy is quoted in the press release.
“Our mission is to reach the widest possible audience. We’ve anticipated this event for several years and to all those who have helped us get here, including our founder Father Jerry Schubert and our one-millionth patron, we say, ‘Thy love is worth a million.’”
PSF, founded in 1992, has presented 175 productions (74 Shakespeare) and attracted theater-goers from 50 states.
Since assuming leadership in 2003, Mulcahy has led PSF’s surge in artistic excellence, annual attendance and national recognition. In recent years, PSF was recognized by The New York Times as one of 15 “Top Festivals” for summer theater in the United States and by Playbill.com as one of the “Must Know Regional Theatres” in the nation.
PSF’s 2020 summer season came undone because of a microscopic virus named after the Latin corona for crown, which refers to its appearance around particles of the virus.
As of March 29, confirmed in the coronavirus pandemic were 859,000 cases and 42,000 deaths worldwide, including 164,000 cases and 3,000 deaths in the United States, (4,087 cases and 49 deaths in Pennsylvania, 16,636 cases and 198 deaths in New Jersey and 67,298 cases and 1,342 deaths in New York).
In Shakespeare’s time, such a measly term as coronavirus pandemic would have ill served. It’s a plague by any other name.
Shakespeare (1564 - 1616) knew something about plagues.
According to Dr. James Shapiro, in his book, “The Year of Lear,” Shakespeare wrote “King Lear,” “Macbeth,” “Antony and Cleopatra,” “Timon of Athens” and “Pericles,” circa 1606, during a time of the plague, which includes the London Plague (1592 - 1594) and additional plagues (1578 - 1579), 1582, 1593, 1596 and 1603.
Shakespeare was born one year after a plague. Shakespeare’s siblings died at early ages, possibly because of the plague. A plague closed London theaters in 1593, putting Shakespeare’s acting company, The King’s Men, out of work. (Sound familiar?)
Shakespeare’s son, Hamnet,” died at age 10 in 1596, from, so speculates Kenneth Brannagh’s film, “All Is True” (2018), the plague. Soon after his son’s death, Shakespeare wrote “Hamlet.”
Jonathan Bate in his biography of Shakespeare, “Soul of the Age,” states: “Plague was the single most powerful force shaping [Shakespeare’s] life and those of his contemporaries.”
“Alas, poor Yorick!,” says Hamlet to the Gravedigger (“Hamlet,” Scene 1, Act 5), beginning a soliloquy about human existence.
The Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival’s 29th summer season in the Labuda Center for the Performing Arts was to include “A Chorus Line,” directed by PSF Associate Artistic Director Dennis Razze, June 10 - 28, Main Stage, and August Wilson’s “Fences,” directed by Christopher V. Edwards, June 18 - July 5, Schubert Theatre.
Also: Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” directed by Matt Pfeiffer, July 8 - Aug. 2, Main Stage, in repertory with Jane Austen’s “Sense and Sensibility,” directed by Jessica Bedford, July 16 - Aug. 2, Main Stage; the Lehigh Valley premiere of Lisa Peterson and Denis O’Hare’s “An Iliad,” July 7-17, Schubert Theatre, and Shakespeare’s “Henry IV, Part 2,” July 22 - Aug. 2, Schubert Theatre.
And: “Shakespeare for Kids,” directed by Matt Pfeiffer, July 22 - Aug. 1, and one-night performances, including “The Screwtape Letters,” based on the novel by C.S. Lewis, a one-man show starring Anthony Lawton, July 27, Main Stage, and Dee Roscioli: ”In Concert,” June 22, Main Stage.
Mulcahy said a decision to cancel the Festival had to be made well before it was to begin with the children’s play, “Charlotte’s Web,” directed by Matt Pfeiffer, May 29 - Aug. 1, Schubert Theatre, and the annual “Luminosity Gala,” May 30, University Center. The gala is postponed with information to be announced.
“Our seasonal staff and artists were going to start showing up from 20 different states in about five weeks, the end of April, beginning of May, for communal work and communal living. That’s how this works,” says Mulcahy.
Festival actors and artisans are housed on the DeSales campus in apartments that they share. Three buildings of apartments, each of which includes four or five bedrooms and a kitchen, called The Villages, are on the campus’ north side. Three PSF artists live in each apartment.
”There are plenty of other reasons,” Mulcahy continues as to why he canceled the 2020 season. “There’s not a work-from-home version of creating theater. Artists and artisans join together in spaces to create it.”
The 2020 season, “for the most part had been cast,” says Mulcahy.
“In ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream,’ those lovers get pretty close to each other. They get closer than six feet. It really all comes down to safety and people’s health.
“The good thing is that we were ready to go and we can be ready to go next summer,” Mulcahy says.
“When this all happened, we were just about to put out a press release that Tony Todd was going to play Troy, the leading role in ‘Fences.’ Tony has had a long career in film and television and Broadway. And we were very elated.”
The 2020 season lineup will be attempted to be presented as the 2021 season.
Producing plays involves a process, starting with obtaining the rights to a play.
“Folks at licensing houses are working from home. It usually takes four to six weeks to get an answer under normal circumstances. But we’ll figure it out. My hope is that we’ll be able to announce where we stand within a few months,” says Mulcahy.
Planning a season is a sequence, starting with selecting the plays, then, directors and designers, and then casting. The casting process varies in different markets. When casting in New York, an actor can be lost to a film project. In Philadelphia, if casting is not done in advance, the theater company may lose out.
“There may people who are already cast for something. I imagine we’ll get a lot of the band back together,” says Mulcahy of bringing actors cast for 2020 season plays back for the 2021 season. “The casts will rise to the usual level. They will be magnificent.”
The Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival is the only professional Equity theater of its scope and scale within a 50-mile radius of the Lehigh Valley.
The Festival’s award-winning company of many world-class artists includes Broadway, film, and television veterans, and winners and nominees of the Tony, Emmy, Obie, Outer Critics Circle, Drama Desk, Jefferson, Hayes, Lortel, and Barrymore awards.
PSF will face the challenge of the bottom line, of balancing revenues and expenses.
“Every theater is dealing with that across the country. In our $3 million budget, a good $1 million or so is committed at this point,” Mulcahy says.
Expenditures have been made for artists’ work for the 2020 the season, including that of directors, designers, choreographers and for casting sessions in New York City and Philadelphia, as well as staff salaries, insurance, season brochure and associated costs of running the business side of a theater.
“We are appealing to our supporters and sponsors and our patrons to support us in this difficult time,” says Mulcahy. “Patrons donating back tickets can make a huge difference.
“I don’t think anyone has ever experienced anything like this. This is so sudden. No one could have possibly planned for it.
“You start 15 months in advance and you go through all these procedures to when you press ‘launch.’
“We had made the decision [to cancel] by last week [the week of March 23],” Mulcahy says. “We needed a few days to organize our communication plan so that people would get the news in ways that were most respectful to them. For example, you want to make sure that an actor doesn’t discover it by an email that you send to your patrons. That takes some organizing.
“I’ve seen it coming for weeks,” Mulcahy says of coronavirus-caused closings, “but one hopes that the news will get better until one sees that it won’t, at least in time for this summer.
“This is affecting everyone. We really stand in solidarity with our community and with all of humanity right now. We often say that our work is universally human. Well, so is this challenge. I have faith that we will rise to this challenge for the good of humankind,” says Mulcahy.
“After people heal and people are safe, we will look to, as we always do, to strengthen our organization and to strengthen our bond with our patrons and community and to take that next step forward in achieving our mission and our vision.”
Mulcahy says that fans of The Bard can look for an online presence for PSF.
“We are looking to get digital. More to come on that. We want to continue to be there for people.”
Mulcahy was last in the PSF office March 13. He and the staff have been working from home.
He’s had his own brush with the coronavirus. “I was quarantined twice, once for contact with someone who had tested positive, and once for contact for someone who is being tested, but I’m fine.
“I just finished teaching a Zoom class ... my seniors ... teaching some Shakespeare,” he says of the class, “Acting Styles.”
“This is terribly hard on theaters and all arts organizations. Artists, in particular, are feeling this. They’ve had a lot of work evaporate. They make tremendous sacrifices in their life to be artists.
“It hurts. I could have been prepared if we had to cancel a performance or we had to cancel a weekend. That’s what you prepare for.
“We’re feeling the sadness that we feel. We also feel hope. [Every year,] we all have to wait 10 months for the Shakespeare Festival to come around again. This time, we’ll have to wait a little longer.
“It makes us realize how fragile things are, and it makes it all the more important when we find something wonderful,” Mulcahy says.
“Hamlet,” Scene 1, Act 5, speaks to the fleeting nature of life.
The Gravedigger picks up a skull. Hamlet asks who it was. The Gravedigger replies it’s the skull of Yorick, a court jester and Hamlet’s friend.
Hamlet says mournfully to his confident, Horatio:
“Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him ... a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy ... Where be your gibes now? Your gambols? Your songs? Your flashes of merriment, that were wont to set the table on a roar?”
The gibes, gambols (to run or jump about playfully), songs, flashes of merriment, the roar ... will be back at the Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival same time, next year.