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Sarasota Thursday, May 14, 2020 3 weeks ago

Relief bill allows local theaters to rehire employees

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Florida Studio Theatre and Asolo Repertory Theatre were able to hire back nearly 100 local artists and theater employees.
by: Brynn Mechem Staff Writer

When COVID-19 began prompting closures, it created a domino effect in the theater world: Theaters had to stop putting on plays, which caused the theater companies to lose revenue, which caused hundreds of local theater employees to be laid off.

However, with the help of the federal coronavirus relief bill, which funds loans for payroll and other business expenses, theaters have begun preparations for shows in anticipation for a new season.

One such company was Florida Studio Theatre, which was able to rehire more than 30 full-time employees and out-of-work artists for seven weeks.

“The level of support we’ve been given, it’s a real boost to us,” FST Managing Director Rebecca Hopkins said. “It’s allowing us to get a lot of creative work done behind the scenes, so when we open again, we can be strong for the public.”

During the seven weeks of relief bill pay, the theater launched The Playwrights Project, which employs 32  playwrights, sketch comedy writers and musical theater developers.

The writers have been hired full time and will work on material for the next two months. 

The material generated will be considered for future production in FST’s main stage, cabaret, sketch comedy and children’s programs, though nothing is scheduled for production yet.

“We have these great writers, and they’re creating new, American work,” Hopkins said. “It’s all we can do now because art doesn’t stop. Shakespeare wrote during the plague, and we can create during quarantine. We just can’t share it yet.”

Sarasota playwright Larry Parr was hired as part of Florida Studio Theatre's Playwright Project. Photo courtesy

One of the playwrights hired by the program, Sarasota local Larry Parr, said the program could not have come at a better time. Because theaters all over the country are closed, Parr lost several productions of his plays that would have brought him a steady income for the year.

“The support during this time is absolutely invaluable,” Parr said. “It just came at a perfect time, a very difficult time financially. Besides the financial support, just to know that there’s a theater that believes in me and my work is incredible.”

FST hired Parr to write two plays: a children’s play based on “The Emperor’s New Clothes” and another about Florida civil rights pioneer Harry T. Moore, who with his wife was murdered in a bombing of their home on Christmas night in 1951. He will have a rough draft of both plays done by the end of the seven weeks.

“It’s a pretty quick turnaround to do two plays in that amount of time, but I am working hard, and I’m going to do as well as I can,” he said.

Another theater that received assistance from the coronavirus relief bill is Asolo Repertory Theatre. Because of money from the program, the theater was able to rehire about 60 employees.

“The idea that we can put almost 60 people back on salary and make sure they have money in their pockets for eight weeks until the unemployment can catch up is huge,” Managing Director Linda DiGabriele said.

Staff members are doing a variety of things from working on set designs and costumes to creating masks for staff members. Shows are being drawn up and rethought in anticipation for the theater reopening, which Producing Artistic Director Michael Edwards hopes could be in November.

Lighting fellow Justen Zhang works with lighting settings in Florida Studio Theatre. Photo courtesy Sarah Haley.

“We’re like an empty ship right now,” Edwards said. “People in the engine room are working full steam ahead, and everyone is in the kitchens, and all of the infrastructure is moving really fast but relatively invisibly. All you see is the beautiful ship.”

Leaders also are working on how to reopen the theater safely and what reopening will look like. Edwards said they have come up with several contingency plans.

“We are looking at what product we’ll be offering, and how do we make everybody safe? How do we make everyone feel good about coming into the theater?” Edwards said.

“Our whole motivation for being is we want to break down social distance. Everything is about bring people together, so it’s been a challenge for us to think about distance and the social aspects of theater in a completely different way.”

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