A 2019 production of Elton John and Tim Rice’s Aida at the White Plains Performing Arts Center.
Photo by Kathleen Davisson
COVID-19 has proved trying for Westchester’s theater companies, which have climbed from the wreckage stronger and laser-focused on a bright future.
The pandemic has had a devastating impact on the arts in Westchester and beyond, but its effect on live theater has been particularly stark. Over just a few days in March, our region’s vibrant drama scene was virtually shuttered, with the audiences that performances require prohibited by executive order. Yet, despite the nearly universal disruption, Westchester’s determined and dedicated theater companies have not only weathered the storm in inventive ways but have also positioned themselves for a bright future.
“Things came to an abrupt halt on March 13, when the theater shut down and our productions were postponed,” recalls Alan Lutwin, founder and executive director of Westchester Collaborative Theater [WCT], a multicultural, cooperative, Ossining-based theater company. “But we were determined to continue to develop new work and keep our workshop process moving forward, even if it meant adapting to a ‘new normal.’”
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It is this new normal that staff members of White Plains Performing Arts Center [WPPAC], a large, professional, regional theater in Downtown White Plains, also had, and still have, to contend with. “The financial hit that this pandemic has caused theaters, including WPPAC, is like nothing anyone has ever seen before,” shares general manager Kathleen Davisson. “Once theaters reopen, it will take some time to get to a place where productions are financially feasible.”
Bram Lewis, artistic director of Croton Falls’ long-running Schoolhouse Theater & Arts Center, says drama “is like a canary in a coal mine for a community: If it is alive and breathing, then the community is alive and breathing.” The Schoolhouse faced some particularly daunting odds in 2020. Its founder, Leandra Pope, passed away in March, so the theater must now transition from a founder-based model to one supported entirely by the local community. “We have to buy a theater that we were once freely given,” says Lewis. “We hope that as the oldest professional theater in Westchester County, our roots are deep enough to survive this mendicancy.”
Now, roughly a year since the coronavirus hit American shores, it is this question of reopening that also dogs Adam Cohen, artistic director of Pleasantville’s Arc Stages, a lauded theater company that holds educational, community, and professional productions. “We are in close contact with North Castle Library, where our theater is located, as to what practices their building is implementing and what future plans will entail to adapt the space for safety,” he notes. “The performing arts in Westchester will sadly be one of the last things to reopen, and we have seen one major organization shut its doors permanently.”
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That major organization was the beloved Westchester Broadway Theatre [WBT], formerly the county’s largest professional theater, which closed in October as a result of the pandemic. “It’s like a sun that’s burnt out and leaves just a black hole,” says The Schoolhouse’s Lewis. “That kind of darkness is a tragedy on many levels.” The closure has thus far been the county’s most notable cultural casualty stemming from the virus. For WPPAC’s Davisson, it will be sorely missed.
“Westchester suffered a huge loss with the closing of Westchester Broadway Theatre after  years in operation,” shares Davisson. “We are happy to accept the torch that has been passed on to us.”
In order to confidently grasp this torch, WPPAC, along with other venues, has been instituting a host of changes to improve safety. “Besides the added cleaning procedures, temperature checks, and mask-wearing, we are also using GPS Air Technology, which purifies our HVAC system,” shares Davisson. “This system not only kills viruses, bacteria, and air pollutants but is proven to kill 99.5 percent of COVID before it could ever enter the venue.”
Beyond safety measures, many local theaters have also found a number of creative ways to continue their missions. Pleasantville’s Arc Stages has been keeping quite busy. “We have kept the community engaged by hosting virtual open-mic nights and, to date, we have done around 14 of them,” says Cohen, who adds that Arc has also held more than 35 weekly play readings, hosted free classes for the community, and produced a free virtual-concert series.
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Other companies are already planning for a bullish 2021. “In March, in an event we call Living Arts, the Westchester Arts Council and WCT will work together to live-stream a combined art-and-theater event,” shares Carol Mark, a playwright, actor, director, and board member at WCT. “Later in spring, we are looking forward to a new initiative, called New Voices. We are reaching out into the Hudson Valley community and sponsoring writing workshops for young writers, people of color, and seniors.”
The WPPAC is similarly optimistic about the future of local theater. “We feel that after the pandemic, smaller regional theaters will become very popular and comforting to the community, since they will be able to see professional theater in their own backyard,” explains Davisson. “In addition, the greatly reduced ticket price and smaller audiences should be a relief to those worried about the virus.”
Despite its recent challenges, even the Schoolhouse Theater is planning for an active season ahead, staging MacArthur “Genius” Martha Clarke’s world-premiere play, God’s Fool. “It will involve her trademark direction and choreography, but it will require live animals as part of the presentation,” shares Lewis. “We are auditioning farms as a possible site for something that will be done out of doors, much like the old, Italian Comedia dell’Arte! We anticipate it will move from The Schoolhouse Theater to The Spoleto Festival in Italy and then Off-Broadway.”
Yet, Mark of WCT admits this is still not the easiest moment to be an advocate for the performing arts. “The reality is, it is a tremendously difficult, sometimes lonely, and often frustrating time to create good theater,” she says. “But the good news is, our writers, directors, and actors have not been daunted during this time, and I am inspired by how they are continuing to creatively work their craft.”
This sense of hope has also permeated the Hudson Stage Company [HSC], an acclaimed professional theater in Armonk. “Theater artists are extremely resilient and determined,” explains Olivia Sklar, artistic director of the HSC, “and we are confident that this awful detour will not extinguish our mission or our plans to bring the very best professional theater to our Westchester community. We look forward to reopening our doors.”