When the curtains closed and the music stopped in Brooklyn’s small theaters 18 months ago, the creators of New York’s legendary off-broadway scene were left artistically displaced and yearning for the spotlight of the stage.
But it’s showtime again in Kings County, as Shakespeare aficionados and art house regulars shuffle back to their seats, and, armed with masks and vaccine cards, patiently await the latest rendition of whatever Brooklyn’s finest performers have dreamt up this time.
Most of New York City’s focus has been on Broadway, as glitzy marquees light up on thousand-seat theaters. But the Big Apple is home to dozens of concert halls and intimate stages with lighter budgets and smaller staff waiting anxiously to open their doors.
“It’s one thing to be a volunteer to help run a theater because you love theater,” said Rhiannon McClintock, development and marketing manager at Park Slope’s Gallery Players. “But then to add on that element of how do we survive a crisis, and get through it, that’s a lot to ask a volunteer. But we’re doing it.”
Gallery Players, which bills itself as “Brooklyn’s Premier Off-Off Broadway Theatre,” is reopening its 99-seat black box theater to a live audience for the first time in a year and a half on Oct. 9.
Audience members must show proof of vaccination at the door, per city requirements, and the theater is also requiring patrons to wear masks inside. Their policy, spelled out online, says that people refusing to follow requirements will be refused admission or removed from the theater without a refund.
“We also want to be very accommodating, too, like if someone forgets their vaccine card, we want to reschedule,” McClintock said. “If they’re feeling sick, we will work with them to find another time when they’re better. We do want to be as accommodating as we can for people.”
Gallery Players is largely volunteer-run, but paid staff members will be responsible for checking vaccine cards and handling any issues.
“I don’t want to put any volunteers in a position where they’re dealing with aggressive patrons,” McClintock said. “So there will be a staff house manager who is going to be checking vaccine requirements, and if there are any problems, there is an actual Gallery Players staff person on hand to de-escalate any situation.”
Supporters donated money to the theater throughout the pandemic, McClintock said, but one particularly generous anonymous donor sent them enough money to completely revamp their ventilation system, making the decision to reopen a little bit easier.
“We’re counting our blessings,” she said. “Not every theater has a donor who can just say, ‘Hey, we can help you get back on your feet,’ but we did.”
Actors have been wearing masks for as long as possible during rehearsals, she said, and the company includes swings — extra performers ready to step in if an actor isn’t feeling well. With such a small theater, she said, swings and understudies are a rarity, but the pandemic has forced them to reevaluate “the show must go on.”
“We need to have backup plans to make sure that everybody is safe, and to not have that ‘perform no matter what’ attitude,” she said.
In Clinton Hill, JACK, a performance arts and civic space, just wrapped their first live theatrical production since 2020, a six-performance run of “Cross Over,” written and composed by Justin Hicks.
“We always planned for the fall, with fingers crossed that it would be September, knowing that it might be later than that,” said JACK co-director Jordana De La Cruz. “It was a weekly conversation.”
JACK moved into a newly renovated building in 2019, so their air filtration was already up to snuff, De La Cruz said. Like at Gallery Players, the news that the city would be requiring anyone attending indoor events to show proof of vaccination was encouraging, and JACK is also enforcing masks inside.
“We’ve actually had a very positive response from folks, no pushback,” said Alec Duffy, the JACK’s founder and co-director. “No audience members have pushed back, we’ve tried really hard to communicate, well in advance, these requirements to folks who have reserved tickets to shows so they’re not caught unawares.”
The team was prepared for the worst, De La Cruz said, but not a single person has fought the vaccine or mask mandates inside the theater.
After a long year without live performances — JACK used their space to aid in food distribution during the worst of the pandemic — the company dipped their toes back into the world of in-person performance in July, with a series of three concerts by trumpet player Peter Evans and his ensemble. Evans reached out after receiving a grant from the City Artist Corps to start doing free performances. JACK had worked with Evans before, and Duffy and De La Cruz decided the concert would be the best way to start up the season.
“A theater production, they’ll usually rehearse for four weeks, a set will be built, lighting design, this huge creative team will be paid and contracted for these performances,” Duffy said. “So, if for some reason, things went south, COVID wise, and we had to cancel, it’s tricky.”
The concerts had fewer people and less prep. Cancelling them would have been a disappointment, but much less difficult than calling off a show. But they went off without a hitch, setting the stage for their first full theater production to open on Sept. 16.
While JACK had been planning to work with Justin Hicks before the pandemic, De La Cruz said, “Cross Over,” a song cycle focusing on Hicks’ childhood in his parents’ church, was the perfect way to come back.
They started out with 35 seats arranged close to the stage, not far away or on risers like in a traditional theater.
“It was a very intimate and a very tender production,” she said. “It definitely excelled with a smaller group. We wanted to come back to a show that would feel like a beautiful and safe transition back into JACK and the theater world.”
Gallery Players, too, chose their first show back carefully. Their big pandemic project was “Hamlet (At Home,)” a live Zoom performance of Shakespeare’s tragedy, and they started the fall season virtually with a live-streamed “Macbeth” that was filmed inside the theater
They’re welcoming patrons back with Terrance McNally’s “And Away We Go,” a 2014 play following a company of actors through time.
“It’s like a love letter to theater, it’s a play about theater, we’ve missed theater,” McClintock said. “The playwright Terrance McNally was a friend of the theater, we’ve done a lot of his revivals at the theater, and, unfortunately, he passed from COVID. It’s sort of like a way to honor his contribution to the theater, his contribution to our little theater.”
“Even the title itself, we had this big lull, and away we go, back to the theater.”