Fifteen months ago this week, live theaters nationwide went dark, with actors and scenery replaced by ghost lights, the bare-bulb lamps that, according to theatrical superstition, keep the spirits at bay until life can return.
One of the first professional theaters in the nation to make that comeback is Moonlight Stage Productions, which opened its 2021 summer musical season Wednesday night at the Moonlight Amphitheatre in Vista to a small but ecstatic crowd.
For the actors and the audience, the first night back was thrilling and emotional. For the producers, it was the culmination of months of nail-biting over how to navigate the constantly changing COVID health orders and labor union requirements, while also facing the possibility that even if they managed to pull off a show — which premiered one day after the state’s official reopening on June 15 — would anybody come?
“It’s literally like we have all been wading in this water, trying not to drown,” said Steven Glaudini, Monlight’s producing artistic director. “To stand in the house and watch live actors, singers and dancers tell a story onstage again fills our souls.
“It’s very powerful and moving for me.”
As the nation emerges from the pandemic, Broadway producers, regional theaters and national tour companies have started announcing plans to return to production in August and September. The reason for the delay, despite pronouncements from the Centers for Disease Control and state officials that mask and other social distancing measures can end, is financial.
With virtually no income to produce new work since March 2020, many professional theater companies can’t afford the current COVID-safe requirements ordered by Actor’s Equity, the labor union for theater artists. As a result, Glaudini said, most theaters are in an excruciating holding pattern. Although a handful of outdoor theaters like Moonlight and Utah’s Tuacahn Amphitheatre, are back in business, most indoor theaters are waiting it out, in hopes Equity relaxes its rules as COVID cases continue to fall this summer.
For Edred Utomi, who plays the vengeful island god Papa Ge in Moonlight’s newly opened musical, “Once on This Island,” performing in front of a live audience this week has been a cathartic experience. The 29-year-old actor was starring as Alexander Hamilton in the national touring production of “Hamilton” when he and his castmates got their furlough notices on March 13, 2020. He has been riding out the pandemic ever since at his parents’ home in Chula Vista.
“It’s surreal,” Utomi said on Thursday. “After being inside so long, we’re chomping at the bit to interact with others. It’s less like a performance and more like a communal experience with the audience. We’re all in this together, and we’re coming out of the dark cave together.”
On opening night, many of the cheers from the audience were for its star Brooke Henderson, the 19-year-old from Point Loma who plays Ti Moune, the orphaned peasant girl who dreams of a better life in the Caribbean-themed “Once on This Island.” Henderson has been performing on San Diego stages for most of her life. She started at age 8 with San Diego Junior Theater, spent five years in the cast of the Old Globe’s “Dr. Seuss’s How the Grinch Stole Christmas” musical and has also performed at Moonlight and San Diego Musical Theatre.
Now entering her sophomore year at Columbia College Chicago, Henderson said landing the lead role in a cast filled with top-level artists like Utomi was both exhilarating and scary. Like the other 10 actors in the show, she hasn’t been able to act, sing or dance for an audience in over a year and wondered if she’d grown rusty.
“It was really nerve-wracking,” she said of returning the stage. “It was a relief to be back onstage. That shot of adrenaline you get feels really nice. I loved taking in the audiences’ energy and hearing people respond for the first time in so long.”
Among those watching the show from the audience on Wednesday was Kathy Brombacher, who founded Moonlight in 1981, served as its artistic director until her retirement in 2012 and now freelances as a stage director. For decades, Moonlight’s production cycle of casting calls, auditions, rehearsals and performances was the rhythm of her life. She can only imagine how hard it has been for working theater artists who have been idled for so long by the pandemic.
“What did this last year feel like? It felt completely empty. It’s been such a big part of my life for so many years. I just sat at home all year and was very sad,” she said.
Just before the show began Wednesday, Brombacher had a hard time containing her excitement: “Tonight feels like electricity. It’s nothing short of uplifting.”
Glaudini called Moonlight’s return to production this month a “roll of the dice,” because there was no safety net if COVID cases spiked again. But because Moonlight is a city-owned theater, and Vista officials gave him and Moonlight executive producer Colleen Kollar Smith the green light in April to mount a season, they managed to obtain the production rights to four shows, sign contracts, rent costumes and scenery and organize full-season auditions in a matter of weeks.
For the first show, they picked “Once on This Island,” a musical about a group of islanders telling a folk tale about a community that comes together and heals. Not only was the show’s theme timely, it was also small enough for Moonlight to survive potentially smaller audiences and reduce the restrictions required by Equity. For example, for every 20 actors on stage, Equity requires a separate union COVID officer. Another Equity rule limited musicians’ access to the backstage bathrooms reserved for the cast, so the “Island” orchestra has just six members rather than usual 20 or so.
Equity is now requiring special HVAC systems for safer air flow at indoor theaters, which can cost up to $40,000 to install. Moonlight’s stage house already has the proper system, but Glaudini said it cost $3,000 to have it inspected by Equity. And although all Moonlight cast and crew members are fully vaccinated, they’re also required to be tested for COVID weekly. Glaudini said he hopes that as the summer wears on, these rules will ease and other, more-cash-strapped theaters can open.
Kollar Smith said one bright spot on the horizon is the Shuttered Venue Operators Grant, a $16 billion federal program that could help theaters recover pandemic-related losses equivalent to up to 45 percent of their gross earned revenue in 2019. Many local theaters are relying on the SVOG to fuel their comeback.
For performers, the reopenings can’t come soon enough. Glaudini and Kollar Smith are both married to Equity actors. Without any work, Glaudini’s wife (Bets Malone) and Kollar Smith’s husband (Lance Arthur Smith) not only lost their income but also access to Equity health insurance last year.
Utomi, one of three Equity actors in the Moonlight show, said he’s grateful to be earning a paycheck again. He has also been called back to the “Hamilton” tour, which should restart sometime in August or September, if all goes well.
“As much as we’ve beaten COVID, we haven’t completely beaten COVID yet,” Utomi said. “I’m just happy to be back in one of the first shows. Being in front of the audience was the final component. Last night I felt it. The rest of the cast felt it, too. This is real. We’re not going to get shut down. They’re not going to take this away from us.”