Theatre Aspen reflects on adapted summer season amid pandemic
This summer was not the season originally planned but was the season they were really glad they had.
That’s how Jed Bernstein, producing director of Theatre Aspen, summed up the company’s “All For One” season, which offered a broad “tasting menu” of in-person solo and very small group performances dedicated to local frontline workers and leaders in the Roaring Fork Valley.
While many of Aspen’s staple in-person summer arts and cultural events were either canceled or shifted online due to the COVID-19 crisis, Bernstein and Soledad Hurst, chair of Theatre Aspen’s board of trustees, said they felt it was important for Theatre Aspen to continue to facilitate live theater and performance in a safe, COVID-conscious way for all involved — and are proud of doing just that.
“Jed and the team were pretty extraordinary at coming up with innovative ways to actually make something live happen,” Hurst said. “That we managed to get through it without a single sickness and with virtually full attendance at everything I think really speaks volumes to the fact that people were hungry to do something live.”
From a celebrity concert series featuring some of Broadway’s leading ladies, to an old-fashioned radio play, Theatre Aspen offered nearly two dozen shows in July and August at the Hurst Theatre. The season ended Sunday.
But to make these in-person shows possible and in line with state and county public health requirements, staff had to craft and implement a multitude of health and safety protocols, according to Dani Taylor, Theatre Aspen’s general manager.
“We had to take a magnifying glass to every piece of the company operations, from the patron experience of getting tickets, going through the lobby and into the theater, to the artist experience, to crews backstage and even the office operations,” Taylor said.
In the weeks leading up and during the “All for One” season, Taylor said she “read absolutely everything” about the COVID-19 crisis at the local, state and national levels, and she worked closely with Pitkin County and city of Aspen officials throughout to create an all encompassing safety plan for Theatre Aspen’s summer season.
The Hurst Theatre was transformed from its usual 200-seat, full-sized performance space to a 50-person cabaret-style theater, with tables and chairs, a second side entrance was added and the theater tent’s side panels were opened to allow for maximum ventilation, to name a few changes, Taylor said.
She and a few of the other Theatre Aspen staff members joined the team in January and hit the ground running with planning this adapted, abbreviated summer season, and Taylor said she couldn’t be more proud of the team’s efforts — which have been commended and modeled by county officials and other in-person performance companies across the country.
“The team was able to step up to the plate, take this challenge and see what we could do with it in the safest manner possible for the community,” Taylor said of the “All for One” season. “It seemed like everyone felt safe and enjoyed their time here.”
Beth Malone, a longtime Aspen-area resident, Broadway star and two-time Tony Award nominee, was one of those people who felt really safe and cared for during her three performances with Theatre Aspen this summer.
She said with her small performing group, each artist was asked to keep an appropriate distance from one another during onstage rehearsals and the live show, and that the attention to detail and cleanliness backstage and in the dressing rooms was remarkable.
“I felt very safe at every moment and I know a lot of the other performers did, too,” Malone said. “It all went so beautifully and I am so grateful to have had the opportunity to perform in front of live human beings again.”
Malone, who was in the middle of playing the lead in the off-Broadway production of “The Unsinkable Molly Brown” in New York City when the pandemic hit, said she knows many of this season’s Theatre Aspen performers felt similar to her about being able to perform live again.
And for Bernstein and Hurst, that was one bright spot of the summer — many of the Broadway stars and professional actors Theatre Aspen was able to secure for its summer season may not have been available if it were any other year.
“I don’t know that we would have been able to get them here pre-COVID or able to afford to get them here pre-COVID,” Hurst said of this year’s “All for One” celebrity line up. “They’re such busy artists that if Broadway were open and they were busy with a lot of things they may not have blessed us with their presence. … They were eager to work and we were fortunate enough to provide a venue to do that.”
Bernstein expressed similar thoughts.
“When it comes to the artistic quality of the season, I don’t think it gets an asterisk. I think that it’s a season that we were proud to present; different than our average, normal season, but it was artistically fulfilling on its own terms and we don’t have to say, ‘Well given the pandemic, they really did a good job,’” Bernstein said. “Although it doesn’t make me say we’ll do all our seasons like this going forward, I don’t think we have anything to apologize for in regards to the artistic stuff and that’s something I’m really proud of.”
Bernstein and Hurst hope Theatre Aspen’s summer season can return to a schedule of full-sized productions next year, with “Chicago,” “Rock of Ages” and “The Sunshine Boys” planned for 2021.
However, the company does plan to take some of its shifts and adjustments with it moving forward, like having more than one entrance to the Hurst Theatre, lifting up its side panels and potentially doing more radio-style plays, and is ready to adapt again if it needs to.
“I was really thrilled and excited to see this group of people be devoted to the idea of bringing live performances to the community and not giving up when it seemed like we might have to,” Hurst said of Theatre Aspen staff.
“They really made it work and were innovative in the way they made it work. I’ve been involved with the theatre for many, many years and I have to say this summer I’ve never felt prouder to be involved.”
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