The show must go on — mostly virtually but some of it live, with remote help. This spring, as a cautious reopening begins, the American Repertory Theater (A.R.T.) has been focusing on international collaborations, taking lessons from recent A.R.T. productions that managed, against the odds (and sometimes with precise global coordination and precision), to bring live theater back abroad.
The popular A.R.T. Travels events will continue as a virtual series this spring, but the theater is making preparations for some upcoming, in-person performances. And it has some pertinent pandemic-era experience under its belt. On Nov. 24, the company’s revival of “Pippin” opened in Sydney, the first post-COVID production to be staged there after eight months of lockdown.
While several members of Paulus’ team made it to Australia and quarantined, to be able to work directly with the Australian cast, COVID restrictions made staging the musical drama a global effort. “Gypsy Snider, our circus coordinator, was Zooming in from Montreal,” Paulus recalled. Paulus herself arranged remote one-on-one sessions with actors and recordings of rehearsals. “I spent hours on Zoom,” she said. “Crazy hours, because of the time difference.”
Although the cast rehearsed with masks on, by the time the production opened they were able to perform unmasked to a full-capacity, masked audience. “It was the first glimmer of hope that we could be back,” said Paulus.
March saw another foray into the real world, when the A.R.T.’s production of “Waitress” was scheduled to open in Tokyo. “It was quite exciting,” recalled Abbey O’Brien, the show’s associate choreographer, who worked on-site with the Japanese cast. “Theater had been shut down for almost a year. I was thrilled to get back in the rehearsal room and to share this amazing story across the world.”
Of course, the ongoing pandemic managed to complicate every aspect. “We were supposed to travel mid-January to quarantine and then start rehearsals,” said O’Brien. “Right after Christmas we got word that they were going to be closing the borders first week of January. The team called us and asked, ‘Can you fly out in three days?’ It was wild.”
Although O’Brien was joined by music director Ryan Cantwell, Alexandra Sumner-Hughes, who had been tapped to be the on-site director, was not so lucky. Sumner-Hughes, who had served as resident director when “Waitress” played in London’s West End, was based in the U.K., where a dangerous new variant had brought another lockdown. “She couldn’t get out of London,” Paulus recalled. “So she was setting her alarm clock for 2 o’clock in the morning and directing ‘Waitress’ in Tokyo via Zoom, and I was Zooming in from New York.”