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Coronavirus puts LI theaters on intermission, but for how long?

Usher Lynda Fittipaldi of West Islip is ready

Usher Lynda Fittipaldi of West Islip is ready with an individual alcohol wipe for patrons at the Argyle Theatre in Babylon. ...... Credit: Barbara Schuler

“What good is sitting alone in your room?” sings Sally Bowles in the closing moments of the Kander and Ebb classic “Cabaret.”

It's a question the 60 or so audience members who attended last Friday's performance of the musical at the Argyle Theatre in Babylon must have asked themselves. They showed up despite increasingly dire warnings from state and local officials that crowds should be avoided to combat COVID-19. “It was a small but mighty house,” said artistic director Evan Pappas. 

“It’s hour to hour, day to day, moment to moment,” said Dylan Perlman, who owns the theater with his father, Mark. “We’re not alone in this,” he said just before last Friday's curtain. “Like everyone, we have to make tough decisions … you have a legitimate public health crisis going on, and at the same time you’re trying to operate a theater. It’s really scary.”

All over Long Island, theaters have been grappling with the ramifications of the pandemic. Sticking to the adage “the show must go on,” several theaters went ahead with productions last weekend, carefully following guidelines regarding seating (no more than 50 percent capacity for houses under 500), stressing that they’d enhanced cleaning services and encouraged audiences to spread out in theaters that were running far below capacity.

The Gateway in Bellport managed to wrap its final weekend of “Murder on the Orient Express,” said Scot Allan, director of development and public relations. “We knew we just had to get through Sunday,” he said, adding that the theater’s summer season isn’t scheduled to start until Memorial Day. While attendance was down for closing weekend, he said, “people were really happy to be here.” Similarly, Bay Street Theater in Sag Harbor has no mainstage productions scheduled until late May. In a statement, the theater said it has canceled all events through April and is closely monitoring the situation, but has not altered its summer schedule. Check baystreet.org for possible cancellations and postponements.

The John W. Engeman Theater in Northport had more time to consider options. “We were in a unique position in between shows,” said Richard Dolce, producing artistic director of the theater, which was scheduled to open “Sister Act” on March 19. On Sunday, he made the difficult call to postpone the show until at least April 12. “We had a little time to assess the situation,” he said, “and it became clear it was going to be very difficult and irresponsible to open and encourage people to gather in a tight location … we decided it was in the best interest of the community to just follow what theater on Broadway had been doing and shut down for 30 days.“

“Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” went on as scheduled last weekend at Theatre Three in Port Jefferson, where artistic director Jeffrey Sanzel said audiences were small but appreciative. “Thursday night we had 71 people, [but] it felt like a rock concert," he said, adding that attendees “were so happy to be here, so responsive.”

By Sunday, Sanzel pulled the plug. “We hung on as long as we did because we wanted to give the cast closure and we knew they wanted to continue performing,” he said. “I think they would have performed through a plague. But we knew it was time, we knew it was the right thing to do.”

The Argyle was also in the process of shutting down, ending “Cabaret” after the Saturday evening show. “It’s all so fresh, but we have no choice,” said Perlman, addressing new state regulations banning gatherings of more than 50 people. “The question at this point,” he said, “is it weeks, a month, multiple months?” He recognizes the negative impact the closures will have on so many businesses, and like many others he’s hoping to see some sort of stimulus package from the government. Beyond that, he said he prays “we can get the virus under control and that small businesses are able to come together to get through this.”

For now, local theaters are on hold, with no clear idea about how long this will last. “I think there are more questions than answers right now,” said Perlman. Theatre Three has already announced it will put off its next production, “Steel Magnolias,” until next season and postpone its one-act festival. Smaller regional and community theaters are in the same boat, with many canceling shows right before opening or in mid-production.

One thing all agree on is that theaters will bounce back. “It’s daunting,” said Sanzel, but “I have to believe we’ll get through this … and I think that speaks for everybody in the arts. We’re going to continue doing the work we can and when we can bring it back to the community we will be charged and ready to go.“ Dolce echoes the sentiment. “Once it’s safe, we’ll get our shows up and running and give people a place to go and put this behind them. But in these times…people need to take care of their health and their safety. We’ll be here when the world gets back to normal.”

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