Shakespeare Theatre of NJ leader Bonnie J. Monte says COVID creates ‘mandate’ of minimalism

SHAKESPEARE NJ covid

AVERY BRUNKUS

From left, Katja Yacker, Ellie Gossage, Jeffrey Marc Alkins and Billie Wyatt co-starred in the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey’s outdoor production of “The Comedy of Errors” in 2021

In a heartfelt and brutally honest email message addressed to “Friends, Patrons, Volunteers, and Artists,” Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey artistic director Bonnie J. Monte wrote that “starting up again is proving to be as equally difficult as surviving the shutdown, though in very different ways.”

She went on to make a number of points that, I’m sure, apply to most if not all of the theater companies in the state, and beyond.

“We lost a lot of theatre people during the pandemic — meaning they moved on to other fields,” wrote Monte. “Theatre is, under the best of circumstances, a risky and insecure way of life, and many young people decided to seek safer careers in other arenas during the course of the pandemic.

“This has left companies such as ours scrambling to re-staff with a diminished labor force, and that problem has been exacerbated by the fact that during the pandemic, companies like Netflix, Hulu, Disney, etc. ramped up production of new program content. Those streaming platforms have grabbed up much of the remaining labor force in order to create their own work. Theatres cannot compete with the salaries and fees that television and streaming companies provide, and so many theatres in America are finding themselves severely shorthanded, especially when it comes to production teams.

“Hiring people who are skilled and adept at building sets, costumes, and props, or who have the skills needed for lighting and sound, has become a Herculean task. This means … we will be forced to design our shows very differently, and with minimalism as an overwhelming mandate. Add to this the other ripple effects of the pandemic — shipping delays, the soaring costs of raw materials, shortages of some of the basic tools of our trade — things as simple as glue, or paint — and it’s a recipe for disaster unless one fights against those challenges with new kinds of creativity and a ton of hard work and determination.”

Monte also wrote, in the letter, that the theater will continue to require masks at its indoor shows, but not at its annual outdoor, summertime offering. And proof of vaccination will no longer be required. (This could change, of course, but is the current policy.)

She also wrote about other issues involved with operating in the COVID era, such as having to deal with actors or staff members getting the virus, the cost of having to buy thousands of COVID tests for union-required testing, and the “maddening” necessity of having to wear masks during rehearsals.

“Two of the main tools for actors are their voice and face,” wrote Monte. “Masks obliterate both. It’s like saying to a painter, ‘I need you to paint this picture, but I am taking away your brush and your paints.’ ”

Monte wrote that she is sharing all this information “because I may need to beg your patience this season at some time or indeed a number of times. We may have to cancel shows and ask you to transfer your tickets to another performance. We may put someone on stage with script in hand, as they stand-in for a missing actor.

“I am hoping against all odds that none of this happens, but I thought it only fair and wise to give you a heads-up about what may transpire in terms of performances; and I also hope that by sharing a little of what we’re going through, it will engender a greater level of patience and support if your theatergoing is affected by any of this.”

The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey opens its 2022 season June 8-27, with “Enchanted April,” indoors at Drew University in Madison. Its outdoor show for this season will be “Much Ado About Nothing,” June 29-July 31 at St. Elizabeth University in Florham Park. Visit shakespearenj.org.

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