When I sat in the audience for the opening of “The Amateurs,” I did not know that one week later the theatre would go dark. As the first week of performances ended, the cast and crew had a better inkling as they looked out at an almost empty audience. They realized the play’s run was coming to its finale. One of the actors warned his parents if they wanted to see the show, they better come soon. Even they did not realize how long theaters would be dark. There is still no definite time when Olney Theatre Center and other venues will be able to officially open. Even then, the time when theaters can open at full capacity seems a long way off. Jordan Harrison, the playwright, did not think it would last more than one or two months.
There are some glimmers of hope with the vaccine. Broadway is getting ready to open in New York at limited capacity. Some local theaters have started limited in-person performances, as well as streaming on YouTube and Zoom. Summer will create opportunities for outdoor performances.
Most who make a living from the theater have suffered financially. The performers who can switch to television and movies are limited in number as are those who are financially stable enough to weather the storm. On Broadway alone, 97,000 are jobless. Then there are the theater people involved with touring companies, Off-Broadway, and regional theater. This includes the Baltimore-Washington area and has impacted Kennedy Center, the Shakespeare Theatre Company, The National Theatre, Arena Stage, Baltimore Center Stage, the Folger Theatre, Olney Theatre Centre, Toby’s Dinner Theatre, to just a few. This group, according to Jones, is “putting on art to survive.”
The panel consisted of the director, Jason King Jones, and his cast — Evan Casey (Gregory), John Keabler (Brom), James Konicek (The Physic), Michael Russotto (Larking), Emily Townley (Hollis), and Rachel Zampelli (Rona). Joining this group was the playwright, Jordan Harrison, and managing director, Debbie Ellinghaus. Amy Austin, the chairperson of the Taking Care Fund, made a brief appearance.
Harrison brought us this insight, “If I was going to write a play about the bubonic plague, I was going to write a play about AIDS.” Later he admitted that he was an adolescent at the tail end of the AIDS epidemic and did not think he would have written “The Amateurs” in the middle of this crisis, or even shortly after it is truly over.
Several of the cast thought the most poignant and metaphoric part of the plot was when the Duke, who had watched them through a brick in the wall, sends the actors on their way. The actors had hoped to seek shelter in the village if they Duke enjoyed their performance. Though the Duke thought it was clever and funny, he expels them because actors “have no purpose.”
Upon hearing of their expulsion, the actor who plays Noah states, “I thought this was the Ark, but there isn’t any Ark.” That’s probably how many Americans, theater people and a good part of the general population, feel these days. Hopefully, the recent Recovery Act that just passed will help many believe, once more, that the ark has room for them.
Townley stated, “On the last day when we knew when we were closing, it was meaningful and unique and hard.” Zampelli said she never realized how brave these characters were until COVID hit all of us. Russotto mentioned he felt like this was a chapter closing and “an event like nothing in our lives – our careers.” He left his script on his dressing table as a talisman to come back later. Fittingly, nothing is left as we saw it that week. Olney has renovated the whole theatre. (Note: The script was retrieved by one of the other actors for safe keeping.)
Jones noted, “That motivation was put on hold. Potential put on pause.” Townley would have loved it if the production could have been moved to an outdoor location but soon realized that, too, was not going to happen.
They all noted, on the last performance, they had to make some changes for safety reasons. There was a kiss that was omitted. So the actors touched hands, and suddenly, that small gesture became electrifying. Casey admitted, “The last week was thrilling but scary.” Harrison put into words how many of us feel; he felt “humbled about writing about a pandemic and now living it.”
Running Time: One hour.
If you were wondering how you could help in our area directly, there is the Taking Care Fund in Washington, DC for those whose livelihoods depend on the theater. If you wish, you can donate directly or after watching the discussion of “The Amateurs” on YouTube. There are several other Olney offerings as well. Also consider giving generously to your local theater or arts groups, both amateur and professional. They all need space on the ark.
Read Susan Brall’s personal thoughts about the production and the pandemic here.