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Masks, smaller audience: The show goes on as states ease restrictions

For almost six months, the art world has been at a standstill as museums, galleries, and theaters have all been closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. But as some states begin to lift restrictions, the arts have also slowly started to return. In the Berkshire Hills of Massachusetts, both art museums and live theater have started to make a comeback—with limitations. Ivette Feliciano reports.

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  • Michael Hill:

    This past week, New York City's Metropolitan Museum of Art and he Museum of Modern Art reopened to the public.

    It's a positive development for one of the economic sectors hit hardest by the COVID-19 pandemic.

    According to the Brookings Institute, since the pandemic hit, the creative economy has lost 2.7 million jobs—nearly a third of its workforce.

    But as restrictions are beginning lift in some places, the arts are also starting to return to life.

    NewsHour Weekend's Ivette Feliciano visited one area in western Massachusetts where patrons are experiencing the arts in-person for the first time in almost six months.

  • Ivette Feliciano:

    It's summer in Pittsfield, the largest city in Berkshire County, Massachusetts, and tonight's audience is about to see something they probably haven't seen in months: live theater.

  •  “Godspell” Actors:

    (singing) "Oh, yeah! Oh, bless the Lord my soul. Oh, bless the Lord my soul…"

  •  Ivette Feliciano:

    Since the COVID-19 pandemic hit, the stage actors' union, Actors Equity Association, has only approved two theaters to resume live performances in the US. Both of them were in the Berkshires.

    The first was Barrington Stage Company, which staged the one-man show "Harry Clark" in early August. The second, Berkshire Theatre Group, is now performing the musical "Godspell" through September 20th. For that company's artistic director, Kate Maguire, the show marks a bright spot in a chaotic year. The normally vibrant theater community here has been in turmoil since Massachusetts shut down non-essential workplaces due to COVID-19.

  • Kate Maguire:

    We closed up on March 11th. Everybody went home. And then we recognized that we're in the business of putting on live theatre and that our industry is at a complete standstill.

  • Ivette Feliciano:

    The actors in Berkshire Theatre Group's "Godspell" talk about their dilemma at the beginning of the play.

  • Actor 1:

    The COVID-19 pandemic took away everything I worked my whole life for.

  • Actor 2:

    I felt alone, abandoned, unessential, and just completely unnecessary.

  • Actor 3:

    My entire business relies on human connection.

  • Actor 4:

    When theater shut down, so did I.

  • Kate Maguire:

    I don't know how our industry's going to survive. Is there gonna be money from the federal government, from the NEA to the state arts councils? How are we going to survive this? We can't do any of our work at all.

  • Ivette Feliciano:

    That's not just a problem for theater companies here. The Berkshires relies heavily on the arts to help drive tourism, which in 2018 brought in over $467 million and supported almost four thousand jobs. And it isn't just theaters being affected. Museums, like the Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Massachusetts, also closed its doors in March. Nevertheless, museum staff continued working.

    Olivier Meslay is the Clark's director.

  • Olivier Meslay:

    Part of the staff went to work on different sort of tasks. Some of them were, for example, helping to redo the website when, in fact, they were supposed to welcome the public. Some others were preparing—reopening very, very early on.

  • Ivette Feliciano:

    And then on July 6th, Massachusetts entered phase three of its reopening plan—which included museums. Less than a week later, the Clark opened their doors again.

    For now, visitors and staff must wear masks at all times. The museum has also reduced admission to 25 percent capacity on their 140-acre campus and all tickets must be purchased in advance for specific entry times.

  • Olivier Meslay:

    We are now at 300 people in a day. It's also easier to keep them scattered all over the museum if you have less people.

  • Ivette Feliciano:

    Live outdoor performances are now also allowed in Massachusetts. With the approval of Actors Equity, union actors are now performing in the Berkshires—even as Broadway remains dark.

  • “Godspell” Actors:

    (singing) "Oh, dear Lord, three things I pray…"

  • Kate Maguire:

    The actors quarantined for two weeks before they came. They got tested right before they arrived here. We went to New York with vans and picked them all up, so they were all together. They've been in what we call a bubble ever since. They all live in the same house. They don't ever leave their bubble.

  • Ivette Feliciano:

    Artistic director Kate Maguire says "Godspell" is particularly relevant during the pandemic.

  • Kate Maguire:

    It's about a group of people that come together, they're all in different places of chaos, asking the question, "How did we get here? How are we goin' to get through this period in time?" And by the end of the play, there's some connection and understanding of, essentially, what it means to be human.

  • “Godspell” Actors:

    (singing) "God save the people…"

  • Ivette Feliciano:

    To protect the audience, the company spaces the seats out in groups of two or three.

  • Kate Maguire:

    The audience is under this tent, all in masks, socially distanced. There's 25 feet from the first row to the artists on the stage. And, as you can see, there's partitions up on the stage so that when the actors are singing, those partitions are moved so we eliminate some of the spray from reaching out.

  • Ivette Feliciano:

    Not everything has gone smoothly with the reopening. In early August, due to an uptick in COVID cases, Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker lowered the limit on outdoor gatherings from one hundred people to fifty. Because of this, Berkshire Theatre Group had to reduce their seating capacity. Despite the challenges, both Meslay and Maguire are committed to an in-person experience with art during this time.

  • Olivier Meslay:

    There is the wind. There is the sun. There is plenty of sensorial aspect of art that are embedded in an in-person visit. I think the in-person aspect of the relationship, the experience with art is essential. When you are in front of the—the work of art, there is a moment, there is a pose, there is something which is very unique. it's very different from being virtual.

  • Kate Maguire:

    It's a completely different experience. People go to church, or they're sitting out on front lawns of church now, to be together, to experience their faith. And I've always said that my church is here at my theatre.

  • Ivette Feliciano:

    Maguire says that giving people that experience is important now more than ever.

  • Kate Maguire:

    Artist's lives are being destroyed around the country right now. I mean, for so many artists, at least when they're not working, they can wait on tables. They can't even wait on tables right now. So we need to remember the artist and how they impact our world, and what would the world look like without art.

  • “Godspell” Actor:

    (singing) "You better start… You better start… You better start to learn your lessons well."

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