SAN FRANCISCO, Calif. (KRON) — Doors to Bay Area theaters were shuttered when the country entered into an era of social distancing back in 2020, but how are Bay Area theaters coming back from the pandemic?
In 2019 SF Playhouse announced its 2020 season which included “Follies,” a tour-de-force of a musical that demands a rather large cast of triple threats, or performers who can act, sing, and dance. Bill English, a co-founder of SF Playhouse, and the director of “Follies,” has been a staple in the Bay Area theater scene for decades. English was excited about “Follies” highlighting the female performers that call the Bay Area home.
When the pandemic hit in 2020, SF Playhouse was forced to innovate news ways of producing shows. English and SF Playhouse committed to putting up “Follies” at a later date, but they did not imagine that later date would end up being in 2022. “We said we were gonna do it, you know. In the theater, you have to do what you say you’re going to do,” English said.
In order to keep producing work during the pandemic, new safety protocols needed to be developed with Actor’s Equity Association, the union that represents theater artists. Susi Damilano a co-founder, producer, and actor at SF Playhouse worked with the union to develop a production protocol aimed at keeping cast and crew members healthy.
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Some theaters put up plexiglass up on the edges of stages and asked cast members to isolate together exclusively. Damilano and English found a middle ground by putting up a play featuring a small, three-person cast who only took off their masks during performances. However, social distancing requirements meant that a live audience was off the table. English developed a three-camera system, and SF Playhouse was able to provide performances available by livestream.
In 2022, as the pandemic progressed and isolation requirements were lifted, theaters were faced with the new challenge of putting up shows while cast members navigated COVID infections. This is where the understudies have saved the day, “Understudies are the heroes of the pandemic,” Damilano says.
English knew that the large cast required for “Follies” could pose some challenges, so he employed a group of seven understudies and swings who would be prepared to go on for a number of roles. It was a good thing English was prepared because COVID started going through the cast the first day of rehearsals. Using cameras and Zoom, English developed a rehearsal process that could be completed while some of the cast was remote.
Meredith Fox is a swing for “Follies,” which means she is prepared to go on for five different roles at any time. One day, “I thought I was going in for one character, but three more people in the cast tested positive,” Fox says; she ended up going on for another actor that day. In order to keep up with each of her characters, Fox works on her script daily, “Every day I spend time going through lines, music, and choreo to keep it fresh,” she said.
The seven understudies acted as avatars for ill performers as they were rehearsing from home. “We didn’t have all 21 actors together until the Friday before opening,” English told KRON4. At one point even English became ill with COVID, and he simply pivoted to directing from home. “You just get used to pivoting,” Damilano said of the process.
After multiple delays, SF Playhouse committed to opening the “Follies” in early July. However, after multiple breakthrough cases within the cast, opening night had to be moved back to July 20. English says the commitment and professionalism of the cast and crew enabled the show to have fewer delays. He says one line in Follies, written by Stephen Sondheim, in particular sums up the journey, “I got through all of last year, and I’m here.”
Follies is officially up and running through September 10. Tickets are available at the SF Playhouse website.