REP company member Hassan El-Amin during a rehearsal of “Blue Door.”
Guest actor Will Cobbs and REP company member Hassan El-Amin rehearse “Blue Door.”
“Blue Door” director Akin Babatundé and music director Ryan Touhey work together during a rehearsal.
Managing Arts and Culture Editor
Editor’s note: The printed version of this piece was cut off and features a byline that is incorrect. The online version does display the correct byline and the full text.
After a two-year, pandemic-enforced wait in the wings, the Resident Ensemble Players (REP) are back with an in-person season, albeit with a continued level of uncertainty and caution.
While a return to live theater is the plan, Sandy Robbins, founder and producing artistic director of the REP, remains “cautiously optimistic.”
This season has been a long time in the making given the ever fluctuating nature of current circumstances, and the decision to put on an in-person season was not made lightly.
“If in fact we did all this, we hired all these people, we got all this play ready to open and we couldn’t in fact perform it, it would have a devastating financial effect after two-and-a-half years of devastating financial effects,” Robbins said.
The season will consist of two shows: “Blue Door,” written by Tanya Barfield and directed by Akin Babatundé, and “Yeah Baby,” written by Theresa Rebeck and directed by Rebeck and Robbins.
“Blue Door” has proved to be especially fitting for the REP’s careful return to live, in-person theater, as it features only one set and two characters. “Yeah Baby” will include the entirety of the company and has a comedic quality Robbins considers important now more than ever.
“I don’t think any of us need anything heavy,” Robbins said. “Life is heavy.”
The season will be notable not only for its long-awaited revival of in-person shows, but for accompanying regulations for actors, crew and audiences. In stipulating COVID-19 protocols, the REP took various factors into account, including the policies of the university, the state and different theater unions.
Notably, audience members will be masked. They will not, however, be socially distant while seated, an intentional decision so as to preserve what Robbins deems “an experience of community.”
While on stage, actors will not be masked, nor will they practice social distancing. However, per state and union regulations, as soon as they leave the stage, they will be required to put their masks back on. Additionally, the theater will be sanitized following each performance. Likewise, actors have been tested three times weekly, and those who will be in close contact with actors will be subject to testing requirements, as well.
In case of an illness, measures have been put in place, including understudies. However, Robbins admits that there could be a situation where the show won’t be able to go on.
“If enough people get sick at the same time, we’ll have to cancel a performance just like if enough people on the football team get sick, they’ll cancel that day’s game,” Robbins said.
Hassan El-Amin, a REP company member and adjunct professor in the university’s Department of Theatre, will be playing the character of Louis in “Blue Door” and explained that rehearsals have proved somewhat more demanding than usual.
“There are restrictions … that you have to recalculate your brain to because it’s out of the norm,” El-Amin said.
At breaks during on-stage rehearsals, actors must put their masks on before exiting the stage. Rehearsal spaces have designated entrances, exits and seating areas, and actors must have completed health checks.
Despite what he describes as “anxiety” about the return to the stage, El-Amin actively aspires to remain optimistic about the upcoming season, even with the threat of COVID-19 in the background.
“So I have this positivity that things are gonna be great,” El-Amin said. “Even though COVID is looming, it’s going to be alright. Even though COVID is threatening us, we’re gonna be alright. And this indication that we’re going back into the theater is confirmation that that is true. Otherwise we wouldn’t be here.”
Amanda McGinty, the REP’s program coordinator, says that while some hesitation exists in the REP’s audience, the REP has been taking active measures to ensure audience ease, even though it often boils down to personal preference.
“At this point it really is personal of whether you feel comfortable being in a theater, and we are here for those who want to come see a show, and we are doing everything in our power to keep them as safe as possible and keep our staff and our crew and everyone who is in this building as safe as possible,” McGinty said.
The inherently collective and collaborative nature of theatergoing is something that has additionally been missed. El-Amin stresses the synergies that occur in an audience viewing a show together.
“There’s something that happens when you galvanize people together as one,” El-Amin said. “There is an experience that can only take place live in the theater … there is a void that is being missed with not being able to be collectively together as one, one body … one unit breathing together, experiencing together.”
“All the world’s a stage” has taken on a new meaning during COVID-19, with both the stage and the world at large impacted by pandemic restrictions. For now, however, the REP is moving forward, even if it means doing so carefully.