ISLIP TOWN

'Feels like divine intervention’: Local theatre reps plan performances following NYS announcement

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When the lights went dim on Broadway last year, local theatres followed suit.

A sunken quiet ripped across the South Shore and the rest of the state as local actors, musicians and others yearned to find their way back to the stage.

Earlier this month, artists saw a beacon of hope: at an Albany press conference, Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced that New York State theatre venues can reopen next month to limited audiences.

Under state guidelines, arts, entertainment and events venues are eligible to reopen April 2 at 33 percent capacity, with a limit of 100 people indoors or 200 people outdoors. All attendees must wear masks and maintain social distance.

If all attendees test negative for the coronavirus before entering, Cuomo said, capacity can increase to 150 people indoors and 500 people outdoors.

Though the guidelines do not affect commercial productions of Broadway plays and musicals, many venues across the state announced they would begin hosting live performances this summer.

This includes Lindenhurst-based Studio Theatre of Long Island, a performing arts group which, amid the pandemic, acquired the BayWay Arts Center in East Islip.

Keeping with the optimism that the theatre would reopen again, the group, last fall, hired Rick Grossman as executive artistic director of BayWay.

“He has decades of experience in acting, directing and producing,” Michael Blangiforti, managing director of Studio Theatre of Long Island, said. “By putting him in charge, it positioned us to be ready for exactly what’s happening now, the opening at 33 percent capacity.”

Middle Island resident Grossman, who is affiliated with the Islip Arts Council, has worked at BayWay since the early 1990s and on national theater tours.

Meanwhile, Studio Theatre is nearly finished with its $50,000 reconstruction on the BayWay property. Upgrades include a new lobby and lounge, a bar and cafe, upgraded sound and lighting, ADA-compliant bathrooms and an orchestra pit.

Blangiforti said he anticipates the construction to be completed by June – which, ideally, will align with a 100 percent capacity reopening this summer.

“We really believe that those numbers are going to go up,” Blangiforti said.

As far as the shows that will run, Grossman said that the Studio Theatre team is still in the planning process and working to secure rights on shows and musicals.

“You can’t really put something together from an artistic standpoint until you know the timing of the project,” Grossman said. “Once all these elements are put in place, I think that the Long Island theatre community – from the artists’ point of view as well as the patrons’ point of view – will be quite excited to see the path we’re taking.”

For Alyse Arpino, director of the Noel S. Ruiz Theatre in Oakdale, the state reopening announcement was a blessing.

“It almost feels like divine intervention,” Arpino said. “Our company started out with performances of the stations of the cross and we are coming back on April 2, which is Good Friday.”

The Noel S. Ruiz Theatre has been able to run its educational program this past summer, fall, and winter, albeit to limited capacity and smaller cohorts for the students.

Throughout the year-long shutdown of the theatre, Arpino and her staff have pushed the bounds of creativity to let art continue during the pandemic. This manifested into the construction of an outdoor stage in the parking lot with dinner theatre (working with neighboring pub, Oakdale Brewhouse), where over a dozen shows were held.

Reopening has been thought through carefully, with hand-sanitizer stations placed throughout the theatre, a brand-new air filtration system, staggered entry times to avoid crowding at the box office, and masks for performers.

“We searched for masks that were the most conducive to a theatrical experience,” Arpino said. “We found these clear masks that work with our microphones so audiences will still be able to see the actors’ facial expressions.”

As a thank you to dedicated patrons, many of whom called theatre staff directly to inquire about their mental health status and some who continued their patronage despite the theatre being dark, Arpino and her team decided to add an extra show to their repertory.

“The Little Mermaid,” chosen as a family favorite, will have nine performances between April 10 through April 24.

However, some residents wonder if 33 percent capacity is enough to save local theatres after over a year of shutdown. The fate of many theatre groups remains up in the air.

The Boulton Center for the Performing Arts, part of the Great South Bay YMCA in downtown Bay Shore, remains closed.

The Boulton Center’s executive director, Bob Pettersen, said while the site remains nonoperational, the team is expected to meet over the upcoming weeks to determine how they will proceed.

Sam Desmond contributed to this story.

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