The pandemic delivered a gut punch to the performing arts in 2020, with many Central Florida stages canceling their in-person seasons or even closing down completely. But with the new year, our local theater community is showing some promising signs of life, and the return of Winter Park Playhouse is a prime example. The Orlando area's only professional nonprofit company dedicated to musicals, which has been darkened since last spring, has taken advantage of the downtime to make virus-conscious renovations to their venue — with a little help from taxpayers.
Artistic director Roy Alan recently gave me a guided sneak preview of the reborn Playhouse during a pause in rehearsals for Rodgers and Hammerstein's A Grand Night for Singing, whose Jan. 22 opening kicks off WPP's 18th anniversary season. Although they've broadcast some online fundraising performances, this Friday marks the first time patrons will set foot inside the Orange Avenue theater since March.
"We had just opened The Andrews Brothers on March 13th, and then the 14th and then the next day we had stop," recalls Alan. "It was a five-week run, and we so we paid everybody out through their contract, thinking 'OK, well, in April we'll be back.'"
When it became clear that couldn't happen, Alan and executive director Heather Alexander shifted the Playhouse's usual July-through-June season to January through December for 2021, and secured permissions to stream performances for patrons who aren't yet ready to return in person.
"We have almost 1,200 subscribers, and normally we have 3,000 seats available for a run, so basically half of our audience is our season subscribers," says Alan. "We just let them know what was going on and said, 'If you're ready to come back that's great, but if not you'll have this option.' And many of them, especially our bus groups coming from the Villages and coming from Ocala and South Florida, they're like 'Yeah, we're ready to come, we want to get back out.'"
In order to welcome back those patrons while also protecting their cast and crew, the Playhouse has made extensive changes backstage, creating separate green rooms and dressing spaces for performers and technicians; installing touch-free faucets and ultraviolet HVAC sanitizers; and even spraying PermaSafe throughout the building, which promises to kill viruses and microbes for 12 months.
"They're using it on rental cars and they're using it in buses and places where there's a lot of people coming in and going out," says Alan. "It's on all of the surfaces, anything that is touched."
The Playhouse's most visible pandemic-era update is the all-new stage, which is now a foot taller and features a dedicated pit area for the orchestra.
"As soon as we got it built, even before it was painted, I got up and started tap-dancing, testing it [so] it is broken in, and it's really solid," boasts Alan, who has been a professional hoofer for more than half a century. "It's a much nicer stage than we used to have. ... [Before], I had to avoid blocking anyone sitting on the floor, because the people in the back couldn't see them. Now it's fine, and especially for dancing, people in the back row can actually see feet."
Virtual fundraisers have helped WPP raise nearly $34,000 to stay afloat, but none of these improvements would have been possible without close to $12,000 of Federal CARES Act funding distributed via Orange County's Community Arts PPE and Facility COVID-19 Public Health Grant, which was administered by United Arts of Central Florida.
"At first they weren't sure about the stage," says Alan. "We said, 'This is to distance the crowd from the actors and the actors from the crowd,' and [at] the last minute they approved it. So they paid for the stage, they paid for the UV lights, they paid for the PermaSafe."
Of course, all this infrastructure is useless without actors, and while the Playhouse prides itself on employing Actors Equity members, the union's current restriction on indoor performances means those contracted roles have been reassigned to the end of the season. Paid non-union performers fill out the current cast, but Orlando's Equity talent pool depends on Disney reviving its shuttered stages soon.
"I know a couple of people who've dropped their [union membership] card just so they could work. And then there are other people that are just waiting to see, and I have a feeling within six months if they aren't bringing those shows back, they're going to go where the work is," predicts Alan. "They don't call actors gypsies for nothing. You know they're going to get up and move someplace where they know they can get work."
Despite continuing challenges ahead, Alan is hopeful that "the vaccine is going to take hold" and his organization will emerge stronger on the other side.
"It's just been one kind of stress after another with this whole thing, but I see a light at the end of the tunnel," concludes Alan on an optimistic note. "It's just taking some time."