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In His Own Words: Jason Weixelman, PSM, Godspell at Berkshire Theatre Group

Stage Directions • October 2020Stage Management • September 30, 2020

Berkshire Theatre Group’s Godspell (Photo: Emma K. Rothenberg-Ware)

In Pittsfield, MA from August 7th through September 20th Berkshire Theatre Group presented an outdoor production of Stephen Schwartz and John-Michael Tebelak’s musical Godspell. Not an unusual selection for the well-regarded regional theater company, except it was anything but production as usual during the ongoing global pandemic. It was in fact a carefully negotiated, planned, and executed experiment in many ways of bringing live musical theater back. Staged in a tent in Pittsfield, MA, Godspell was the first Actors’ Equity Association approved musical during the pandemic. 

The strictly limited (75 tickets per performance, way down from the 780-seat Colonial Theatre space) and socially-distanced seated audience were required to wear masks and follow the procedures and protocols per BTG. Among other precautions there were temperature scans, no-contact scanning stations for tickets, and free-standing hand sanitizer stations. Only digital programs and the first row was 25-feet from the stage. Tickets were $100 each and the show sold-out, extended, and sold-out again. Audiences, actors, crew, and the creative team all embraced the challenges and found joy in the shared live theatrical experience. 

Stage Directions caught up with the design team and stage manager during the run and this month share our conversation with the costume designer Hunter Kaczorowski and Production Stage Manager Jason Weixelman.

Here is Jason in his own words:
 think the big thing for us going into this was safety first. In terms of stage management, it was a lot of handling the safety precautions and procedures in addition to everything else that we usually do. It was really about looking out for spacing and watching where the actors were staged to always make sure that A, they were safe and B, that we were meeting the guidelines that the theater had agreed with both Actors’ Equity and the State of Massachusetts. We had guidelines that we needed to follow in terms of how far apart the actors needed to be when they were speaking—six-feet, and how far apart the actors needed to be when they were singing—10-feet. Also, there could be no direct face to face speaking or singing to one another. It had to be fully facing the front for the most part, unless there was some sort of partition that separated them. [The set design included Plexiglas partitions that the actors would move into place as needed.] Our favorite phrase during rehearsals was “COVID hold.” Everyone would freeze in place, and I’d have to walk up to the stage and make sure that everyone was distanced properly.

During tech, my production assistant [Caroline Stamm] and I had our own separate tables and each table had its own hand sanitizer, Kleenex, gloves, and masks. Usually stage management sits together at one long table but for this production we separated six-feet apart from one another. The director and the choreographer, they also each had their own table. Everyone was distanced from one another and everyone had a mask. Everyone on the crew, on the design team, all of the creatives were wearing masks the whole time. We were very diligent about that, and I even wore a mask when calling the show. Which took me a little bit of time to adjust to, also that was true for the board ops, but we made it work. Also, we got tested three times a week, from day one. We had temperature checks every day and we all would fill out health surveys [The ASM was Corey Cavenaugh].

Pencils, Props, Mics, and Laundry
One of the first things we did to make sure that the actors each had what they needed to work was give each of the actors their own bin with pencils, Sharpies, erasers, highlighters, hand sanitizer, and Kleenex. Like goodie bags but bins. The actor only touched their own bin and each of the supplies, each pencil, highlighters and hand sanitizer bottle was color coded or labelled with their initials, so that they were the only ones that had contact with that item. From a stage management point of view, the bins came in really handy, to be honest with you, I’ll probably continue use that moving forward. It was amazing to see how effective it was. Everyone just knew what was theirs, and we didn’t have to really go around every night collecting pencils and highlighters left around by the actors. If they did forget something, we also created a lost and found box and a COVID safe box. Any items were found left behind went into the lost and found box, then we would sanitize that item, wait 24-hours and then put it in the COVID safe box for the actor to reclaim it.

Godspell usually has many, many, many props. The director, the choreographer, and the designers on this production were able to really eliminate a lot of those, but there were a few exceptions and we do have some props in the show. Nobody shares a prop and no prop was handed off to anybody, so only one actor has contact with a particular prop and every prop was sanitized after every use. That was something we were very diligent about, making sure that they were sanitized often and properly. When we set the prop in its place and only the actor assigned to it would then touch it. It was ‘Your prop and your prop only, and just don’t even look at it if it was someone else’s.’

All of the actors are mic’d so our A1, who had a face shield, a mask, and gloves, was very suited up to show the actor how to put the mic on properly and safely. The actors did that themselves, the A1 didn’t assist the actors putting on their mics just talked them through it. The mics were left on the actor’s dressing room table half hour before they arrived for the show. Then actor left them on the dressing room table at the end of the show, and the A1, fully suited up with the face shield, mask, gloves, collected them and sanitized each of the mics every night.

I’m very grateful to have had this opportunity. I don’t know that I’ve been so ecstatic to call places in my life, but making that first places’ call and saying, “Let’s bring musical theater back to the States,” was really something. It was just a reminder to me how much I love what I do and how lucky I am to be able to do it during a global pandemic. I think it’s a great reminder that we can do this art form anywhere. If we use our creative minds and our collaborative tools to tell the story, we can do it and our audiences will come to it and be moved by it. 

Click here to read our Q&A with Godspell‘s Costume Designer Hunter Kaczorowski.

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