The COVID-19 pandemic has made planning a 2021 season challenging for local theater companies.
They’re speculating on what form theater can and will take next year, and planning for the unknown future while under current state mandates.
Prima Theatre recently announced the four musical shows being presented as its 2021 season, with both social distancing and flexibility built in.
“There were a few filters to the programming,” says Mitch Nugent, executive artistic producer of Prima Theatre. “We needed to be able to have a minimal number of people on stage,” assuming social distancing will still be required.
Nugent says another consideration for the shows chosen was “does it meet the moment? Does the work fulfill our mission, and, specifically, in this period of time where the arts have the opportunity to play a vital role in creating hope and joy and reflection in this unparalleled time?”
In addition, “every show needed to be able to move to a different format, whether in or outside of the space” — Prima’s Lancaster theater at 941 Wheatland Ave., Nugent says.
“We need to have work that can pivot within itself, that we don’t have to announce throughout the year that we’re changing shows — that they could withstand anything happening,” Nugent says.
In addition, Prima negotiated the rights necessary to film and stream all four shows, beginning two weeks after each live performance closes.
Inside Prima’s theater space, Nugent says, the traditional theater seating will be replaced for 2021 by two- and four-person tables placed at proper social distances from each other.
“So, folks are distanced by party,” Nugent says. “And so we’re talking about less than 80 people ... for a venue that was normally a few hundred people in the house at any one time. Obviously, the capacity is lowered, but the room feels vital and energetic.”
These are the shows Prima has planned for Fridays and Saturdays in 2021.
• “Sammy & Sinatra,” March 5-20, an original show featuring the songs of Rat Pack pals Sammy Davis Jr. and Frank Sinatra, along with stories surrounding their lives and their relationship.
“We really wanted to start off with something ... that’s familiar and fun,” Nugent says. “It’s got to be full of joy, and yet, when you look at these men’s lives and their relationship together, you see how prejudice, pop culture and politics really ... were part of their lives.
“Sinatra was trying to bring (Davis) with him into some of the clubs, and they wouldn’t allow him” because he was Black. “And Sinatra would say, then I’m not showing up,” Nugent says. “Sinatra has his back.
“The time we’re living in is not its own bubble, with no historic background,” Nugent says. “This has historical context. ... Those stories (of Sinatra and Davis), and the context of their time, have some implications to today.”
• “Queen/Journey,” June 5-19. an original show featuring the music of the two powerhouse bands.
“That’s the top concert material that we’ve been asked for, since we’ve been surveying our audiences,” Nugent says. “It’s the music of Journey or the music of Queen. So we smashed it together in one epic concert.
“We realize that, at the time that we’ll be releasing it, the weather’s going to be getting better,” he says. “If the world is not in perfect post-pandemic circumstances in June of 2021 ... we would be able to take that piece to be a drive-in concert, that it would be able to be mobile.”
Nugent likens a possible altered format to the “Brave & Beautiful” concert show Prima presented in September on flat-bed trucks — both mobile and stationary for drive-in audiences in a parking lot.
Either way, Nugent says, “it’s going to be a pure rock ’n’ roll dream.
“The intent is to replicate the energy of an arena concert. ... Just like you took a couple of shots of Red Bull and you’re just going at it,” Nugent adds.
• “Soon,” Oct. 1-23, a musical by Nick Blaemire. known for writing the short-lived Broadway show “Glory Days.”
“We have a really nice relationship with the folks at Signature Theatre in Arlington (Virginia),” Nugent says. “If Prima is sort of the off-Broadway option for Lancaster city, then we need to be taking the leap to do some more of that fresh work.”
Signature Theatre produced “Soon,” a four-person musical about a woman quarantined in her apartment, in 2015.
“Early in COVID ... we were looking for apocalyptic musicals,” Nugent says. “It felt like we were living in the end of an era, the start of something new.
“In the piece, we think, as an audience, (that for) this main character who is quarantining herself in her apartment, it appears like the world is ending because of climate change,” Nugent says.
But the audience will learn that she is isolated for a different reason.
The character must come to terms with how we all must choose to live our lives, knowing they’ll end someday.
“It’s this gorgeous, hilarious and heart-wrenching piece,” with contemporary songs, Nugent says. “It just feels like, wherever we are in 2021, we’re going to still live with the fact that we are living in times where quarantine won’t be foreign.”
• “On the Naughty List,” Dec. 3-18, 2021, another original piece by Prima.
“We embark on every holiday season, where we get together most often with the people who are the ones that annoy us the most, and then tell stories about a man who breaks into your house and kisses your mama,” Nugent says. “This is weird. It’s a time to sort of laugh about all of that, and do the classic (holiday) tunes but in Prima style.”
There also will be some spoken-word-style storytelling, and possibly the presentation of Christmas stories as revolutionary ones when they’re placed in historical context, Nugent says.
The flexibility of all these 2021 shows, Nugent says, “is to say to the community, ‘You can jump into this season, you can subscribe to it, and really, in every eventuality, you’re still going to get the theatrical experience.
“If there’s ever a year to thrive, it’s this upcoming one,” Nugent says. “We all need invigoration in our lives; we all need celebration, and hope and joy. And I’m hoping we can be one place (where that) can be a guaranteed.”
To subscribe to Prima’s 2021 season, visit primatheatre.org/subscribe. A variety of passes and packages is available, ranging from a premium opening-night pass for all four shows for $325, to three tickets to any of the shows for $156, to an $86 pass to stream all four shows online.