South Bay Musical Theatre’s Sara Dean talks artistic community in the time of coronavirus

South Bay Musical Theatre/Courtesy

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Before closures due to COVID-19, colloquially known as the coronavirus, shuttered South Bay Musical Theatre, as well as a cluster of other Bay Area performing arts organizations, executive director Sara Dean was as busy as ever. 

“(We) were prepping for our final offerings of the season, which (included) ‘South Pacific’ as well as a smaller 1940s-style concert … that plays alongside ‘South Pacific,’ ” Dean explained in an interview with The Daily Californian. “I’d arranged an almost all-female design and production staff, which is rare, so I was really looking forward to that creative community feeling. And then the 194os concert was the first time that I had put together something that was totally brand-new and unique … we were essentially writing the script (and) figuring out the songs from nothing.”

Dean began talking to the director and choreographer of “South Pacific” in November 2018, the beginning of a creative process that would last more than a year. Now, Dean’s work is suspended, perhaps permanently. South Bay opted to cancel the production in March; with next year’s season already finalized, “South Pacific” had to be left off of the calendar for the immediate future. 

“For ‘South Pacific,’ it’s such a large show with so many people involved … so the logistics of trying to move that into another spot is really challenging,” Dean reasoned. “(We’re) looking to bring it back in a future year.”

The premature end of South Bay’s 2019-2020 season brings consequences that don’t end with calendar shuffles and creative stoppages. The financial impact, Dean acknowledged, is also undeniable.

“We’re losing a third of our budgeted potential income from ticket sales,” Dean said. “That’s a big hit.”

But Dean is navigating this spell of uncertainty with the same initiative that drives the rest of her theatrical work, searching for new ways to engage performers and produce art in the absence of a physical audience.

“(Our performing community) is very used to being connected, (and they) are feeling extremely isolated. I started, with one of our other members, an online Thursday night theater … (where) we come together over Zoom and read the script,” Dean said. “It’s like a table read. I say the ‘lobby,’ which is the Zoom meeting room, is open at 7:45, curtain starts at 8.” It’s the least she can do, Dean added, “to bring some sort of theater back into (performers’) lives.”

So far, these virtual table reads have been resonating. Early “Thursday night theaters” attracted about 50 people; on the day of the interview, Dean was preparing to host a Zoom call with more than 100 attendees. It’s no substitute for the rigor of in-person rehearsals, but facilitating some form of connection is clearly a vital step for a theater community thrown unceremoniously into limbo.

Right now, Dean is in the process of bridging a similar connection between South Bay Musical Theatre, its audiences and its donors, something which she admits is an ongoing struggle.

“How do we keep those donors feeling connected and feeling engaged when one of their shows isn’t going to happen? (When) we’re not going to see them in the lobby?” Dean asked. “(We’re) trying to figure out how to … give them some sort of almost reassurance that we’re still here, we’re viable and we’re still working. We’re still creating as much as we can.”

Dean is also aiming to use this stretch of downtime to bolster a sense of solidarity among other Bay Area theater companies, all of which, in Dean’s mind, are weathering the same storm.

“I think the community is really going to have to come together and figure out how we’re all going to survive,” Dean mused. “How do we help share some of this load that we’re all facing when income is so much lower? What’s our goal three years from now, and how can we come together and share some of that expense?”

These are all questions that, for now, don’t have clear answers. But Dean, in good spirits, believes live theater will find a way to persevere.

“I think there is something, a feeling like a community coming together, that a theater provides,” Dean expressed. “I do hope that (these closures) will inspire people to go, ‘You know what, I am going to go see that show, I am going to buy those tickets, I am going to help support our local communities.’ It’s such a huge value to have the culture right here, right in the community.”

Dean continued: “While this feels really, really hard, I do believe that good things will come. And whether it’s in relationship-building with different companies or just looking at the theater and its value to the community in a different light, I feel like out of this dark time, hopefully there’ll be some growth.”

That growth, when it comes, will likely take time. But, “South Pacific” or no “South Pacific,” Dean has more than enough to keep her busy during the wait.

“When this all came down … my initial thought was, ‘Oh, I’ll be able to organize the house, I’ll have all this downtime.’ And what am I doing? I’m finding ways to present theater online,” Dean laughed. “My house is not clean.”

This article is part of a series in which local artists and art organizations discuss how closures due to the COVID-19 outbreak are impacting them.

Grace Orriss is the arts & entertainment editor. Contact her at [email protected]. Tweet her at @graceorriss.