It’s no secret that COVID-19 has presented serious setbacks to those who work in the arts. Venues have shuttered, layoffs are widespread, and despair has seized the local arts community. At the same time, many actors, musicians, and artists have developed strategies to adapt to the shifting environment.

Many arts venues have pivoted toward outdoor performance, where audience interaction can be closely monitored. The Wilbury Theatre Company wasted no time last Spring, initially livestreaming several productions. The next step … live theater returns December 3rd when the distinguished company recreates one of their most popular shows, Constellations, by playwright Nick Payne.

Constellations is the story of a chance meeting between quantum cosmologist Marianne (Rachel Dulude) and beekeeper Roland (Josh Short). This December, you’ll be able to see Constellations under the stars … literally. The play will be performed in the parking lot of the WaterFire Events Center in Providence from December 3-19.

Wilbury’s Artistic Director and co-star in the production, Josh Short, explained how COVID has impacted the production.

“This production is something we did about a year and a half ago and it’s something we thought would work very well during this time of COVID… the subject matter being about multiple realities and the idea of dealing with sickness and death are all themes in the show. Also, it’s very simple, two actors, no props, and no sets on the stage. This was something, that with the restrictions of COVID, we thought we could operate around pretty well,” explained Short.

He continued, “Those restrictions include things like unmasked actors must be 14 feet apart at all times. If they have a piece of plexiglass separating them, they can be 6 feet apart. Still this being an intimate show, more or less a love story, required some creative thinking.”

“Everybody involved in the production – the actors, the stage manager, the director – had to go through a COVID testing period which started about a week and a half before rehearsals were allowed to start. Once rehearsal started, everyone is getting tested every 72 hours. We even have an air filtration system in the dressing rooms.”

Committed to safety, the Theatre went as far as hiring infectious disease consultants.

Short explained, “We’ve partnered with the Brown University School of Public Health – a couple of their Master’s students are serving as infectious diesease consultants for the production. They’ll be at every rehearsal, every production meeting, and every performance making sure that the safety protocols are followed at all times.”

The outdoor production involves a lot more than just building a stage. Short described some logistical challenges.

“Right now our capacity is about 100 people or about 50 cars. It’s in a big parking lot next to the WaterFire Center. We’ve built a giant projection screen with the stage in front that’s about 2 feet off the ground and about 25 feet wide. That’s where the performance will happen. We’ll have live cameras in the production – two in the front and two in the back to catch the actors and to project their live images on the screen. At the same time, we’ll be mixing some of the prerecorded images from the original production. The actors will be mic’d and their dialogue will be sent through the FM receivers in your car just like at the drive-in theater.”

Short is excited about the production, but aware that things may feel different.

“I think the biggest challenge is preserving the intimacy of the original production. At the Wilbury Theatre we had an audience of about 50 people. It felt very much like the people in the audience were part of the story.”

He added, “It’s been a really tough time for arts organizations and we’re really glad to be able to collaborate with WaterFire to pull this off. A lot of theaters are dark right now – when we first went dark last March, we committed to a streaming, but we always wanted to get back to a live performance model. I mean that’s what theater is, the connection between the actors and the audience. We’re just thrilled to be able to perform in front of people again.”

Click here for ticket information and further details.

Ken Abrams

Lifestyle Editor Ken Abrams writes about music and more for What'sUpNewp, Providence Monthly, SO RI, and The Bay. He DJ's "The Kingston Coffeehouse" Tuesday nights, 6-9 PM on WRIU 90.3 FM.