Monday, March 22, 2021

Theatre, Covid, and Costuming - What We’ve Learned

It is no secret that the COVID-19 pandemic has had a profound and heartbreaking effect on live performances. Here at The Costumer, we felt the same heartache as our customers during March of 2020 when shutdowns began. Spring musical theatre season is typically the busiest time of the year for us at The Costumer, as we race to get productions’ rental costumes and accessories out the door and shipped out all across the country. As we hustle and bustle, we make sure that every single costume for every actor, no matter what age or size, is pressed, altered, and accessorized to perfection. This past spring however, our typical commotion was stopped in almost an instant. Theatres across the country went dark as state and local shutdown orders were imposed in order to slow the spread of COVID-19. According to the Educational Theatre Association’s August survey, “The Impact of COVID-19 on Theatre Education,” 91% of schools had to cancel their performances in spring of 2020. Such a large number of cancellations is sobering to say the least. As lovers of scholastic theatre who understand the massive physical, mental, and emotional investment required to put up a show, we here at The Costumer were just as heartbroken as our fellow directors and cast members across the country.

Many theatres were hopeful at the start of the pandemic that in person performances were still possible. A number of theatres in multiple states rescheduled their performances with the hopes that the pandemic would abate quickly. However, performances rescheduled to a few weeks away from the original opening night soon turned into months, and ultimately outright cancellations in some cases. As lockdown measures began being enforced in New York State, The Costumer had to turn off our sewing machines, shut the lights, and close our doors until restrictions were lifted.

Our machines are silent, our chairs are empty but our phone lines are opeon. We want your show to go up, when you are ready. We want your studen and child to shine when the lights come back on. We'll be here for you... The Costumer
A message from The Costumer at the onset of COVID-19 Lockdown measures

As restrictions were eased in the following months, The Costumer eventually re-opened our doors and theatre creators across the country began getting back to work. As most of us theatre makers are well aware, it is very hard to break a theatre artist’s spirit which was well on display as creative people across the country hit the ground running in developing new and innovative ways to adapt theatre to our new normal. Scholastic and professional theatres throughout the United States created methods to produce theatre through socially distanced and virtual formats, thus allowing theatre to continue to live on and keep people connected through art during this new age.

While individual theatre groups developed new methods to produce their shows, theatre licensing agencies have adapted their practices as well. Theatre licensing agencies are perhaps one of the most significant driving forces in the industry that dictate how theatre can be produced. Since the onset of the pandemic and the shuttering of live performances, agencies such as Music Theatre International (MTI) and Theatrical Rights Worldwide (TRW) have provided theatre companies with cutting edge new tools to produce theatre in socially distant and safe manners. Through a hosting partnership between ShowTix4U, MTI and Broadway Media, MTI now provides licensing and a comprehensive platform for theatres to capture and stream live musicals and performances, sell tickets to streaming events, and have royalties paid automatically through one unified online platform. MTI has developed a large catalog of shows that are available for streaming rights, and such shows will be permitted to stream until in person live theatre is made safe again.

TRW has also similarly partnered with virtual platforms in order to provide streaming rights to their entire catalog of shows. TRW has authorized that their shows can be streamed and ticketed via BookTix Live. Much like MTI’s streaming platform, BookTix Live allows theatre companies to provide live stream ticketing for their productions, granting audience members individual exclusive access to live performances of TRW musicals from any location. While nothing can compare to the atmosphere of sitting in a theatre and watching a live performance, live streams of shows provided by platforms such as BookTix allow for friends and family of cast and crewmembers to easily watch performances by their loved ones. Another benefit of live streamed theatre is that friends and family who may not have been able to travel to a theatre venue under normal circumstances can now watch performances from home.

In addition to providing streaming services that allow the show to go on in a safe and socially distanced manner, licensing agencies like MTI have also expanded upon licensing for Junior productions. Broadway Junior musicals were launched in 1996 by MTI chairman, Freddie Gershon, and are licensed productions that are designed by educators to suit the needs and attention spans of younger casts and audiences. These adapted musicals are condensed, author-approved versions of their Broadway counterparts, including classic Broadway hits like Guys and Dolls and Into The Woods, as well as Disney productions like Beauty and the Beast and Frozen. The music for these junior productions are written in adjusted keys and styles for young and developing voices. Further, all shows have flexible cast sizes to fit any scholastic ensemble, no matter how big or small. Such Junior productions have been made more accessible to scholastic ensembles since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic and translate well into an online format through their flexible structure and style. MTI has made many of their Junior show licenses available for streaming and continue to add to its ever-growing list of titles.

While licensing and ticketing agencies have made strides in adapting to our new forms of distanced theatre, how has The Costumer helped facilitate theatre groups’ transition to virtual and distanced theatre? Throughout the past year, The Costumer overhauled a wide variety of our operations in order to accommodate the needs of our customers and our collective “new normal.” One of the hallmarks of The Costumer’s service philosophy throughout our past 100-plus years of business has been flexibility, and the pandemic has been no exception. For productions that are being filmed, we now allow for costume shipments to be split to sync with filming schedules, thus permitting specific costumes to arrive to our customers just in time for when they are needed for a shoot. Due to many productions featuring smaller casts, The Costumer has also waived the minimum rental costume order requirement for some of our higher demand shows in certain instances, like Beauty and the Beast. The Costumer is also continuing to offer a mix of sale items and costumes to compliment rental orders. We are adept at working with customers to maximize the budgets and deal with any constraints. Whether your company needs individual props for actors to reduce sharing and adhere to sanitation guidelines, or simply needs a little something extra to spice up your rental order, The Costumer is always ready to serve.

Along with our increased flexibility to meet our customer needs, The Costumer consistently works to follow all Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines in order to prevent the spread of COVID-19. We adhere to strict social distancing and masking rules in order to protect our employees and our customers. Every team member that handles your order has their temperature taken at the start of each shift and is screened for COVID-19 risks every day. Additionally, both of our brick-and-mortar locations are thoroughly sanitized and disinfected daily by our staff. We have also adjusted the floorplans at each of our stores to accommodate for social distancing, such as widening our aisles and making certain foot traffic patterns one way only. In addition, all dance shoes and costumes that are tried on by customers at our locations are removed from circulation for a quarantine period and are disinfected before being put back on the sales floor. The health and safety of our customers and our team members is paramount, and here at The Costumer, we hold ourselves to the highest standard when working to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

With new practices and procedures in place to stop the spread of COVID-19, we have been able to safely support our customers as they tackle theatrical productions during this unprecedented time. Along the way, we have witnessed a number of these new theatre formats firsthand. Virtual productions MTI and TRW’s licensing and ticketing platforms have become popular, and scholastic and professional ensembles have utilized other tools such as Zoom and OBS to create innovative virtual productions as well. Between the onset of the pandemic and February 2021, well over 80% of the customers we have supported employed virtual or hybrid performance formats. While some of these new and emerging forms of theatre may be daunting to scholastic theatre groups, The Costumer has a vast wealth of knowledge and experience in dealing with unconventional production methods through our long history with film and television productions.

We have even begun to see firsthand how some of our loyal customers have adapted to our new normal. Guilderland High School drama director, Andy Maycock, had to overcome many of the same challenges faced by theatre groups all across the country when producing his spring musical. After having to cancel their previously planned musical, Chicago, in 11th hour last spring, Andy decided to produce a socially distanced production of Little Women this spring. Andy explains that he chose Little Women for a number of reasons: “First, because of its smaller cast size. We went with a cast of 25 this year – compared to our usual 45 or 50 – because we knew that with distancing, it was going to be tough to get lots of kids onstage at the same time.” Andy also states that MTI’s adjustments to their licensing agreements gave his theatre group the opportunity to film their production, upload the recording to ShowTix, and charge admission per viewing. Additionally, Andy explains that the “show also had very few dancing moments, so we were glad that we wouldn’t have kids working too hard in the ‘physical activity department.’” In terms of costuming, The Costumer has gladly partnered with Andy and his school’s production needs through staggered costume rental deliveries that match the production’s shooting calendar. After all, The Costumer has been proud to play a part in Guilderland’s productions since 1989 – a total of 36 shows! In this virtual model, all costumes are pulled and put together at the same time to ensure a cohesive look. The delivery schedule then gets set according to what is needed for each filming day, thus every actor has a clean costume that drops them into their character on the day of their shoot. Andy and his team have also found creative ways to record their actors sing and act in a safe and socially distanced manner, and with lots of hard work, planning, and fabulous rental costumes from The Costumer, all signs point to Guilderland High School’s production of Little Women being a success.

Guilderland High School’s Little Women
Guilderland High School’s Little Women

Virtual or recording methods for productions like Guilderland High School’s Little Women may endure even after audiences and casts can gather in the theatre again safely. Streaming platforms may persist so that relatives of cast members can tune in to watch their loved ones perform from any part of the country or the world. Virtual productions may have longevity for theatre groups that seek to draw in performers from across the country, thus allowing actors and theatre creators to connect and work on a project from wherever they are. While almost nothing compares to the atmosphere and spectacle of live theatre, adding virtual options and live streaming make theatre more accessible to all.

No matter the format, size of ensemble, type of production, pandemic or normal times, The Costumer will always be there for wherever and however theatre is performed. We have served our local community and theatres across the country for over 100 years, and in that time, we have witnessed just how powerful the performing arts are, and how resilient and innovative the theatre community is. Oscar Wilde once said, “I regard the theatre as the greatest of all art forms, the most immediate way in which a human being can share with another the sense of what it is to be a human being.” Even during these trying times, theatre allows us to connect with one another, and share a common sense of humanity, whether it is in person or through a computer screen. Until the day when we can all gather together once again, share the art that we love with one another, and rejoice in performance that brings us closer to one another, The Costumer will continue to be there for you. The stories that we tell onstage will forever and always come first, and we will be there to help you tell yours.

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