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Some Howard theaters postpone shows, require vaccination or negative test amid COVID variant surge

Curtains were expected to rise across Howard County theaters this fall as live audiences were set to return for performances for the first time since the coronavirus pandemic darkened stages in March 2020. With the more contagious delta variant on the rise, however, theater companies have had to make decisions on how best to proceed.

Rep Stage, the professional theater at Howard Community College, had just cast its October production of “Songs for a New World” and was starting set construction, when it decided to postpone the production until Dec. 2.

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While the safety of its patrons and audience is the company’s No. 1 concern, Joseph Ritsch, producing artistic director at Rep Stage, said the pandemic was not the reason it decided to postpone the season.

“We’re in a unique situation. We’re a resident theater at a public institution college,” Ritsch said, and an agreement could not be reached with the Actors’ Equity Association labor union over proposed contract changes that would align it with the college’s plan.

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The company is looking at other possible events to happen in the fall, Ritsch said, though it is also keeping an eye on the pandemic.

“Hopefully, we will be in a better place with the pandemic,” Ritsch said. “We’re taking one day at a time.”

The silver lining, he added, was that once an agreement is made with Actors’ Equity and rehearsals can start, the cast can rehearse with a complete set, Ritsch said.

“The set should be up for the first rehearsal,” Ritsch said. ”We never have that in theater.”

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Rep Stage will continue its season next year with “Ghost/Writer” on Feb. 17 and “The Glass Menagerie” on April 28.

On its website, Silhouette Stages announced that it had decided to cancel its September production of “Little Shop of Horrors” due to the “recent increase in COVID-19 cases in Howard County.” The Columbia company is still planning to present “Calendar Girls” and “Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Cinderella” in 2022.

"Godspell" is running at Toby's Dinner Theatre in Columbia from Aug. 27 to Oct. 31. All audience members are required to show proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test taken within 72 hours of the performance in order to attend.
"Godspell" is running at Toby's Dinner Theatre in Columbia from Aug. 27 to Oct. 31. All audience members are required to show proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test taken within 72 hours of the performance in order to attend. (Courtesy photo / HANDOUT)

Toby’s Dinner Theatre in Columbia reopened last fall with an original holiday production, followed by successful productions of “Shrek” and “Elf.” The company offers a limited amount of tickets and groups sit at their own table. While the holiday show featured a sit-down dinner, Toby’s also brought back its signature dinner buffet, though salads and ice cream are now served.

“We are doing everything we can to keep safe,” associate producer Mark Minnick said. “We don’t take short cuts.”

For its production of “Godspell,” which opened Friday, Toby’s is requiring all audience members to show proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test taken within 72 hours of the performance in order to attend. Ticket holders were notified, and there has been both positive and negative feedback, Minnick said.

“People have said we don’t have the right to ask for personal medical information,” Minnick said. “We’re not asking that — just show us this or that.”

All actors, musicians and stage crew members are fully vaccinated, Minnick said. All actors serving as servers, as well as managers and kitchen staff, must wear masks.

“A lot of [Washington] D.C. theaters are implementing this policy,” Minnick said. “With the new variant, we feel it is the right thing to do.”

Minnick is also convinced that live theater is what is needed right now.

“People are looking for things to do,” Minnick said. “People need the escape. They need somewhere to go for joy and relaxation.”

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