This summer Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival became one of the first professional theatres to open its doors since the coronavirus pandemic closed venues nationwide more than a year ago. The Festival celebrated its 30th Anniversary season welcoming patrons back to in-person performances indoors at the Labuda Center for the Performing Arts and outdoors at the new Air Products Open Air Theatre on the campus of DeSales University.
As one of the few active professional theatres in the nation this summer, and despite reduced seating capacity due to COVID restrictions, the Festival successfully produced seven productions and events this season. PSF reached its attendance goals welcoming nearly 10,000 audience members to 64 performances in just four weeks, in contrast to a nine and a half week season in a typical year.
With state, local, and union rules shifting repeatedly in the months leading up to the season, PSF developed multiple scenarios for the summer season, ultimately selecting the scenario that allowed for the highest-level audience experience with the most productions.
“From Shakespeare to August Wilson, from intimate solo performances to large-cast celebrations on a new stage, from indoors, to outdoors, to virtual offerings, this was a season to remember,” says Producing Artistic Director Patrick Mulcahy. “And neither the occasional rain, heat, nor hot air balloon landing adjacent to an outdoor performance could quell the enthusiasm of our patrons in their return to the theatre. Kudos to our staff, our artists, our donors and our patrons for helping us to pull this particular rabbit out of this particular hat.”
When the state announced it would expand attendance capacity for outdoor gatherings the Festival designed a new outdoor space to accommodate additional attendees. With the support of DeSales University, PSF prepared the mall adjacent to the Labuda Center and built the new Air Products Open Air Theatre on the lawn just a few weeks in advance of opening A Midsummer Night’s Dream, marking a memorable debut as PSF’s first-ever outdoor Shakespeare production.
Safety protocols kept patrons, staff and artists safe. In-person productions ran 90-minutes with no intermission and seating capacity was tailored to smaller socially distanced audiences. The Festival programmed the indoor Main Stage theatre for 22% of capacity, where ticketed patrons sat socially distanced and masked. Attendees of the Air Products Open Air Theatre venue were socially distanced but not masked.
Artists quarantined upon arrival, weekly testing began immediately, the summer staff was nearly fully vaccinated, and actors and technicians generally worked in “bubbles.” Careful observance of these protocols helped the Festival achieve a COVID-free summer of performances.
Prior to the season launch the Festival held its Luminosity Gala outdoors under a tent, the first fundraiser held in-person by a major Lehigh Valley arts nonprofit after the pandemic shutdown. Attendance was 252 and the event raised more than $120,000 to help support PSF’s educational and artistic programs. The combination of community, foundation, and government support PSF received, including pandemic rescue dollars, proved crucial to the Festival’s financial strength and continued success in fulfilling its mission.
The Festival is now completing the planning process for summer 2022, and expects to open both indoor theatres to full capacity next summer. A season announcement will be made in October. “We are eager to return to a few of the plays we didn’t get to produce in 2020, and round out the season with a diversity of enriching offerings for an unforgettable summer,” says Mulcahy.
Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival features acclaimed actors from Broadway, television, and film, and is traditionally the summer home to more than 200 artists from around the country, including winners and nominees of the Tony, Obie, Emmy, Drama Desk, Outer Critics Circle, Jefferson, and Barrymore awards.
About Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival
Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival, under the leadership of Producing Artistic Director Patrick Mulcahy, is the only professional Equity theatre of its scope and scale within a 50-mile radius. PSF is one of only a handful of theatres on the continent producing Shakespeare, musicals, classics, and contemporary plays, all of which can normally be seen in rep and in multiple spaces within a few visits in a single summer season. Similarly, PSF was among just a handful of theatres on the continent in recent summers to produce three Shakespeare plays in a single summer season. A patron would have to travel seven to nine hours from PSF to find a comparable range of offerings at a single theatre within a few weeks’ time.
The Festival’s award-winning company of many world-class artists includes Broadway, film, and television veterans, and winners and nominees of the Tony, Emmy, Obie, Outer Critics Circle, Drama Desk, Jefferson, Hayes, Lortel, and Barrymore awards. A leading Shakespeare theatre with a national reputation for excellence, PSF has received coverage in The Washington Post, NPR, American Theatre Magazine, Playbill.com, The Philadelphia Inquirer, and in recent seasons The New York Times has identified PSF as one of the leading summer theatre festivals in the nation. “A world-class theater experience on a par with the top Bard fests,” is how one New York Drama Desk reviewer characterized PSF.
Founded in 1992 and the Official Shakespeare Festival of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, PSF’s mission is to enrich, inspire, engage, and entertain the widest possible audience through first-rate productions of classical and contemporary plays, with a core commitment to Shakespeare and other master dramatists, and through an array of education and mentorship programs. A not-for-profit theatre, PSF receives significant support from its host, DeSales University, from the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts, and the National Endowment for the Arts. Traditionally, with 150 performances of seven productions, the Festival attracts patrons each summer from 30+ states. In 30 years, PSF has offered 200+ total productions (82 Shakespeare), and entertained 1,000,000+ patrons from 50 states, now averaging 34,000-40,000 in attendance each summer season, plus another 13,000 students each year through its WillPower Tour to schools. PSF is a multi-year recipient of awards from the National Endowment for the Arts: Shakespeare in American Communities, and is a constituent of Theatre Communications Group, and the Shakespeare Theatre Association (STA). In 2013, leaders of the world’s premier Shakespeare theatres gathered at PSF as the Festival hosted the international STA Conference.