Curtain Call: Theaters plan ahead to fill seats with in-person audiences

Square One Theatre Company is hoping to reopen with "The Dining Room" in November.

Square One Theatre Company is hoping to reopen with “The Dining Room” in November.

Contributed photo /

While theaters are busy trying to keep their audiences entertained with streaming and emails, they are also quietly preparing for the return of live theater at their venues.

Tom Holehan, the artistic director of Square One in Stratford, said his theater is planning for a November reopening.

“We’re going to start with the season that we didn’t get to do when we had to close,” he said. “We had just started performances of A.R. Gurney’s ‘The Dining Room’ when we had to close. We will start with that production, which has been hanging around like a ghost and we’ll follow that up with ‘Agnes of God.’ ”

He paused and added, “This is the first time in nearly 40 years that I haven’t been directing a show.”

One of the fun things that Square One will be doing in addition to continuing the season is to offer the first 100 patrons face masks that display the Square One.

“We’ve been streaming productions and we will have another coming up soon,” Holehan said. “Our patrons are enjoying them and we also keep in touch via emails. Happily, we will be returning to our location at the Stratford Academy.”

Said Jeff Dunn, executive director at the Landmark Community Theatre in Thomaston, “It’s not easy to get an audience back.”

Dunn knows from first-hand experience. When the theater formerly known as the Thomaston Opera House closed in 2010 and reopened as Landmark in 2012, the hiatus was long enough to disrupt the habitual attendance the theater had experienced.

“You don’t just say, ‘Hey, we’re back; here we are,’ and your audiences return,” Dunn said. “It takes a lot of time and a lot of hard work to get them back.”

Dunn added that many people find other forms of entertainment and activities to keep them busy when a theater shuts down.

Sharon Wilcox Houk, producing artist director at Torrington’s Warner Theatre, agrees.

“It’s not only about people finding other activities to replace their theater habits, but also about being streamed out. We have to rebuild and reinvent ourselves,” she said.

Houk has been brainstorming with others at the Warner on just how to do that. For instance, plans are in the works for partnering with other local organizations for at least two outdoor events. They would be family-friendly, and held during the day and early evening.

“Outdoors will be more likely to draw an audience,” she said adding that you can only watch so many streamed shows while acknowledged streaming will be permanent.

“You just can’t do the same shows that other theaters are doing,” she said. “We already have an international festival of new plays, but we’d like to have an international festival of new plays by young playwrights. We need young audiences.”

The Warner has already started a series of one night-only live streamed readings, which have been well received. “We follow the presentation with a questionnaire asking viewers if they would like to see the reading produced as a completely staged production. Most of the responses are positive,” said Houk.

One thing is for certain, all of our local theaters are busy planning for the future. They want their audiences to return and they want to welcome new audiences as well. While all seems quiet on the theater landscape, what’s going on inside is creating the best theater ever.

Joanne Greco Rochman is a founder of the Connecticut Critics Circle and a longtime member of the American Theater Critics Association.