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St. Louis Shakespeare Festival Pulls Plug On Summer Show

St. Louis Shakespeare Festival's summer show in Forest Park typically draws about 40,000 people per year. [6/28/20]
Phillip Hamer Photography
St. Louis Shakespeare Festival's summer show in Forest Park typically draws about 40,000 people per year.

The coronavirus has robbed St. Louis of another longstanding tradition.

St. Louis Shakespeare Festival canceled its annual summer production, leaving the organization in a big financial hole and sending 25 full-time and 53 part-time seasonal workers looking for other employment. The cancellation does not effect the organization's eight year-round employes.

Actors' Equity, the national union representing professional actors and stage managers, did not approve the festival’s safety plan, Producing Artistic Director Tom Ridgely said. 

He said St. Louis Shakespeare Festival has not yet received a response from the union, but he anticipated the plan would not be approved because of the danger posed to employes by the increased spread of coronavirus in Missouri and throughout the country.

"We realized the writing was on the wall," he said. 

This would have been the troupe’s 20th consecutive year producing free Shakespeare in Forest Park. “Much Ado About Nothing” was originally set to open in May, before theater leaders postponed it to August in hopes of finding a way to perform safely amid a pandemic. 

“It really didn’t boil down to any kind of social distancing or sanitation that a theater could do. It really has to do with the progress of the virus, which, as we know, is not trending in the right direction,” Ridgley said. 

St. Louis Shakespeare Festival’s summer production is its centerpiece attraction. About 40,000 people attend each year. Though it is free to attend, it generates corporate sponsorships and individual gifts tied to the show. Ridgley said canceling it could cost the organization up to half of its expected annual revenues. It has an annual budget of nearly $2 million. 

Actors Equity adopted a policy last month that its members may only return to work following coronavirus-related shutdowns if the union determines that conditions are safe. 

The safety plan the theater presented to Actors Equity included socially distant seating, with assigned spaces to be marked out on the lawn of Shakespeare Glen. But crew members, actors, designers and other creative staff would have still had to work in close proximity, in conditions that are friendly to spread of the virus. 

The first standard listed in Actors’ Equity’s safety guidelines, developed by epidemiologist David Michaels, is that “the epidemic must be demonstrated to be under control.” The document specifies the need for “extensive testing” and that “very few if any new cases are being identified in the area.”

The weekly average of new coronavirus cases has remained relatively constant in St. Louis and St. Louis County since local officials relaxed restrictions aimed at limiting spread of the virus in May, but the rate of increase has not declined significantly. On Friday, Missouri health officials reported the largest single-day statewide increase of cases yet. Case numbers are also spiking nationally. 

“Getting a safe way for people to gather in spaces,” Ridgley said, “especially outdoor spaces in the city, is much more possible than getting actors together in an enclosed space — and rehearsal, and yelling and breathing and spitting and doing all of the things they do when they’re getting a show ready.”

If the union had approved the plan, the festival would have then sought approval from St. Louis Health Department. 

St. Louis Shakespeare Festival also postponed its fall production of “Shakespeare in the Streets: The Ville” by Mariah Richardson to September 2021. In lieu of its mainstage show at Shakespeare Glen, beginning Aug. 12 the festival will offer 90-minute, socially distanced walking tours of Forest Park with a theme related to “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”

Clarification: An earlier version of this article misstated the response of Actors' Equity's to St. Louis Shakespeare's safety plan. It did not respond to the plan. 

Follow Jeremy on Twitter: @JeremyDGoodwin

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Jeremy is the arts & culture reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.