Surflight Theatre in Beach Haven may be one of the first theatres in America to reopen, tentatively as soon as early July. Known as “Broadway by the Beach,” this professional equity theatre depends on its summer season, when Long Beach Island – four to six blocks wide and 18 miles long - swells from 10,000 or so residents to 150,000 people. “It’s survival,” says Steve Steiner, the producing artistic director of Surflight. “If we do this, the theatre will lose about $100,000. But if we don’t do this, the theatre will lose a half-a-million dollars, and we can’t survive that.”
I spoke by phone with Steiner about his theatre’s bold reopening plans on May 22, 2020. During our conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity, he described the very special conditions that make Surflight’s reopening possible, and his own unshakable confidence that, somehow, they’ll find a way.
Jersey Arts: Reopening Surflight during a pandemic has to be like walking through a minefield. I understand the idea of setting up a much larger, open air “big top” structure with spaced out seating, but what about the performers and technical crew? How can they do their work safely?
Steve Steiner: We’re uniquely put together for this. Almost nobody that works with us here as an artist or as crew lives here. We provide housing for all of them [about 55 during the season], so we’re going into a large cooperative quarantine over the period of the two shows that we’ll be doing. We will have a social contract with everyone to maintain the health of everyone else in our company. Everyone is aware that if anyone breaks that and brings infection into our "home," the whole thing stops working and everything will have to stop.
JA: So, will all the performers and crew be tested for Covid-19 when they first arrive?
SS: We’ll test when they first arrive and then a couple of days after that to make sure we didn’t get any false negatives. Then, we’ll continue to test. We’ll also take temperatures and all the things that everybody else is doing, whether they be a restaurant or a grocery store. We’re building UV lights into the big top so we’ll be able to zap the entire place and we’ll be fogging it as well, even though it is outdoors and much safer. We’re using all the safety protocols that we could possibly come up with!
We’re probably going to be one of the few theatres in the country that will be able to operate this summer, if we are able to operate – and that’s still a big if. We’ve gotten permission from the borough, our local government. The governor [of New Jersey] just said [on May 22] that outdoor dining was still banned. But when outdoor dining is given the greenlight – which he expects in a couple of weeks, with proper social distancing of course – that’s what we’re hanging our hat on. Because what we’re asking for is no different than what they’re requiring from outdoor dining, which is an outdoor space with socially distanced groups of people, at least six feet apart. And we’re asking for exactly the same thing, except we don’t serve food! So it’s actually safer; people can keep their face coverings on.
JA: Surflight Theatre, according to the history on your website, has had quite a history. It struggled through Hurricane Sandy, it’s gone through bankruptcy, and was even closed in 2015 and 2016. Then, your last two seasons were the most successful yet! How has your attitude to this unprecedented new challenge been?
SS: I have lived my life, and I’ve taught my daughter this – there’s a solution to every problem, we just have to find it. That’s pretty much my mantra of how to get through life! And so when this occurred, we had to say, “Well, alright, what’s the solution?” The one that became obvious was to move outdoors. Especially as we learned more about the virus, and it’s been even more stated in recent days, that outdoors is the safest place to be. It’s very hard to get enough viral load to be infected when you’re outdoors, so it became obvious that that’s the best solution. So that’s how we decided to proceed.
JA: I understand that you’re also opening up Showplace Ice Cream Parlour, although the exact date will depend on state guidelines. All of the money made by the ice cream parlor goes to support the non-profit theatre organization, and it’s an important source of income. Showplace is known for the talent of its wait staff – will they still be breaking out into song and dance routines?
SS: Yes, they will! We have to restage the choreography because we’re not going to have any of them touching each other. Usually the shows are a soloist, a duet, a sing-along, and a finale, and the finale usually ends up with all of the performers bunched together. So we’re going to place them. The table arrangement allows us to have as many patrons outside as we had inside, which is about 130, with all of the tables being properly socially distanced, because the patio we’re moving out to is fairly large. So the performers will be spaced out and they will do the finale in six different positions instead of all together.
JA: The theatre community is taking such a big blow across the board, from Broadway to every city and town’s theatre company. Why is it important to really push to reopen right now, and to come back as soon as possible?
SS: Unlike any other industry, except for maybe cruise ships, theatre is completely stopped. There’s no possible way to do anything in an industry that requires public gathering. The live performing experience, the storytelling, is so important – it’s really our patrons that cannot wait for us to come back. It’s anecdotal, but our Facebook page has been on fire with people saying, “I can’t wait to come!” It was described to me that of the 100% of the theatre-going public, there are 30% that will not return until there’s a vaccine, there are 40% in the middle that are sort of on the fence, and depending on the situation they’d like to come, but they’re wary. Then there’s 30% at the top that would put on a hazmat suit and come, if they had to!
JA: How have you been keeping your spirits up during this difficult time? And it does sound like they are up!
SS: We’re very, very positive that we’re going to be able to do this, and probably be one of the few [theatres] in the entire country that’s able to do this. Because we have our unique situation, that everyone lives here, which is unlike almost any theatre in the United States. Having our mainstage and children’s theatre available for the families who come [to Long Beach Island for the summer], and having the ice cream parlor, is really, really important. We need to do this to mitigate our losses because of the pandemic so that we can come back next year and rebuild our financial base. We’re going to find a way to get through it.
Nobody’s going to take a plane this summer. Nobody’s going to take a boat this summer – not nobody, but almost nobody! Everybody is going to drive. We have an enormous percentage of the country’s population within a four-hour drive of the Jersey Shore, so we think that there’s going to be a whole lot of people here and they’re going to need things to do. And the ice cream parlor, and the children’s theatre, and our mainstage theatre are important things for them to be able to do while they’re here on vacation. Probably hundreds of thousands of people over the years saw their first live theatrical performance at Surflight Theatre, because the children’s theatre has been going since 1956. And it sparks that love of live performance they carry through until they’re adults, and then they bring their children to see the shows! It’s all part of audience development.
As Surflight Theatre begins its summer season during the pandemic outside under a big top, it’s interesting to note that their first performances in the summer of 1950 were also under a big tent. The history of Surflight and the many performers who learned their craft there over the years is documented in “Joe’s Dream: The Magic of Surflight Theatre 70th Anniversary Edition,” published in 2019 and available to order from their website.