I am confident that the time will come when I no longer start an interview with a question about the pandemic or write a feature that doesn't reference getting through this extraordinary situation.
And yet, carrying on now as though life has returned to normal doesn't seem right.
We all have stories that define these experiences – many of which continue – and each is interesting. It is my pleasure and privilege to share the stories of people passionate about arts and culture and those whose regular lives were almost immediately upended when COVID-19 came on the scene.
So, for now, I will continue with the questions and stories.
That said, I recently spoke with Steve Steiner, Producing Artistic Director at Surflight Theatre in Beach Haven, and asked him to talk about what he did when it was no longer possible to ignore the severity of the pandemic and its impact.
"The first thing we did," he said, "was to pull way in."
Instead of moving ahead with off-stage projects like replacing seats and resurfacing the exterior of the building, Surflight stopped all capital improvements.
"We went to a kind-of remote mode," Steiner said, "and started planning for what we could do and how we could do it."
What they could do and how they could do it was straightforward – construct an open-air tent near the theatre and move shows there – but WHEN they could do that was the big question.
Like hundreds of others across New Jersey, the folks at Surflight were closely following Governor Murphy's news conferences, awaiting any indication that restrictions were easing. And, in early June 2020, the governor announced that outdoor gatherings of up to 250 people, with social distancing and mask-wearing protocols in place, would be allowed.
That was all Surflight needed to set things in motion.
"When we got word that we could have 250 outdoors," Steiner said, "we said alright, we are ready to go."
One thing that contributed, in large part, to Surflight being able to go from zero-to-60 in a short time is the organization's unique circumstances. Surflight has housing for more than 50 people, which enables the staff and actors to live on-site.
Steiner impressed upon the staff, actors, and crew that if anyone in the group tested positive for the virus, EVERYTHING would stop.
But there were no positive test results.
"Our entire company, and – to the best of our knowledge - our audience, was 100% COVID-free," said Steiner.
If you know anything about the 70+ year history of this remarkable theatre, you know that, even with challenges that were overwhelming others in the arts and cultural sector, Surflight would be able to draw on their resourcefulness to make the season happen.
"We analyzed where we were and realized that if we had done nothing, the losses would have been more than we could have survived," he said. "But, by doing something," Steiner said, "we were able to keep the deficit manageable."
They cut everything they possibly could without compromising quality, Steiner told me. "We put on three productions instead of eight," he said. "We scheduled a radio play, using just five microphones. And, in the place of what we planned to present for the holidays, we wrote our own show, which was less expensive to produce."
The ticketing process – which assigned seats in already-distanced groupings of no more than six with a safe space between each one – also allowed Surflight to keep a handle on the mandatory protocols.
This proactive approach meant that in the spring of 2020, when so many arts and cultural organizations had temporarily, or worse yet permanently, run aground, Surflight relaunched with its ever-ambitious schedule.
“Between the mainstage productions and the children’s shows, we put on 14 performances a week,” Steiner said.
A few shows that had been on the schedule before COVID intervened, like "An American in Paris" and "Mystery on the Orient Express," were put on hold until they could be staged indoors. But Steiner assured me that those shows will be presented.
"Two from last year are on this season's calendar," he said. "Eventually, everything from 2020 will get done."
This is terrific news for everyone connected to Surflight and for those who attend the theatre’s productions. And while you might think that the theatre's audience members are mainly from the Long Beach Island area, you would be quite mistaken.
Although I am a lifelong Jersey shore brat and should know better than to make assumptions about what goes on there, I had assumed that those who frequent Surflight are primarily Long Beach Island homeowners or vacationers. But it turns out that the theatre's reach is much broader.
The patron list of those who regularly receive mailings and subscription information comprises people from all 21 New Jersey counties, 47 other states, and 13 other countries.
At one time, Surflight was a modest theatre at the shore. But all that has changed.
"Surflight is the fifth largest professional theatre, in budget and audience, in New Jersey," Steiner said. "We have built it into something very robust and exciting."
Access Surflight’s calendar here.
The performers from Surflight Theatre were part of a Good Morning America’s Rise and Shine segment which aired on July 21, 2021.