The Show Must Go On: The Surflight Theatre
By Casey Bell
In 2020 the fat lady sang because the show did not go on for the world of theatre. However, for a little theatre that could, on the Jersey Shore, the fat lady held her harmonies and melodies to herself. While everyone else chose to hold their season, The Surflight Theatre decided to alter their season and build a tent. Which, might have been a coincidence, fate, destiny, or a combination of all three, because 2020 marked 70 years of Surflight Theatre, and the first year the theatre performed their shows under a tent.
Surflight Theatre began in 1950 by Joseph P Hayes. Since then, the theatre has had many hardships. In 1976, the founder, Joseph Hayes, died suddenly from a heart attack, an untimely fire of one of the housing on campus, bankruptcy, a fire accident caused by an adjacent restaurant, and damages due to Hurricane Sandy and Irene. Sadly, in 2015 the theatre filed for bankruptcy again and closed its curtains. But, happily, the theatre was reopened in 2017 and has been kick-ball-changing ever since. The theatre is now owned by Broadway and Film producer, Al Parinello, and the theatre seasons are being produced by Ocean Professional Theatre Company. Ocean Professional Theatre Company was founded by husband-and-wife team, Steve and Gail Anderson Steiner. Mr. Steiner invested his time with me and answered a few questions.
1. What is your favorite thing about producing theater at the Surflight Theatre?
It is working with both emerging artists and established practitioners. We have an extremely strong Intern (College Age) & Apprentice (High School Age) Program. These young, and in many cases, aspiring professionals get to work hand in hand with well-established theatre performers, technicians, designers, directors, choreographers and musical directors. Theatre is the MOST collaborative art form, and teaching the young people who work with us the importance of this collaboration is the best way to pass on what I have learned over a lifetime in the Arts.
2. What makes the Surflight experience unique?
We work with a resident company. That means pretty much everyone who works here during the main portion of the Summer Season comes from elsewhere and lives in our housing. We have housing for 55 people here. Everyone works long days in rehearsal for 5 hours, and then performing in the evening. The day after we open a show, we begin rehearsal for the next show, to open in two or three weeks. We build a family, not only across a season, but across many years. People who started their careers at Surflight over twenty years ago still come back to work here.
3. What was the driving force for you to continue producing theatre during the pandemic, when so many other theatres ceased productions?
There were two reasons: 1. We knew that we would lose money in doing a season last year, probably about $200,000.00. This is terrible, of course, but also survivable. If we did not produce in 2020, we knew we would lose about $600,000.00, which is NOT survivable for us, and Surflight would have to close permanently. So the incentive was to SURVIVE. 2. We are part of a community, and this past year this community desperately needed our programming, offered in a SAFE, outdoor environment with socially distant seating, and we needed to provide that for our long time as well as first time patrons. It also provided much needed employment for our actors and staff. Almost every theatre in America was closed last year. We were one of a handful of safely operating theatres in the entire country.
4. What were some things you had to do differently in 2020 from other years due to pandemic?
We had to revamp the schedule, moving 6 shows to future seasons and adding two shows that were producible with reduced seating in October and December. We had to rent a 50 x 100-foot tent and get permission to erect it in the park across the street. We had to re-set the seating for every performance to accommodate socially distant seating while allowing individual groups of ticket buyers (2 together, 4 together, 1 by himself, etc.) to sit together. All rehearsals were held outside, as were our youth theatre camps. We would rehearse on our patio, in our tent, in the park’s gazebo as well as other outdoor spaces. We bought a 30 x 30 tent and erected it on our patio to accommodate Show Place Ice Cream Parlour’s move to be fully outdoors. Our entire company was tested for COVID-19 every two weeks and we took temperature checks several times per day.
5. During a storm, the tent you built collapsed. Did you initially think of closing the rest of the season?
No, we never entertained that thought. We got in touch with the tent company and they sent a crew out to assess the damage and to order a new tent skin as well a replacement parts for bent supports. They were out in the afternoon on Tuesday and by Thursday at 6 pm the tent was back except for one part covering the tech area in the rear. That was replaced the next morning.
6. How did you restore the tent and stage?
The story of the tent went into the last question, but all of the technical equipment needed to be hauled into our shop down the street to be stored while the stage got fixed. Our Technical Director, Chris Strangfeld put the plan together and we had help not only from our technical staff, but also our apprentice company (high schoolers) and our Acting Company. People from the community came by to lend a helping hand. It was a monumental amount of work, but with everyone helping out we were able to open both our Children’s Theatre production of Frozen Jr only 1 day late, at 6 pm, and Mamma Mia two days late, at 8:15, both on Thursday.
7. Are your audiences responding well to you being opened during the pandemic?
Yes, and because of our safety protocols and the fact that we have been 100% COVID-19-free, people are getting more and more accustomed to attending our live events. People are not attending at the levels we’re used to prior to the pandemic, but we can’t accommodate those numbers of people right now with socially distanced seating, either outdoors in the tent or indoors at 25% of our regular capacity.
8. “The Show Must Go On,” is definitely yours and the Surflight’s motto this season. What advice can you give to people who don’t see it possible to continue with work or life?
My mantra throughout my life has been “There is a solution to every problem. We just need to find it”. Nothing is insurmountable. We just need to find a way to get it done. Often that requires coming up with something that no one has thought of before, but always look at what’s possible, and not what currently may be beating you down.
9. The website’s have some amazing events in February. What are they and what are you doing to make sure everyone is safe?
We have a “Sippy Saturday” (BYOB) Stand Up Comedy night on February 13, and a Sunday Afternoon Cabaret performance of Love Songs for Valentine’s Day, with about 7 singers. Both events are limited to 25% capacity (113 people) and each group of ticket buyers with be socially distanced from all other patrons. We are only using every other row to keep a 6-feet distance between rows.
10. Are you reopening the theatre in 2021 or are you re-pitching the tent?
We don’t yet know, which is why our 2021 schedule is being touted as “Un-Cancellable”. We have scheduled shows and concerts that will work well EITHER in the Tent or in the theatre, so when health officials and the Governor deem it safe to assemble inside, we’ll move inside. But if that doesn’t happen until October, then we’ll be in the tent all Summer.
11. When will you be announcing 2021’s season?
I expect it to be announced by the time this interview is published. We just received approval for the final license for the show in August, so we should be announcing any day now. You’ll be able to find it on www.surflight.org
12. Will you be continuing theater education for children in person or online?
Our Educational programming will be in person, as it was last year, and we currently expect our summer sessions to be outside as they were last year. We also required masks for the students and teachers, of course.
13. What is Ice Cream Showplace, and how are you keeping things safe during these times?
Show Place Ice Cream Parlour is an interactive ice cream parlour with singing Waitri who sing, dance, act silly and serve terrific ice cream treats named after Broadway Shows. Last year we moved it outside to our Patio, under a tent, and it worked really well. We will probably do that again this season until it is deemed safe to go inside.
14. Many people are waiting for things to go back to normal. Is there anything in the theatre world you would like to see move forward instead of go backwards?
The entire live performing arts industry has been on hold since last March. I wouldn’t say it has moved backwards; it just hasn’t been able to do much of anything. That includes not only theatre, but music, ballet, symphonies, jazz clubs, etc. We would like to see it get back to work safely as soon as possible, which for the majority of the industry probably means the Fall at the earliest, and for many might mean January. When it DOES come back, I hope it garners support in the way of attendance which greatly exceeds levels prior to the pandemic.
15. If you could produce theater with anyone (producer, director, actor, etc.) whether they be dead or alive, who would it be and why?
I have been very fortunate to work with a number of extraordinarily talented and famous people over my career, both onstage and in the creative teams. However, while remembering that this is our career and we need to make a living, the people I most want to work with are those who have the enthusiasm that I have for doing this. This is why I so enjoy the Surflight Experience, because we work with a lot of early career and emerging artists and technicians. These are people who are doing it for the JOY of doing it, as well as for building a career. Early in my career, before working in the theatre, I worked with a band that played hotel clubs in the 70’s. I remember advice The General Manager of the Ramada Inn in Columbia MO gave me. He said “Never lose the enthusiasm you have for doing this job. It’s infectious, and it’s why people will always want to come and watch you perform”. That’s the advice I want to impart to the young people starting their careers with Surflight. Those are the people I want to work with for the rest of my career.
Surflight Theatre has definitely been a great example of all things are possible. The pandemic and the storm that toppled their tent were just two more bumps in the road that they courageously got over. I’m excited and anticipating the announcement of their 2021 season. If you’d like more information about The Surflight Theatre you can go to surflight.org or call 609-492-9477. If you are thinking about safely traveling to New Jersey for the summer, the theatre is located at: 201 Engleside Ave, Beach Haven, NJ 08008. If you’d like to send a letter, their mailing address is PO Box 1155, Beach Haven, NJ 08008. And of course, if you find some extra money in your pockets and would like to donate, you can do so by either using the mailing address, website, or by calling in your donation. All and any amounts are greatly appreciated. If you choose to enjoy a day or evening at The Surflight Theatre this summer, please be safe and follow all precautions given by healthcare officials. If you need a smile or a great memory in your life this summer, Surflight will definitely be the maker of those smiles and memories.