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The AFD Theatre production of Shakespeare's "Twelfth Night" had nearly finished its run in May when Covid-19 cases closed it two days early.

YourArlington wanted to know what happened -- and a forthright Ginger Webb, who has been connected to the community drama group for decades, has explained.

"My understanding is that one cast member tested positive between the second and third weeks of the run and dropped out of the show," she wrote via email recently.

"A rearrangement of the cast made it possible to cover her part for the Friday performance [May 17], but, by Saturday [May 18], several others [had] tested positive or were not feeling well."

A decision to cancel is ultimately in the hands of the nonprofit theater's board of directors, "but, in this situation, as reports of the cast feeling unwell on Saturday trickled in, the cast and crew felt unsafe. We were all fearful that the small outbreak could spread throughout the large cast, and, though less likely, to the audience. The board concurred with the wishes of the cast and crew to cancel the show. The cast was heartbroken, but we all agreed it was for the best."

News spread slowly to public

Word about the canceled show was posted on the theater's website but was not communicated to the media.

"Indeed, things did fall through the cracks," wrote Webb, who handles publicity. "I was away on vacation on an island off the coast of Puerto Rico, where internet reception was sketchy, and I was only able to check messages on my phone at our accommodations.

"I had left publicity in the hands of one of our volunteers, but anticipating show cancellations wasn't on my radar, so the response was slow."

Canceling difficulties

Besides YourArlington, which was not informed, AFD also was running Facebook ads, which were not canceled quickly. Further, the show was listed on half a dozen calendar listings in greater Boston, Webb noted, "so a show cancellation can be a big mess, not to mention the scramble to notify ushers, etc. It would have required multiple boots on the ground -- not one person trying to cancel ads and notifications the best she could [in Arlington] while the other was enjoying a piña colada on the beach."

Cast and crew members are always encouraged to stay current with vaccines and boosters, Webb wrote. A vaccine does not necessarily prevent a person from getting Covid, though it greatly reduces the chances of severe illness should infection occur.

Despite an abrupt end, overall attendance for the show still was fairly good, she wrote, with this consideration: "[W]e have never fully recovered from pre-Covid [audience] numbers ('pre-Covid' being a somewhat ironic label in this case). We were [already] running at about 58-percent capacity."

Financial impact

Asked whether there was a financial hit due to the final two performances not taking place, she wrote: "[W]e had to reimburse 167 tickets combined for the last two shows, with a total loss of about $4,550. So, we don't like to cancel a show unless we feel it is in the best interest of cast, crew and audience.

"It affects the bottom line of the theater, in addition to disappointing the cast and crew who worked so hard, musicians who lose income from not performing and folks who never got to see this fine production."

However, final numbers for income and expenses are not yet known, so those involved at the board level do not know whether AFD Theatre was able to break even on "Twelfth Night."

Looking back 

Asked whether there is precedent in AFD's 101-year history for such a cancellation, she allowed, "not to my recollection. In a genre where the motto is 'the show must go on,' you can imagine every effort is made to keep it going. That's when you truly discover that 'there's no people like show people,' because folks always step up to the plate to make the show as successful as possible."

She looked back. "I remember when we did 'The Visit,' which was one of my first times backstage, over 25 years ago. We had two different actors in the ER the second weekend of the show for two completely different reasons.

"The director had to step in to read the male lead part with script in hand, and another, female actor ended up doing two roles. Luckily, I think she fit the costumes, which is another thing that causes many last-minute scrambles backstage."

Another case: "When we did 'Death of a Salesman,' the actor playing [protagonist] Willie Loman had to drop out at the last minute for medical reasons and thus was played by the lighting designer, also an experienced actor, who played the part with his script on his iPad. ... [H]e was adjusting lights and then running up on stage to do a scene. Not ideal ... so you scramble, sometimes heroically, to make it happen."

Covid, understudies

She added: "I think the contagious nature of Covid has put a different stress on things. I see more directors casting nonleading-role actors as understudies to leading actors if there is a large enough cast. In community theater, understudies were just not a thing pre-Covid. But even with more understudies, there can still be enough illness to cause theaters to cancel since Covid.

"We hope this ugly virus will someday be a thing of the past, but until then, we just have to remember to do better in notifying everyone of a canceled show. We dodged the Covid bullet all season while we saw other theaters occasionally having to cancel a few performances, but it got us in the end."

In "Twelfth Night," Olivia notes that falling in love can be as quick as catching the plague. The public appreciates Shakespeare's imagery while wanting the show to go on.

May 18, 2024: 'Twelfth Night,' in final weekend, loses 2 shows to Covid-19 concerns

This report by YourArlington founder Bob Sprague was published June 11, 2024.