From left Dylan Lester as Mercutio Reed Castrajon as Romeo & Liz Suffill as Juliet

Like arts organizations all over the country, the Rome Shakespeare Festival and River Arts District Playhouse found their seasons cut short unexpectedly when the coronavirus pandemic hit in mid-March. Months later, artistic director Gail Deschamps and her team are moving forward and taking every precaution to ensure that their shows will continue to run.

“The pandemic has hit everybody, not only financially, but it has changed a lot of the way everybody does things,” Deschamps says.

The annual Rome Shakespeare Festival will take place September 24-27 on the Town Green. The festival cast will present A Comedy of Errors, and the RSF Young Actors will present a comedic interpretation of Romeo and Juliet.

“Originally, we were going to do Julius Caesar,” Deschamps says. “We all agreed this is not the year to do a tragedy; we figured everybody wants to laugh.”

Because the pandemic has affected so many local businesses, Deschamps decided to use the festival show to promote businesses on Broad Street. Signage within the set will reference Broad Street shops and restaurants, as will window comedy and jokes throughout the show. “It’s going to be funny; it’s going to be tons of fun for people who are in the audience on a blanket to see a crazy shtick about Giggity’s or about Harvest Moon or about Whistle Britches or the Creamery,” Deschamps says.

Comedy of Errors from left Mary Beth Morrison as Adriana, Isaac Bracket as Antipholus of Ephesus Constanza Sweeney as The Courtesan

In order to ensure the safety of actors and audience members, RSF has put a number of precautions in place for the September festival. They will limit audiences to 100 people and use chalk paint to delineate blanket seating on the green. Spots will be six feet apart and seat small groups, so families can sit in their own space at a safe distance from other audience members. Table and chair rentals are also available for groups. Deschamps also encourages festival audience members to wear masks. To further ensure everyone’s safety, actors will not mingle with the audience after the show.

“I think it’s important that everybody respect the situation,” Deschamps says. “You do the best you can, take all the precautions you can, but you can’t try to control something you can’t control.”

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Godspell from left Taylor Ritchie Issac Bracket, Scott MacDaniel

The RAD Playhouse has run shows since July with similar precautions in place. Actors for Playhouse shows and the festival were tested for COVID-19 before rehearsals began, and they rehearse in masks. The Playhouse team sanitizes everything in the facility prior to each show, hands out masks with programs, and takes audience members’ temperatures at the door. They have also limited Playhouse audiences to 32 patrons per night and distanced the seating inside. Because the playhouse has moveable seating, groups can buy seats together, and each group of seats will be distanced from others. For Deschamps, the key to reopening is ensuring actor and audience safety in every way possible.

“The audience needs to feel safe, like they’re being taken into consideration,” Deschamps says. “That’s the utmost priority of what we’re doing. I think that the audiences that come to the RAD Playhouse will come back.”

Deschamps is thankful to the community members who have helped keep RSF and the RAD running over the past several months.

“We’re very grateful to a lot of people,” she says. “It was very difficult in the beginning, but we had a lot of people that helped us.”

The festival runs September 24-27. Shows start at 6 p.m. and run until about 8:15 p.m. For more information on this year’s festival or upcoming RAD productions, visit: https://www.romeshakespearefestival.com.

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Segrest also describes the touching solidarity of the city. “At 7 pm everyone leans out of their windows and cheers, banging pots and pans. They are cheering for the healthcare workers. They are cheering for each other. Then an hour later the city stops. There is a silence for all those we lost.” 

With so much still uncertain in both New York City and Rome Georgia one thing is for certain- Rebecca Segrest is undoubtedly a hero. 

To be continued…..