The Short North Stage's COVID Cast

The show must go on—but safely. So the theater company built a bubble.

Richard Ades
Short North Stage actors—including Nick Cosgrove and Annie Winneg, both seated—rehearse a scene from “Bad Jews.”

After spending the last year doing voice-over work and recording audio books while in theatrical limbo, Annie Winneg was more than a little excited to take part in Short North Stage’s recent winter production. The New York-based actor says it was “really exhilarating to finally be able to look people in the eye and perform in real time.”

Fellow cast member Nick Cosgrove, who played Frankie Valli in “Jersey Boys” on Broadway, is equally enthusiastic. Since moving to Westerville from Chicago last spring, he’s kept busy teaching voice lessons via Zoom, but he misses the theater. Just how much he’s missed it became apparent as soon as the Short North Stage cast met for its first rehearsal of “Bad Jews,” a dark comedy by New York playwright Joshua Harmon about a post-funeral family squabble over a relative’s religious heirloom. “It was so nice,” Cosgrove says, “to finally be in the same space as other actors.”

This mid-pandemic togetherness didn’t come without a cost, says Short North Stage’s artistic director, Edward Carignan. Due to the troupe’s union contract with the Actors’ Equity Association, Carignan is required to follow rigid guidelines for keeping personnel safe from COVID-19. Equity has made few exceptions, which nearly eliminated live performances nationwide, Carignan explains.

Prior to “Bad Jews,” the troupe satisfied union restrictions by using green screens and other technological tricks to make actors appear to be together when they actually weren’t. But Carignan was determined to create a more traditional theatrical experience with the Harmon play, and Equity allowed it as long as several conditions were met. First, the four actors and Carignan, the show’s director, each quarantined separately for two weeks and passed four COVID tests before coming together in the Italian Village house that served as both their home and their set. Then, after establishing their collective bubble, they had to remain inside it until the production was complete.

The experience still fell short of live theater because the play was never presented before an in-person audience. Instead, the cast performed the work from beginning to end in front of multiple unmanned cameras, producing footage that Carignan then edited into a video for patrons to view online from late January through Valentine’s Day. “We shot more or less like a sitcom would be shot,” Carignan says—except, of course, that a conventional sitcom would have a studio audience.

When it was over, Winneg admits, the production left her and her castmates a little sad because “there wasn’t that sort of really cathartic moment when you bow, you get offstage, and you let it rest.” Still, it was “hugely exciting” to be able to rehearse and perform a play in person again after nearly a year of social distancing.

As for Carignan, rehearsing the play with live actors in the same room was a nostalgic treat and a welcome break from more technological approaches to doing theater during the pandemic. But he remains proud of his earlier efforts to keep the art form alive against all odds. “Everyone’s trying so hard to make the most [of things] and to not let theater die while we wait for the pandemic to be over.”

Short North Stage’s next production, “Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train,” will be presented online April 15–25 at shortnorthstage.org.