VICENZA, Italy - When the COVID-19 lockdown started earlier this year, it caused many facilities at the United States Army Garrison Italy to close down: schools, offices, fitness centers and many other establishments closed or had to minimize operations as precautionary measures. Among the facilities that had to temporarily close was Soldiers’ Theatre.
“We were at our first technical rehearsal on March 1st of the Broadway musical comedy ‘The Addams Family' when we found out that we needed to postpone the show for 'a little while,’” said Jerry Brees, entertainment director for the Soldiers’ Theatre at USAG Italy.
PRE COVID-19 LOCKDOWN – NOVEMBER 2019
Brees started working on the show in November of last year; auditions were held the first week of January and then - after casting for the show - participants went immediately into rehearsal.
“When we found out that we were all going on lockdown,” said Brees, “everyone thought it was a temporary or short-term situation. Although we did not continue rehearsals, we still worked on the set, costumes and lights for a few days before our facility was closed and we had to stop working on the show. We honestly thought it would not last long and we would be able to present the show sometime in the spring.”
Weeks and months had passed since the closure and most of the cast members were beginning to think that they would never be able to perform “The Addams Family.” Brees found out in mid-June that they would be allowed to go back into rehearsals to prepare for the possibility of opening later in the year.
“We had no idea if and when we could perform, but we were excited about the possibility and the opportunity to begin rehearsing again,” he said.
After a meeting with all the performers and musicians, a possible rehearsal schedule was discussed, keeping in mind all safety issues, procedures and how they would have to make many changes to the show to insure safety of the cast and crew.
POST COVID-19 LOCKDOWN
Brees recalls that the group was thrilled to begin a new rehearsal schedule for the following six weeks.
“We worked diligently to re-rehearse, make changes, re-stage and get ready to try it all over again,” he said. He also explained that the cast and crew were enthusiastic, dedicated and determined to perform in front of an audience.
“We had to restructure all the staging of the scenes to physically distance our actors from each other and incorporate the use of masks when we could not maintain the distance.
We changed, edited, re-imagined the choreography, solos and duets, ensemble group numbers and the structure of the show that we had been ready to present in March,” Brees continued.
Because of the postponement since the original version, several of the cast members were unable to do the show in August based on PCS-ing, training commitments or beginning of college.
“We had to replace four cast members, two leading roles and two ensemble roles. Everyone was welcoming and grateful for the new cast members, who took on a great challenge to join the cast as we reworked the show. When they joined ‘The Addams Family’ their level of commitment was amazing and they immediately became part of the group,” said Brees.
The cast rallied behind the effort through many long rehearsals and reached what was a ‘new’ version of the show. Brees added, “It was a challenge and sometimes a bit of a struggle, but everyone was so grateful to be able to have the chance to perform, that they worked tirelessly to make it happen.”
Sgt. Martin Sinlao, noncommissioned officer in charge of Radiology Services at the Vicenza U.S. Army Health Clinic, was one of the original members, cast in the role of 'Gomez' Addams.
This past spring, Sinlao was presented the prestigious 2020 American Association of Community Theatre (AACT) National Spotlight Award for outstanding contributions to community theater.
Even if Sinlao’s theater experiences have embraced everything, from choreography to acting in more than a dozen productions here in Vicenza, this show presented him a challenge.
“I don't think I've ever been a lead in a musical. It just happened that the part was kind of right,” said Sinlao after the opening night Aug. 21, 2020.
“The final product is not what we had in March. We learned all our lines, our songs, our choreography, and we were at the point where all we needed to do was add lights, makeup, costumes and a little bit more adrenaline, some pressure to make it cook. And then we got the news on that first day of tech week that we're going to put a pause on it because of COVID-19 measures, and it was just not safe for us to be congregating. Of course it was also the start of us wearing masks, the start of social distancing, the start of a lot of things that were just so foreign at the time,” he continued.
During their hiatus Sinlao talked to other cast members asking them if they revisited the material.
“I don't think anyone really was practicing choreography or their songs or their lyrics. Personally, I think I went through the five stages of grief with the show because I thought it was - and I still do think it is – a really great show. I was at the point where I was OK with not doing the show. I was even OK with the fact that they would do the show at some point with another 'Gomez,' with another group of characters,” said Sinlao.
Having all these mixed feelings Sinlao-Gomez was thrilled after realizing he would be able to perform in what would be his last ‘show’ before his new military assignment.
“There's something really special about this show because I don’t think I could have done this part three years ago when I joined the theater,” he mentioned.
Developing his familiarity with the space and the theater process he felt at ease on the stage.
“I felt super comfortable to the point where I got way more enjoyment out of it because I wasn't as scared of being on the stage or working with other people,” he continued.
Sinlao also said he will always remember this show as the one where a group of performers were allowed to move towards normalcy in a slow methodical pace.
“It was really important to see that certain parts of life, art and culture we could slowly bring back. What it also meant was five times the amount of work to make sure that we were all being safe and that we continued to be safe in this process, because nobody wants to be the theater that put all their audience at risk, or put their performers at risk, or even put the community at risk just because we wanted to do a show.” According to him, it made the show so much better than what it was in March.
CREATING COVID-19 MASKS FOR THE SHOW
If masks have a tradition since Greek Aeschylus, when in the 5th century B.C. they were used to enable theater actors to play more than one role and project their voice toward the audience, 2,500 years later they differ their function in “The Addams Family.”
To make sure all procedures followed the safety measures, the Art Center, here, worked in partnership with Soldiers’ Theatre on the project of creating particular masks for the actors to wear during performances.
“Being a part of Community Recreation Division, we always try to make sure we are helping each other out. Jerry Brees and I always work together. Anytime there is an opportunity that we could help them, we do,” said Michelle Sterkowicz, Art Center program manager.
“We wanted to make sure they [actors] were using the masks while in proximity, but we didn't want them to have this great makeup on and half of it be blocked by a white, a black, a blue mask, so we were able to pretty much have their face on a mask to keep the style,” she explained.
Creating the masks took imagination and effort and were made from photographs of the faces of all performers.
“I know that my colleagues were talking about it. Al [Ortiz - a cast member] being a part of it, and then Cindy [Weller], who was sewing masks during the lockdown,” said Sterkowicz.
After doing some research, they realized they had the ability to have protective masks after a process called sublimation that utilizes an image transfer.
“We were able to get masks and work with the photographer Brian Andries, who took all the photos of full theater makeup, and then have sublimated all of them. There were complications, obviously, with skin tone and coloring, with makeup obviously; it’s not the same makeup they wear every night. It's been fun to see the photos, and see how great the masks turned out,” she highlighted.
Hana Affleck, recreation aid at the Art Center was the architect of the masks-making for all the cast members.
“Over the span of two days before their first dress rehearsal I just knocked out all 17 masks,” said Affleck, while describing the technique. The process itself of putting the picture on the mask takes only about 60 seconds, but everything else including editing the picture, cutting it out and placing it very particularly onto the mask is what takes the most time, according to her.
Affleck was really happy with the way they turned out. “We did Al Ortiz's mask first because he was in the show and works at the art center, so we did his as a test. It looked real. It was kind of freaky.
That's when I knew 'this is all good, we're going to keep going with it.’”
While watching Affleck printing the masks out and then Al trying it on, Sterkowicz recalled, “I was extremely excited watching the process of Hana. As my first reaction, I broke into laughter because it was just so cool, so amazing that we were able to take something like the pandemic, having to change everything we do, and make something work. We were able to make it happen. I hope the audience watching the show, maybe for a moment they didn't have to think about the pandemic, even with the masks you are still seeing their [actors] face per se, so it lightens the mood I think,” ended Sterkowicz.
FIRST PRODUCTION OF ALL ARMY ENTERTAINMENT WORLDWIDE
After the two-week performances, Brees realized all the work that has been put into this production.
“Through endless rehearsals, scheduling conflicts, redoing scenes, learning new parts, changing staging, and reworking songs with new protocols and procedures the cast and crew never gave up. They were excited and enthusiastic the entire time - always willing to do whatever it took to bring this show to the stage. I am so proud of everyone that participated both onstage and behind the scenes. It was truly a community effort in many ways,” he said.
“The Addams Family,” which was the first production to premiere for all of Army Entertainment worldwide will compete in the 2020 Installation Management Command - Europe Tournament of the Festivals Plays.
(**PAO volunteer Larry Kreider contributed interviews to this article)