Stage Is Set For RTC’s Encore


 The sounds of applause may have drifted away with the coming of COVID as the Rockaway Theatre Company (RTC) closed its last show early this year.

But the start of renovation work and a continuing roster of online performances, classes, workshops and more, shows that even now, the RTC is keeping the show going on and rehearsing for its come back.

Back in March, with season-premiering Jesus Christ Superstar just a week away from opening night, the RTC announced that for the safety of its audience and actors, they were postponing their 2020 season.

As the spreading pandemic tightened its grip, however, they knew they would be in for a long intermission.

Seeing the lack of activity in and around the theater building led some to wonder when, how and if the RTC would be back.

But the group wasn’t waiting idly for the next show’s curtain to rise. “We realized the theater would be closed indefinitely and figured we might as well do extensive (inside) work while the building is not being used,” noted Susan Jasper.

Jasper, current board member and one of RTC’s original founders 23 years ago, was happy to announce that final approvals from the National Park Service for the work were signed just last week.

The Rockaway Theatre Company, along with several other non-profit community organizations, is situated at Fort Tilden, a former military base and current part of NPS’ Gateway National Recreation Area. Part of their agreement with NPS gives RTC responsibility for maintaining their Post Theatre building, which has been their home for almost their entire existence.

John Gilleece, also a founder, board member and RTC’s long-time artistic director, told The Rockaway Times they’re looking to start work as soon as possible.

“We’re doing lighting and insulation. We’re replacing all the ceiling panels in the house (the audience area) with much better ones. Above that, we’re laying insulation, some 90 feet by 30 feet, to keep the cool air down inside in summer and the warm air in winter.

The plan also calls for replacing house lights with LEDs, which burn cooler, are more energy saving and provide more light, “so people can, especially on the sides, actually read their programs.”

Additionally, “We hope to repair and repaint all the inside walls,” Gilleece said.

Gilleece notes that they have come a long way since taking over the army base’s former movie theatre.

For instance, “the stage was two feet deep. Now it’s 16 feet by 32 feet wide,” Gilleece said. “Bathrooms! We struggled to put bathrooms inside in the beginning. Our bathrooms used to be a pair of porta-potties, outside and across the road.”

More than that, over the years they cleared out and expanded their dressing room with the help of the Graybeards, replaced two roofs, built out their box office and concession area, installed moving stage lights, curtains and tracks to move scenery panels in and out, and upgraded their sound system to include wireless body microphones. They also put in heating and air conditioning to stretch their season from February through December.

“Before Hurricane Sandy we replaced all the seats in the audience. After the hurricane, we had to do it all over again. We had to rip out the stage and dressing room for mold, deal with that and then rebuild to NPS standards,” Gilleece said. “When we started, we had no curtain, no lights, no audience yet, but we grew!”

That growth continues online.

Susan Jasper explained, “By the fall (we were) really missing our public as much as all they indicated they were missing us. We began offering an abbreviated virtual version of our Saturday Young People's Theatre Workshop classes.”

The three sections, Youngstars, Tweens and Teens, each meet via Zoom and present a virtual performance to cap off each six-week session. A third round of classes begins in mid-January. 

Students are taught by teachers they would work with if taking the musical theatre workshops in person. Under the supervision of Peggy Page Press, instructors include John Gilleece, Rich Louis-Pierre, Susan Corning, Jodee Timpone, Adele Wendt and Suzanne Riggs. 

“The students are doing a fabulous job and they are having a ball,” Jasper said.

This fall they also introduced virtual eight-week classes for adults which included Tap, Stress Management and Musicals that Changed Broadway.

So successful were the last two, taught respectively by top business management counselor Elsie Maio and actor/writer/teacher/director Fred Grieco, that a second round was just started with up to 40 registrants each.

Dancer/actor/theatre production all-arounder Adele Wendt will be offering a second session of Tap early in 2021. 

All classes are offered free of charge.

Jasper notes that with many asking how they can help, financial donations in any amount are gratefully appreciated. Checks can be sent to the Rockaway Theatre Company, P.O. Box 940806, Rockaway Park, NY 11694-0806. As a not-for-profit 501C3 organization, all RTC donations are tax deductible.

The RTC has also been alive and well online, regularly posting new performances from individual members, as well as opening up a treasure trove of video snippets from previous shows on their Facebook page and website.

About reopening on stage, Gilleece says, “I’m guessing maybe by Spring, maybe Summer.

“We have three separate levels governing that. The governor who has to approve theaters opening with certain percentages of occupancy, and under what restrictions and health guidelines. The mayor, who needs to approve and set guidelines. And we have the National Park Service with whatever their guidelines will be. So whenever they all come together and decide, that will determine when and how we can open again. There will be distancing, masking and rules for us to follow.”

The RTC already paid for the rights to stage Superstar, What The Rabbi Saw, Kiss Me Kate, Honeymoon in Vegas and A Few Good Men this year. Noting it takes three months to stage a musical, with casts of 35-40 people, and two months for a comedy or drama, he says choosing which shows to potentially stage first in 2021 would yet to be determined.

But what is certain, he says, is that “We love our fans and they love us. We’re heartsick we have not been able to perform, and they have felt the same. We can’t wait to be back!”

Photos by Dan Guarino
 By Dan Guarino