Trenton artists pivot during the pandemic

By Rachel Ricucci Many businesses and companies have taken a huge hit during the pandemic. One area of concern is the arts industry which Trenton keeps at its heart. The Trenton Journal has put together some voices from people working in the arts industry and following their thoughts on the pandemic and living as an artist. Ryanne Domingues, the Artistic Director of the Passage Theatre in Trenton is very grateful for the support the arts are receiving during the pandemic. “People have been very supportive. Donors have really stepped up” said Ryanne when she talked about the support and the state grants that the theater has received.

By Rachel Riccuci

Picture: Mill Hill Playhouse

Many businesses and companies have taken a huge hit during the pandemic. One area of concern is the arts industry which Trenton keeps at its heart. The Trenton Journal has put together some voices from people working in the arts industry and following their thoughts on the pandemic and living as an artist.

Ryanne Domingues

Ryanne Domingues, the Artistic Director of the Passage Theatre in Trenton is very grateful for the support the arts are receiving during the pandemic. “People have been very supportive. Donors have really stepped up” said Ryanne when she talked about the support and the state grants that the theater has received. This included a GoFundMe page for Covid 19 relief. Many of the shows have been postponed during the pandemic during the last year and a half, but Ryanne said that there have been a number of Covid emergency grants through the city and state that have come their way, including help from the NJ State Council of the Arts.

She further explained there have been positives and negatives with many of the actors and designers who have been out of work and unemployed. When the lockdown was lifted the theater rehired staff and paid them twice. “We did our best to pay them. We wanted them to be able to survive,” she said.

Scenario planning was a huge undertaking Ryanne explained. She elaborated that there was a “Covid Committee” that was formed which was all things Covid related. With this committee, they established four different plans and budgets to accommodate the Covid 19 fluctuation and planning out the shows. But, noted that “it is not realistic any more.”

The theater had to get super creative to put out shows in a variety of ways (Zoom, hybrid online readings, live stream, or edited). She said “there are a number of different ways to do it” and went on to say that 

“Theater is written to be performed with audience reaction.”

In the end, the theater is still functioning with three staff members and no layoffs she said. Most of the artists have other means for work and take on project by project. “We try to sustain producing as much as humanely possible” she said.

David Lee White

Pictured: David Lee White

David Lee White, Writer, Playwright, and Teacher has worked for the Passage Theatre for 14 years. He is involved in many productions and also teaches Improv Theater at Drexel University. His initial thoughts on the pandemic were “when it was beginning, I was glad and horrified at the same time. I was relieved to sit back and stop for a bit.”

When David was speaking about playwrighting and the new normal, he said “you lose the thing you were preparing to do but had the opportunity to do other things you like.”

David is a writer on the OK Trenton Project which is an ever-evolving documentary that has been put on hold.

This project holds a lot of questions and debates for Trenton because it is about a hand sculpture titled “Helping Hands” that was created by local school children and taken down because it was seen as a bad influence or gang symbol.

David describes it as a “launch point to examine issues in Trenton” and as an “all-encompassing project” which has now included the pandemic and a multitude of other issues that raises a larger question. This project holds a lot of questions and debates for Trenton because it is about a hand sculpture titled “Helping Hands” that was created by local school children and taken down because it was seen as a bad influence or gang symbol. David describes it as a “launch point to examine issues in Trenton” and as an “all-encompassing project” which has now included the pandemic and a multitude of other issues that raises a larger question.

David said he’s been lucky to have work and also supplements his work as an artist working as a teacher. Drexel University has online classes and projects that help to sustain him. “We’ve been lucky,” he said. David has a realistic attitude about the pandemic and said that the model can’t be sustained for much longer. “We can tread water and do what we can.” He commented that Zoom has been a great tool for play development and having the flexibility of not leaving your home.

Wendi Smith

Pictured: Wendi Smith

Actress Wendi Smith has been around the Passage Theatre for two years and has also worked with the South Camden Theater company. She shared that the pandemic has been good for her. “It allowed me to sit still. I wasn’t sitting down long enough to hear my own thoughts,” she said. Wendi elaborated that she learned to enjoy what the pandemic brought, but misses the one on one connection with the audience such as sniffles, laughter, and the feedback of them enjoying it. She said, “theaters had to start thinking out of the box” when referring to the new approach to the theater (with Zoom and recording the shows). “People are ready to get back out there.”

Wendi has a 9 to 5 which helps her support herself, but commented that she wouldn’t be able to do so without it. Many shows were canceled due to the pandemic, she said. Wendi is also involved in the OK Trenton Project and hopes that the show will continue once restrictions have been lifted.

The Passage Theatre has kept theater thriving through hard times with audio plays and readings said Wendi, while also commenting that people have been more empathetic in the world in general.

She said “the arts is the way to give the voice as to what is happening in the world. The shows and the arts close the loop for them.”

Theatre lovers and people searching for a connection with life and art can go to the Passage Theatre’s website and enjoy a range of plays that promote connection, caring, and discovery and also help to keep the theatre alive in trying times.

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