The Happy Medium: A Conversation with Al Schaefer

(Photo by Al Schaefer)

Before March of 2020, there were two typical days for Al Schaefer, Director of Operations and Production Manager for Performing Arts at William Paterson University. 

First, there were the pre-production days, filled to the brim with booking acts, scheduling student events, attending meetings, and sending emails. Then, there were the show days. Beginning with load in, Al would deal with anything and everything that came up along the way, making sure acts had the support they needed for the show that evening.

Then, came COVID-19. Venues around the globe went dark.

Out of these ashes came William Paterson University, who’s Performing Arts Department has taken remarkable steps in order to bring patrons back to the theater. In the fall semester, they implemented CDC protocols in order to hold safe, in-person events for performers and limited audiences. 

Al Schaefer now spends his days in a mix between collaborating with colleagues over Zoom and participating in socially distanced conversations – all while finding safe and creative ways to bring the joy of performing arts back to audiences. 

I had the opportunity to sit down with Al and hear first hand about his experience bringing live performances back during this time. In our conversation, he dove into the effects of the pandemic on his daily life, the ways in which William Paterson has adapted to the pandemic, how the audience felt with these protocols, what they plan to do going forward, and his thoughts on the future of the entertainment industry.

Below is his story.

The Transition to Zoom University

How has your daily life changed because of COVID-19?

“My daily life, much like many people, has become Zoom. I find it very frustrating. Collaboration is a large part of what we do and what makes it special, and I really miss that. Zoom and the phone certainly help, but it’s just not the same as when I suddenly get an idea and walk across the lobby to talk to my partner in crime. When we do this we can build on the idea, and it’s just not the same to call somebody up.”

William Paterson Pivots

How has William Paterson adapted to the changes brought on by COVID-19?

“We’ve pivoted in a number of ways. Normally, we do not hold any classes on our main stage, but we moved some of the jazz ensembles onto our stage where they’re separated by both social distancing and plastic dividers. There’s been some ensembles we could not bring together – our stage is just not big enough to allow for the type of distancing that would be required. We’ve done a handful of shows. We were supposed to do a number of more before the end of the semester, but then as COVID got worse a number of those were cancelled. 

On stage, we try to keep everybody somewhere between six and twelve feet apart, depending upon the instrument. For the virtual performances, we would often tape two of them in one day. As soon as the first group was done, we wiped down those dividers and we sanitized the mics, cables, the piano keys, the tops of the drum set, all those surfaces. We asked that performers stay masked as much as possible. 

For the audience, we are seating people six feet apart and alternating the rows. We have marked out in the lobby the six foot increments for them to line up on. Similarly in the restrooms, we have blocked off some of the urinals and toilets and sinks, so we allow for social distancing in there and we are prepared to limit people going in. We haven’t had a big enough turnout that that’s really been an issue. Similarly backstage, we clean the dressing rooms, sanitize the dressing rooms between performers. 

One of the things I miss dearly is standing in the lobby after the show. Listening to the buzz of the audience as they leave and seeing the smiles on their faces, then going backstage and the same from the performers. I really miss that.”

Audience Reactions

What kind of feedback did you receive from those who either performed or attended the events?

“The performers are thrilled to be there. Same with the audience. We’ve heard nothing but compliments about how comfortable they were with the steps we were taking and that they were so happy to either be playing or experiencing playing again.”

Springing Forward

With the rise in COVID-19 cases due to the holidays, how is William Paterson planning to go forward?

“For the spring semester, we are going forward as we were. We’re doing virtual shows for our general audience and then we will have live and virtual stream shows for the student events and for our other series. We hope that come April the restrictions will be lifted a bit and we’ll be able to do more. We may be able to do hybrids by having live streams available for some of the events. 

An outdoor event held at William Paterson University (Photo by Al Schaefer)

We were doing the opera Orpheus in the Underworld which was scheduled for last April when this all began. That has been postponed twice, so we’re taking it outdoors. We’re going to do it on the Plaza in front of the Shea Center. We are going to be using some of the scenic units that we built already, but otherwise we’re just going to be utilizing the front of the building as a backdrop and the grounds itself as part of the set. I think in the end it’s going to be a marvelous production and that everybody’s gonna walk away from it feeling some magic.”

A Brave New World

What do you think lies ahead for the future of the entertainment industry?

“Be optimistic that this will end. People are chomping at the bit to get back into theaters, concert halls, and to be enjoying the arts once again. For the industry itself, there may be some reexamining. There’s some of the smaller agencies or talent agencies that may not survive this. My fingers are crossed that many will. It may take some time before everything is really going to be full capacity. Even once they say it’s safe, there’s going to be people who are reluctant to go back. I think that many of the facilities will not do full capacity when they first have that opportunity, just to allow for comfort.

It’s going to be a brave new world, and nobody really knows exactly what’s going to happen. I do think that streaming is here to stay, to one degree or another. I think you’ll see it being delayed so that there’s something special about still going to the theater to see that performance in person, and that a day or two later you can watch it in your living room. We still need to encourage people to come out, be in the audience, and have that interaction between the performers in the audience – that’s what makes live concerts and live theater so special.”

A Sense of Normalcy

Do you think you’ve achieved a happy medium at William Paterson?

“Well, that’s definitely our goal. We’ve tried to be very creative in reaching that goal. I think we’ve succeeded.”

Make sure to follow and support William Paterson Performing Arts at the links below:

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: