Steve Steiner had a choice to make.
The producing artistic director could resign Surflight Theatre, his 450-seat venue in Beach Haven, to the same fate as performance spaces around the globe—stay closed this summer, miss out on a full season of performances and revenue, and most likely never reopen.
Or, he could figure out a way to safely house performers and crew, find an outdoor performance space, learn everything he needed to know about how to make that space comfortable and operational amid a pandemic, put all the pieces together in a matter of weeks and attempt to salvage some sort of normalcy in a time where nothing is normal.
The staff at Surflight Theatre decided to, in their words, “focus on the ‘can’,” and chose to do what they could to take the optimistic yet difficult path to proceed with their season. As a result, Surflight Theatre became one of the few arts venues in the entire country to successfully open this summer.
“This is really important to this community and the people who live near here as well as vacation on Long Beach Island,” Steiner said. “We really wanted to be able to offer most of what we were going to do. We know we’re going to lose money this year. And there’s nothing that can be done about that. But if we would not have done anything, the loss would be so great that reopening next year would probably be impossible.”
Surflight Theatre has existed on Long Beach Island since 1950, and the neighboring Show Place Ice Cream Parlour, which features a waitstaff that sings and dances, celebrates 45 years this summer. Both have become a tradition on LBI for yearround residents and vacationers alike. Motivated by this history, Steiner and his four-person staff had all the plans in place to open both Surflight Theatre and Show Place by May. All they needed was New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy to lift restrictions on outdoor dining and gatherings.
In June, Murphy gave the go-ahead for outdoor dining, and Show Place opened a few days later, on June 19. The quick start was thanks to the advanced preparation the Surflight staff had done, with Show Place’s performers already weeks into rehearsing the songs and choreography they would need.
A week later, Murphy allowed outdoor gatherings of less than 250 people. Surflight already had government approval to use Veterans Memorial Park across the street from the theater as a venue, and had a connection for large tents—the same company set up an open-air tent on the patio at Show Place to make an outdoor dining space there. Crews built the stage, moved the theater’s sound system into the tent. Some lighting equipment couldn’t be moved, and had to be rented.
Meanwhile, performers rehearse wherever they can outdoors, including on the sidewalk outside the theatre and in the park. Nearly all the performers are not from Long Beach Island, and all live together for the season—a Surflight tradition that just happened to work in their favor this year. Performers live, work and socialize only with each other, which created a bubble similar to the ones professional sports leagues have tried to create in an effort to restart their seasons. The staff at Show Place live together in their own apartment, and abide to similar rules isolating performers.
All Surflight and Show Place employees have their temperatures taken twice a day, and are regularly tested for COVID-19. Steiner said they haven’t had any positive tests for COVID-19 yet, which has allowed shows to go on without a hitch.
The main stage production of Cabaret premiered July 10, and its 23-show run will end Aug. 2 to make way for Mamma Mia! Aug. 4-30. Surflight also has a series of musicals for families, such as Frozen, Jr., and regularly hosts touring comedians and musicians. In August, comedian Mike Marino (Aug. 9) and country/gospel group The Oak Ridge Boys (Aug. 31) both are scheduled to make appearances under Surflight’s tent. Surflight requires visiting acts to be temperature checked, as well.
The venue itself adheres to social distancing and sanitizing protocols. Steiner estimated the tent could seat 700 people in a normal arrangement, but Surflight limits its shows to no more than 220 people. The actual seating capacity varies show-to-show, depending on how people buy their tickets. Groups sit together, with six feet of space on all sides. A family of five, for example, would sit together, six feet away from the next closest group. Someone buying a single ticket would have a solo chair with six feet of distance from the next group. Chairs are cleaned and rearranged before every show.
Steiner said he has been contacted by others looking to Surflight as a prototype of how to operate an arts venue amid a pandemic. He—like everyone—hopes the Surflight model won’t be needed much longer. But should it have use beyond this summer, Steiner is proud to share it, saying that he’s always preferred to tackle problems head on.
“I would always say there’s a solution to every problem,” Steiner said. “We just have to find it.”
Surflight Theatre, 201 Engleside Ave., Beach Haven, N.J. (609) 492-9477. surflight.org.