Asolo Rep is moving forward after positive COVID-19 cases canceled 10 days of ‘Hair’

Sarasota theater canceled 10 performances of the musical ‘Hair’ after five cast members tested positive with breakthrough COVID cases.

Jay Handelman
Sarasota Herald-Tribune
Charnette Batey as Dionee and the cast of Asolo Repertory Theatre’s production of “Hair.”

Despite five positive COVID test results that forced Asolo Repertory Theatre to cancel 10 performances of “Hair,” including the opening night, Producing Artistic Director Michael Donald Edwards is confident the health and safety procedures in place minimized the spread and will help the theater company move through the rest of the season without interruption.

“We are getting pretty good at negotiating this. It was our worst-case scenario,” Edwards said. “And we got through it without anybody getting really sick. The sickest anybody got was from getting the booster.”

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The theater canceled the first preview performance on Nov. 18 after one company member tested positive. The protocols in place required that everyone else involved in the production be re-tested, and because those results would not be available in time for the Nov. 19 performance, that also was canceled. On Nov. 20, the date of the official opening night, the theater reported other non-COVID illnesses would force that performance to be canceled. By Tuesday Nov. 23, the theater announced it would cancel another week of performances.

Eventually, five positive cases were reported, said Edwards.

"We were probably overly cautious, but we were concerned that more people could get infected. We knew early on it was just the actors,” Edwards said. The theater followed its safety procedures and started rehearsing with understudies, who don’t usually get stage time until after the opening.

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But with the number of cases increasing and so many understudies needed to fill in, “we realized we can’t open,” Edwards said. “We made the decision to not go back and forth as people were going in and out of quarantine and put the box office under stress. The best thing is to shut down for the week and wait until everybody has gotten over it.”

That meant there were no in-person rehearsals until hours before the first public performance, which the Herald-Tribune reviewed at the theater’s invitation, on Nov. 30. Five understudies performed that night. The full cast was back on stage two days later.

Edwards said some company members “took a risk that may have seemed minor” in their off-time activities that became a lesson for everyone at the theater.

“We’ve all learned through this process that we need to be extra cautious, not only while we’re actively working, but also while we’re outside the building and in the community,” Edwards said, adding that the need for caution is “vital to the success of our productions.”

Michael Donald Edwards is the producing artistic director of Asolo Repertory Theatre.

The positive cases impacted only the acting company, not others in the production or the theater’s staff or volunteers. “We had gone nearly two years without a positive case here,” he said.

Before the company of “Hair” was allowed to travel to Sarasota for rehearsals, all members had to send a negative COVID test result.

All were vaccinated as required by agreements with Actors’ Equity Association and were placed in what Production Manager Mike Rodgers described as “semi isolation or what used to be referred to as a bubble or cluster.”

They were given four tests over the first 10 days when masks were required to be worn at all times during rehearsals. After the fourth negative test, the stage performers were allowed to remove their faces masks when they were actively rehearsing, even as director Josh Rhodes and others involved in the production team were required to keep their faces covered.

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The safety protocols were more stringent than those required by union agreements, Rodgers said. “We are not required to test at all as part of the union guidelines.”

Edwards said Rodgers found a lab that could process PCR test results within about six hours, instead of the usual 24 hours. “That was a game changer. We can make a decision almost in real time whether to continue or not. Think of American business: if you can get that result in that amount of time, you can make better decisions about health and safety.”

Damon J. Gillespie as Claude and the cast of Asolo Repertory Theatre’s production of “Hair” sing “Let the Sun Shine.”

Edwards said the situation “cost us a lot” financially, with the cost of tests and the loss of ticket revenue from the canceled performances. Attendance has been lighter than for past fall musicals.

But the theater prepared a season budget 2021-22 budget “knowing we were never going to get people to come back in the same way they had before. We budgeted that subscriptions would go way down, but the opposite happened. Subscriptions are almost back to where they were before the pandemic.”

Single ticket sales, however, have been more sluggish. “People are still skittish. ‘Hair’ may not be the show they want to take the risk on,” Edwards said. Still, because of the cautious budgeting, the theater is near its projections.

He said increased support from board members and donors, as well as an infusion of $6 million from the federal government has “helped to stabilize the ship.”

Describing the cancelled performances as a ‘body blow, not a catastrophe,” he said the theater’s main goal is now to shift public perceptions and make people feel comfortable enough to return.

“It’s getting people to understand we’re tackling this in the most responsible but effective way. We contained it,” he said. “We got rid of it and we put the bloody show on and it’s really bloody good. That’s the story and we are going to continue to do this.”

As new groups of actors arrive for the winter repertory season that begins in January, they will be encouraged to take safety measures seriously and take responsibility for protecting themselves, fellow cast members and the theater. 

“Hair” continues through Jan. 1 at Asolo Rep, 5555 N. Tamiami Trail, Sarasota. For more information: 941-351-8000;

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