It began with a summer of uncertainty. In the depths of a quiet period last semester, Anna Hampton ’22 and Sara Rosenthal ’22 — housemates and Co-artistic Directors of Kenyon College Players (KCP) — were searching for theater opportunities in their native New York City, and things looked bleak. The pandemic had virtually shut down all theater in the Big Apple and, despite widespread vaccine distribution, a return to normal still seemed like a fantasy.
But Hampton and Rosenthal knew there was a way for theater to safely thrive in a pandemic. Through KCP, they had been involved with staging outdoor productions this past semester that complied with COVID-19 guidelines, including a socially distant Rocky Horror Picture Show at the New Apartments tennis court. With the summer ahead, they realized they had another chance to bring a show to life.
“We looked at each other and had this moment where we thought, ‘this is our opportunity to create something and use the spaces that have been vacant for so long,’” Rosenthal said.
They were quickly joined by fellow KCP members Cora Cicala ’22 and Katherine Mostek ’22, and the four formed the group Bag of Lights Theater (BOLT), dedicated to “bringing live theater back from a virtual world,” according to their website. After reaching out through email, they recruited a few more individuals to move to New York for the summer to join the summer project, including Caleb Stern ’23 and Abbey Flamm ’24.
Next, the group had to decide on what play to produce. They knew they needed a show with a small cast, and wanted to do something that was both fun and meaningful. They found what they were looking for in Halley Feiffer’s A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Gynecologic Oncology Unit at Memorial Sloan Kettering Center of New York City, a dark comedy about illness and family published in 2017.
Despite initially not hearing back from the publishing house about obtaining the rights to the show, the group launched into rehearsals. Hampton directed, Cicala and Mostek were producers and the rest of the students were part of the cast. They rehearsed in each other’s apartments for a little over four weeks while the production team searched for a venue to stage the show. They initially liked the idea of performing in an empty storefront, but were quickly dissuaded by the five-figure price tags. Eventually, they got in contact with the Polaris North Theater, a small not-for-profit theater located on the fourth floor of an apartment building in Chelsea. For only about $300 total, the Theater allowed the BOLT crew to stage their play for three performances in July.
Although this was certainly a victory, there were still some challenges ahead. The theater was small and without air conditioning, which was far from ideal in the summer during a pandemic. The group still hadn’t heard back from the publisher about the rights to their show, but still, they went forth, advertising the show on social media and reaching out to people who might want to come. Kenyon alumnae Emma Richardson ’21 and Chameli Belk-Gupta ’21 stepped in to help with set and costume design, respectively.
Finally, four days before the first performance was scheduled, the group heard that they had received the rights to put on the play. From there, it was full speed ahead.
On the day of the first performance, the cast and crew were tested for COVID-19 to ensure they wouldn’t be putting any audience members in danger. They also required that the audience members be vaccinated and wear masks during the show.
The play was a success, with around 90 people total coming to see it over the course of three days. BOLT was able to make a sizable donation to the Polaris North Theater with their ticket proceeds, which Hampton said was one of the most rewarding parts of the experience.
“I think there is a thing emerging in the theater community right now of just looking out for one another,” Hampton said. “The theater world is hurting so much that there is a need to support young people but also support these institutions.”
Cicala highlighted the support she felt throughout the process.
“It feels really exciting to know that people believe in us, and that that artistic ethos still exists, even though sometimes the reputation is often that theater is unwelcoming and cold,” Cicala said.
All four BOLT members hope to take what they learned from the summer into this semester’s KCP productions, and further down the line, into their futures in the professional world — still rife with uncertainty, but nothing they can’t handle.