Art in the Time of Covid: Modern Times Theater
Since 2007, husband and wife team Justin Lander and Rose Friedman have toured New England as Modern Times Theater, an old-fashioned puppetry and novelty music show that Boston’s WBUR radio has called “part funny-serious puppets, part jaunty live 1920s band, part serious social critique, part shenanigans.” Rose and Justin are also half of the founding team behind Vermont Vaudeville, a biannual production based out of Hardwick since 2009. Performing artists like Rose and Justin, who make their income entirely through their art, have been hit particularly hard by the Covid-19 pandemic. Still, they remain creative and connected to their community, offering safe, curbside performances by delivery.
As part of our series featuring creative professionals’ responses to the virus, Rose Friedman, co-founder of Modern Times Theater, shared her thoughts with the Council.
What is the most difficult impact you’ve felt from the coronavirus pandemic?
In mid-March, we were in the midst of producing the “Saturday Storefront Trilogy,” a series of shows in an empty storefront in downtown St. Johnsbury. This is a project we have produced successfully in Hardwick for the last 5 years, but it was our first time doing it in St. Johnsbury. We partnered with Catamount Arts, and our first weekend was totally sold out. The day before episode two, March 13th, Catamount postponed the rest of the series. Initially, we felt the impact of the shutdown on that particular project, but quickly we zoomed out and saw the larger repercussions that it would have on our bookings throughout spring and summer, and beyond. Indeed, we lost all of our work for the foreseeable future, just at the start of our fullest season.
For the last decade, we have run our two-person company, Modern Times Theater from our home in East Hardwick, homeschooled our kids, raised much of our food on our small homestead, and co-produced and performed in Vermont Vaudeville. We derive the entirety of our household income from our theater work, which includes producing, performing, and occasional freelance teaching. The shutdown of all large gatherings, theaters, libraries, and community events has meant financial strain on our household, but, more importantly, forces us to reflect on the viability of live performance in a time of isolation, fear, and economic collapse.
How have you gained hope or solace from your arts community since the crisis began?
We have completely reinvented our business model, and it has been heartening to see how supportive our audience has been. In late March, we began offering a “Puppet Show Action Pack” for donations to Modern Times Theater. This do-it-yourself kit encourages families to create their own puppet shows at home. In April, Vermont Vaudeville began offering “curbside entertainment”, short shows performed for small audiences in driveways and front yards. So, for weeks now, we have driven around to neighboring towns delivering 20-minute concerts for birthday celebrations and general cheering up. Many people have responded to our offerings, and both these projects have provided a small but meaningful income, as well as a unique chance to connect with our audience and continue to do the work that we love.
How can people support Modern Times Theater through this difficult period?
We are offering a mobile Punch and Judy puppet show for curbside delivery this summer. This show is appropriate for small audiences at a safe social distance. You can find out more about how to support our work at www.moderntimestheater.com and www.vermontvaudeville.com.
Listen to this recent VPR interview with Erica Heilman about Modern Times Theater.
Visit the Modern Times Theater website, where you can order your “Puppet Show Action Pack,” live curbside puppet shows, and find out about their latest offerings.
Follow Modern Times Theater on Facebook, and on Instagram.
Modern Times Theater delights crowds with a fresh take on the entertainment styles of the past, including novelty music, handmade puppetry, and classic comedy. Husband and wife performers Justin Lander and Rose Friedman have been adapting and updating Punch and Judy shows, and performing original variety acts with Vermont Vaudeville for over a decade. They strive to present quality entertainment that the whole family can enjoy.