Will the community theater seasons continue? And how?

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Each performing arts organization in the region and nation will have to make their own decisions about how and when to reopen given the huge impact of COVID-19. For our community theaters, these decisions come earlier than most other arts groups, as their seasons start in September or even August, rather than October or November.

So how will the shows play out – if they do – with maximum safety for the audience, cast and crew? And how are they going to raise enough money to make their presentation financially viable? As Jeffery Kin, Interim CEO and Artistic Director of The Players Center for Performing Arts, says, “We’re all in the same storm, but in different boats. Each theater director has, for the moment, plans in place with some variations.

First of all, the Players, who canceled their summer season early and instead presented virtual performances. “We did a deep clean of the theater, which hasn’t happened for a long time,” Kin said. “We also sell accessories [at their vendor space in The Bazaar on Apricot and Lime]. “They’re also talking about where they’ll be presenting shows in the future after the reboot, as the organization was undergoing a transformation even before the pandemic hit.

The players have been fundraising for a new theater space in the Waterside development in Lakewood Ranch for some time, but their contract even allows them to start building for two years. In the meantime, with a lease on their longtime property on North Tamiami Trail set to expire in October, Kin says he has a verbal extension until May 2021 to stay in the current space. Like other theater companies, The Players are also looking to potentially present performances in outdoor venues.

But beyond that, there is the question of the types of shows they can present. “Community theaters like us are used to doing really big musicals,” says Kin. With large distributions and demands on technical staff, “How do we keep them safe?” This is also the concern in the orchestra pits, where musicians play in close proximity. And forget about the wind instruments; they are not safe in today’s environment. “We can have a small group,” says Kin, “a drummer, a guitarist and keyboards”. Or maybe they resort to recorded music, a loss for local musicians who need work.

While the players’ 2020-21 season was originally slated to open on September 16 with the full-scale show The best little brothel in Texas, Kin says they are wondering if it is possible to offer the musical to the public instead. All is well, which had to close early at the end of last season because it was already sunk and rehearsed. In a theater of nearly 400 seats, with a mandatory occupancy rate of 50%, is it financially viable? Will people come? Other concerns include what to do with washrooms and volunteer ushers, who tend to be part of an older and susceptible demographic. (No programs or tickets printed either.)

“It is possible to produce,” said Kin, “but is it really safe? Would it be worth it if only one person got sick? What is the cost of entertainment? I want to make sure I give everyone the confidence to continue.

At the Venice Theater, executive production director Murray Chase faces similar concerns. But VT is moving forward with its plan to open on July 11 with a production of its annual summer cabaret series, in rehearsal now. If deemed safe, this show will take place not in the usual intimate space of the Pinkerton Theater, but on the larger (and recently renamed) main stage Jervey Theater, to allow for physical distancing.

Like the players, VT has worked diligently to “super sanitize” their building, Chase says. “We had hydrogen peroxide nebulized at six bars, like what they do for operating theaters,” he says. And with the use of HEPA filters and a revised heating and air conditioning system, decades of collected residue is gone, he adds.

In addition to the summer cabaret, VT plans to continue its summer program with young performers, but not the originally planned production of the musical. Jekyll & Hyde. “We are now considering The Fantastic instead, ”says Chase, due to its smaller scale. Musicals, so often the most popular fare, “will have a minimum of live musicians, and the cast members won’t sing far from the stage,” he says. “We are setting a line below which no one can sing.”

Does he have the feeling that the public will come back? “I guess the same responses we see across the county,” he says. “Some people won’t feel comfortable for long, others sooner and others right away. I hope enough will feel confident enough to give us a try.

At the Manatee Performing Arts Center, production artistic director Rick Kerby had planned to open the main season at Stone Hall with a production of Reinette apple in August. Now, he said, “we plan to open with You are a good man, Charlie Brown“—A smaller production that had already been rehearsed for last spring before the theater closed.

MPAC will be doing social distancing, with seating groups of two, three or four spaced six feet apart. There will be temperature controls at the door, and no concessions will be opened or any programs or tickets printed. There will also be no intermission to reduce the risk of infection in crowded halls.

Another possible replacement show this season could be something like the musical. I do! I do!, which has only two actors. The show series will likely be extended beyond the usual duration, in order to compensate for the drop in ticket sales due to the spacing.

Like other performing arts groups, the Manatee Players are also exploring the possibility of live-streaming and partnering with entities like Realize Bradenton for a possible live show, or maybe even with LECOM’s park. Pittsburgh Pirates, outside and large enough to safely accommodate more customers. With a large warehouse of sets at its disposal, MPAC plans to reuse as much as possible for the coming year to save money as well.

“We always try to keep as much programming as possible,” says Kerby. For all theaters, plans are subject to change. “Things change and any information can change on a daily basis,” says Chase.

To stay up to date, visit theplayers.org, venicetheatre.org and manateeperformingartscenter.com.


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