Local theaters come alive again after long, dark pandemic hiatus
The essence of theater is live performance. That’s what it’s all about: reaching out to an audience gathered together to see a show. So what do theater people do when a pandemic preempts public gatherings?
Well, they survive, any way they can. And as theater companies cautiously move back to live indoor performances, even as COVID-19 concerns linger, they’re bringing with them what they’ve learned along the way.
Fall has long been the traditional start of the season for most theater companies except, of course, in 2020. This September, local theater companies plan to launch full seasons at last, while closely watching the most current coronavirus safety guidelines.
“We’re extremely excited to finally get back to live theater,” said Diane Dragone, executive director of the Cinnabar Theater in Petaluma. “But we say that with a lot of concern for our performers and audiences.”
When the Cinnabar returns to live, in-person shows Sept. 10 with its 2021-2022 season opener, “Cry It Out,” a comedy-drama by Molly Smith Metzler, audiences will be required to show proof of vaccination and wear masks.
“The actors all are vaccinated and will rehearse with masks but not perform with masks,” Dragone said. “There will be hand sanitizer in the lobby.”
To allow for some social distancing in the lobby, the Cinnabar has moved its concession stand to its studio theater next door.
“We chose shorter plays for September and October, and there’ll be no intermission,” to help avoid congestion in the lobby, Dragone explained.
The theater also has upgraded its air conditioning. The seats will be sanitized between shows.
“We don’t know how the audience is going to respond,” she said. “We’ve never been in a pandemic before, so there’s no measuring rod. Who knows what will happen? But we will continue doing theater.”
At the Spreckels Performing Arts Center in Rohnert Park, also dark since early 2020, the season will open Sept. 3 with the long-delayed premiere of “Galatea,” a futuristic drama written by Sonoma County playwright and journalist David Templeton.
“Galatea” was supposed to open on Friday, March 20, 2020, but the statewide shutdown came on March 17.
“We got the word on Friday, March 13, one week before its world premiere, that the play was not going to open,” Templeton said.
“The set was fully built and decorated; all graphics, light and sound design had been created,” he added. “The set has remained up at Spreckels throughout the last 17 months, waiting in the dark.”
As with Cinnabar, masks and proof of vaccination will be required at performances.
Unlike other local theater companies, Spreckels did not try to fill the gap with virtual online productions during the long hiatus prompted by the pandemic.
“We chose not to do any performances,” said Sheri Lee Miller, managing artistic director at the center. “We took advantage of the opportunity to do something we couldn’t have done otherwise.”
And that was to totally reorganize the center’s massive collection of costumes, accessories and props.
Longtime costume designer Pamela Enz, who worked on many Spreckels shows as well as web and video productions, donated her stock of some 17,000 costume pieces to the theater.
“Our lobby was packed with costumes,” Miller said. “We spent a year sorting and organizing. We went through every single item. Now we have one of the biggest and most organized collections in the county.”
The project was not just a housecleaning. Now items from the Spreckels collection can be made available to others.
“We’ll be renting out costumes. We’ve already had one rental,” Miller said.
At the 6th Street Playhouse in Santa Rosa, where the live, in-person season opener, “Love, Loss and What I Wore,” runs through Aug. 29, the theater staff took the more conventional approach of filling the pandemic-induced void with virtual productions presented online.
“Virtual performance will never replace live performance,” said Jared Sakren, artistic director at 6th Street. “As a theater company, you present yourself as specializing in live theater. That’s what the community expects you to do.”
While the online presentations have a wider geographical reach, the audience numbers don’t come close to matching in-person attendance.
“Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story,” the last live performance at 6th Street in early 2020, drew a total audience of 6,000 over its six-week run, Sakren said. In contrast, ticket sales for the entire run of 6th Street’s online production last year of “Turn of the Screw” totaled 400. Some virtual shows drew as many as 900.
The effort of putting shows online was not wasted, and virtual presentations can continue as a supplement to live shows, Sakren said.
“We were nimble. We got very innovative,” he said. “I taught myself to livestream.”
In Sakren’s mind, there is no doubt that 6th Street fans want to get back inside the theater.
“Our season subscriptions are right back up where they were before the pandemic,” he said.
At the Cinnabar, Dragone reported mixed results from the three one-person plays that the company presented online.
“The first show, in April last year, was very well-attended online,” she recalled. “For the next show, the numbers were down. I attribute that to people being tired of virtual shows. For the third show, last October and November, the numbers were better but still not as good as they were for the first.”
The novelty of virtual productions may have worn off a little, but like 6th Street, Cinnabar plans to continue producing them.
“What we’re doing for this season is planning to tape the first three shows, in addition to presenting them live,” Dragone said. “We don’t know what the audience will do. Some people may be ready to come back to the theater.”
You can reach Staff Writer Dan Taylor at firstname.lastname@example.org or 707-521-5243. On Twitter @danarts.
Arts & Entertainment, The Press Democrat
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