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A&E >  Stage

Shows can’t go on without a crowd, but what about with actors in masks?

UPDATED: Sun., July 19, 2020

By all current estimates, it’s going to be quite a while before theaters are able to give live performances again. And when they do, things may look a bit different.

“What does, ‘They kiss,’ mean in a script when your actors have to stay 6 feet apart?” asked Jeremy Whittington, artistic managing director of Stage Left, a Spokane nonprofit community theater. “How do you work masks into your costumes? Regardless of how it looks, actors are going to do what they have to to get their stories told.”

Whittington and the board of directors decided just before the governor’s stay-home order came down in March that it would be best to proactively close down their 70-seat venue for now, despite having a show in the works to begin its run that week.

It was disheartening, Whittington said, but they guessed they’d be open again by May. So the all-volunteer actors and crew kept prepping for the show remotely, as the run got pushed back to June. Then it was postponed to July, and then mid-August. Maybe.

Other productions got further out of reach, too, like the annual festival showcasing scripts written by Evergreen Elementary first-graders and performed by the theater’s actors. Whittington said after theater managers took a bit to “breathe and reformulate,” plans got underway to take that festival and other events, like a showcase of one-act plays written by local artists, online.

He hopes those virtual events will show Spokane Stage Left is still as relevant and necessary as it was before the pandemic. But Whittington admits performing alone at home is just not the same.

“Being without the outlet for expression and the personal interaction theater provides is just emotionally stunting,” Whittington said. “You wonder, how much can theater do to be safe during this without becoming a film house? Without turning into something it’s not?”

In Stage Left’s relatively small theater space on West Third Avenue, Whittington is sure the group won’t be open until at least Phase 4 of the Safe Start reopening plan. The group, luckily, has low overhead costs – its theater is owned by a board member, who charges little rent, and the actors, crew and staff are all volunteers.

Still, Stage Left leans heavily on ticket sales to keep things running. Over 60% of its revenue has evaporated. Though day-to-day costs are low with the season called off, that remaining 40% is not much to go on, Whittington said.

The company started up an online merch shop to generate a little extra income, and that’s been a mild success, Whittington said. They do have a couple of larger corporate sponsors that provided a small buffer to keep things running for a little while, and a small fundraising push on Facebook surpassed its goals of $3,000. Whittington has been applying for any and all arts grants with his newfound free time.

He’s confident Stage Left will still be here this time next year. It just isn’t quite clear what that will look like.

Whittington is excited, though, to see Stage Left rise to meet reopening challenges and keep occupying its niche as Spokane’s progressive theater. The group has emphasized diversity in its plays, crews, cast and board from the beginning, Whittington said, and in an era of social upheaval, he feels the theater’s work will be more relevant than ever.

“That’s where we’re almost at an advantage, being a smaller theater with less funding than some bigger ones,” Whittington said. “We’re flexible. If we want to do a play that might be controversial or edgy or push some boundaries, we don’t have to ask permission from corporate oversight – we can just jump right in with confidence.”

Just across the border, Idaho’s slightly more lax restrictions on gatherings have not provided any solace for the Coeur d’Alene Summer Theatre. According to director Jeff Conroy, the company called off its season in April, when things looked even more uncertain.

Under Idaho’s Phase 4 of reopening, large venues like those at which the company performs could open if they choose, with limited seating and safety protocols. But it’s too late for that.

“Maybe things could be worked out now, but you don’t get the luxury of a second guess,” Conroy, who joined the organization in June, said. “Once you call the season, you can’t call it back on.”

Though Summer Theatre is a nonprofit like Stage Left, its actors and crew are professionals whom the company pays, houses and feeds throughout the season, which typically spans from July to August. Often, performers travel from around the country to join the company for the summer, along with local actors who work the off-season shows.

If this were a normal season, Conroy said, the company would be “knee-deep” in producing shows and selling tickets like crazy. Instead, the actors are largely out of work and the staff is “absolutely bare bones,” fielding the few calls from customers asking about next year or requesting refunds on tickets.

This year, the company was planning to return to North Idaho College’s 1,000-plus-seat auditorium from the 400-seat Kroc Center Theater it had called home since 2014. If the company tried to keep shows going under the 6-foot distancing guidelines, the auditorium would only hold a tiny fraction of that, Conroy said, and that isn’t cost-effective or sustainable.

Like Stage Left, the vast majority of the theater’s revenue comes from ticket sales, although it does have larger corporate sponsors that Conroy said have been “very generous” in maintaining their support.

Conroy is not worried that the company won’t put shows on next summer. He’s excited, in fact, to see all the new ways the company comes up with to put on a good show while maintaining safety for cast and audience alike.

For now, the company is setting its sights on making it to their first off-season show, planned for October. Nothing is certain yet, and it’s tricky to plan a production knowing you may well have to cancel with short notice, Conroy said.

But that safety is the theater’s “No. 1 priority,” Conroy said, so it’s likely its venues will require masks for any shows in the near future.

Neither Idaho nor Kootenai County has a mask mandate, and the idea of enforcing mask-wearing is not necessarily popular in North Idaho, Conroy said. He expects that might be a hurdle, but he said the company will do “anything it needs” to ensure a great performance.

“And part of a great performance is not getting sick while you enjoy it,” Conroy said.

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