After weeks of empty seats and closed doors, local theater groups are considering how they can return to performing for audiences while balancing the new concerns of life amid a global pandemic.
Jefferson City is home to four theater groups: Capital City Productions, The Little Theatre, Scene One Theatre and Stained Glass Theatre of Mid-Missouri. All four have canceled or postponed spring shows because of the coronavirus pandemic, with some even canceling planned summer productions and camps.
"I am sure all theatrical groups are struggling, as are we, to pay the bills without any income," said Mark Howard, board president of Stained Glass Theatre of Mid-Missouri. "Yet, if our (hopefully temporary) closure protects the life of even one of our cast, crew or patrons, it will be a worthy sacrifice."
At Stained Glass, Howard said, two shows have been postponed and the summer drama camp is canceled. The group hopes to reopen with "Pollyanna" on June 18, but that will depend on what is allowed under the second phase of Gov. Mike Parson's recovery plan for Missouri.
Under the first phase, theaters can be open, but seating must be spaced to meet social-distancing requirements. Howard said they hope the second phase will allow for normal seating, though they are prepared to "rope off" seating to abide by regulations.
In March and April, Howard said, rehearsals were conducted through online meetings, which had some distinct challenges, such as delayed timing. Then, right before the first phase of the state's recovery plan went into effect, the cast moved to stage rehearsals; but that was tough, too, Howard said, as only 10 people could be in the building at a time. Plus, actors had to maintain physical distancing, so they wore protective coverage and spoke blocking instructions instead of doing the movements, he said. (Howard gave the example of an actor saying "insert hug here" instead of actually hugging the person.)
"It made for some difficult but amusing scenes," Howard said.
Now, the whole cast can be at rehearsals, but the rest of the protocol remains the same.
"If you have ever been part of a stage production, you know how close the cast members become," Howard said. "They often refer to the cast as a 'second family.' It can get a little discouraging trying to keep these people apart."
Capital City Productions is hoping to be the first local theater to open its doors, with "Bonnie & Clyde: The Musical" scheduled to open Thursday at the group's new facility on Wicker Lane.
The all-volunteer organization moved to Wicker Lane in January with an ambitious schedule for more than $150,000 in renovations and shows beginning later that month. But delays in renovations caused shows to be postponed, moved or canceled; then the pandemic hit.
CCP founder Rob Crouse said the pandemic didn't allow for much extra time to work on the facility, as large groups of people couldn't be inside tackling projects for weeks. Instead, a few people would be in here and there, completing what they could, he said.
For the planned opening this week, Crouse said, the theater has put in a number of new protocols, including enhanced cleaning and disinfecting procedures, enforcing social distancing through seating reductions and table spacing, and new serving procedures for the buffet. Crouse said it's almost a blessing the organization had moved when the pandemic hit.
"We have a huge, open space," he said, noting the old location at Shikles Auditorium would not have allowed for such measures. "Our situation is so much different from all the other theaters."
But whether the theater will be allowed to open is still in question.
Jefferson City Building Official Larry Burkhardt said early last week that city officials were unaware of CCP's plans to open this week. He said the facility does not yet have its needed occupancy permit and, when the facility was last inspected, May 15, it looked like "they have a ways to go."
Crouse said Friday he is confident they will get the permit in time. An inspection has been scheduled for Tuesday, he said, which would give them two days to take care of any last-minute details. During the last couple of weekends, many volunteers have tackled the big projects that remained. On Friday, Crouse said he was hoping for "an army of volunteers" to turn out Saturday.
One major task being completed Friday was marking fire lanes, Crouse said. After that, the last major item is installing doors to the bathroom stalls. From there, it's only cosmetic items, he said, such as cleaning up debris and paint left over from renovation work.
Scene One Theatre founder Mark Wegman said they are likely to reopen in late July or August with another installment of the Short Attention Span Theatre, typically 10-minute original works from local writers. That timeline will allow for the cast and crew to safely rehearse, beginning in the end of June or early July.
The benefit for Scene One, Wegman said, is it often uses original content, which allows the group more flexibility in how to incorporate things like protective masks and physical distancing.
"We even thought about making the physical distancing part of the plot," he said.
Wegman said the theater will limit its capacity and space out seating, as well as encourage patrons to wear masks when coming in and take them off during the performance, which he said was similar to how some local churches have been operating.
But limiting occupancy is a strange concept for theaters, Wegman said, considering a packed house is generally what a cast wants to see.
Wegman said it will take some re-education of theater audiences, who may be used to buying tickets at the door and will now need to make a reservation to ensure a seat. And they may want to consider looking at different nights than the typical weekend shows, which tended to be fairly packed.
"A lot of times, we would do a show, and on a Thursday night, you might have 20 people. But then Saturday night, everybody and their brother wants in," Wegman said. "We may not be able to do that."
Overall, Wegman said he is being as cautious as possible, as he wants to ensure the safety of everyone involved. It's helped the theater has an understanding landlord, as well as a supportive community that has already helped by providing sponsorships, he said.
"We're still just trying to figure all of this out," he said. "Who would have ever thought that we would have to deal with something like this?"
Gabrielle Wittenberger, artistic director for The Little Theatre of Jefferson City, said they are also taking the cautious route. The group canceled the remainder of its season, which wasn't easy as it was celebrating its 50th season. The first show of the next season, which would have been in August, has also been canceled. Instead, the theater plans to open the season late in November and do only three shows instead of the normal four.
Wittenberger said she is in a unique position, as she is also the manager of the Miller Performing Arts Center, where The Little Theatre puts on its productions. And though she knows restrictions for large venues will ease over the coming weeks, it's tough to plan any events for the summer without knowing more.
"I just don't know what that's going to look like in the next three months," Wittenberger said.
If the group opted to do a show earlier, Wittenberger said, it would be a logistical nightmare because the current restrictions would not allow for the entire cast to be in the rehearsal space, which is in a small building near Lincoln University. Using a platform like Zoom can allow for digital rehearsals, but at some point, the cast would need to meet in person.
"It is a struggle right now for us to really think about every single thing," Wittenberger said. "Nobody knows when it will go back to normal."
At least, she said, they don't have to think about rent. And she doesn't think they will be struggling financially because, as a nonprofit, they are used to operating on a budget that is next to nothing.
For now, all four local theater groups are keeping a watchful eye on the situation and looking forward to when they can again perform for the community.
"As a Christian theater, we recognize that long-term isolation is not good for a community, a church or a theater," Howard, of Stained Glass, said. "We are praying for this community to come back together stronger than ever."