After a Long Intermission, Live Theater Reopens
In the world of theater, we have a tradition: a “ghost light” is left on when a stage is empty. Ghost lights have been burning steadily in most Alaska theaters for a year and a half, since COVID-19 arrived. Suddenly, though, the ghost lights are off and the stage lights are on, as theater companies return to live performances.
The Show Must Go On
Theater patrons and participants, such as I, have an abundance of choices as October draws to an end. Valley Performing Arts is closing a run of Shakespeare’s Comedy of Errors; TBA Theatre is mounting its traditional Halloween shows, one for kids and one for older audiences; Mad Myrna’s brings back its annual Rocky Horror Show; Perseverance Theatre opens its season in Juneau; and the following week, Cyrano’s Theatre Company continues its 2020 season after a long hiatus.
One stage in Anchorage that is dark for Halloween is the one that, ironically, stayed busy through the COVID-19 shutdown. Anchorage Community Theatre (ACT) was supposed to be closing Agatha Christie’s The Hollow by this weekend, but rising COVID-19 numbers convinced the cast and crew (including myself) to postpone. As a consolation, we instead recorded an adaptation of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein as a radio play, which airs on KNBA 90.3 FM on Halloween night.
Such improvisations have become second nature. ACT Executive Director Matt Fernandez says he’s been ad-libbing a schedule since April of 2020: “When our final show of the 66th season was pulled due to coronavirus lockdowns, I came up with the beginnings of a replacement season that could function within the limits of mitigation.”
Unlike most other companies, ACT remained active by producing one-man and two-man shows with restricted seating, a radio play, online streaming events, and plays designed for Zoom teleconferences. “We strove to remain a presence during the rest of 2020,” Fernandez says. “We felt our work to bring entertainment to Anchorage needed to go on; we just had to figure out how to do that.”
By spring, when vaccinations became available and the pandemic ebbed, ACT put on live shows for full audiences. “What baffled me was that we made significant profits on all three shows we produced in early 2021,” Fernandez says. “The only reason I can think of was that almost all of the other venues and theatre companies were not planning to reopen until fall… We were pretty much the only game in town, in terms of live theatre. It helps not to have competition!”
Beyond Halloween, when ACT opens its stage for the season, it will likewise be a limited affair. For one night, an invited audience will see Happy Christmas, Jeeves, a new play based on the P.G. Wodehouse characters Jeeves and Wooster. The performance will be recorded on video for later distribution online.
“In This Mist At All Adventures Go”
The ghost light on stage at Anchorage Community Theatre.
With The Hollow rescheduled for next spring (pandemic permitting), the honor of opening the fall theater season went to Valley Performing Arts (VPA). On October 15, the company began a three-weekend run at its home theater in Wasilla. The company isn’t easing back into it, either, taking on the challenge of Shakespeare’s double-trouble proto-farce of mismatched twins, A Comedy of Errors.
“It’s been a two-year labor of love,” says VPA Executive Director Garry Forrester. Originally on the schedule for December 2020, love’s labors were nearly lost when COVID spiked again and rehearsals were cancelled. However, director Wendey Golter kept researching and refining, Forrester says.
Since VPA pulled the plug on Noises Off! before the play opened in 2020, the company has been mostly inactive, except for its summer theater arts camp for young people. “We looked at doing stuff digitally,” says Forrester, “but because so much of what we do involves a cast of appreciable size, it’s difficult to do a quality product.”
Now VPA has a full season lined up. “People are ready to see live production,” Forrester says.
The set at APU’s Grant Hall is the backdrop for both of TBA Theatre’s Halloween productions: Ghastly Alice and Death Valley’s Halloween Hoedown.
When stages went dark in 2020, Anchorage-based TBA Theatre Company was days away from opening Hello, Dolly! All those preparations were scrapped, as was the rest of the season. TBA managed to salvage part of the lineup with an outdoor performance this summer of IF, a fairy-tale inspired anthology developed at the Last Frontier Theater Conference in Valdez. The company was able to bring the production back to Valdez, keeping the cast and crew busy, toward its mission of “Training Better Artists.”
Halloween is typically when TBA opens its season, and the company was eager to resume after skipping 2020. Last weekend, TBA premiered Ghastly Alice at Grant Hall on the Alaska Pacific University campus. The frightful tale, set in early 1900s Idaho, was written and directed by Wayne Mitchell, who usually helms TBA’s other Halloween offering, a musical comedy for children. He left that show, Death Valley’s Halloween Hoedown, to his brother, Shane Mitchell. Apart from the front row seats covered with black fabric, to ensure a minimum ten-foot separation between masked audience and unmasked actors, the festivities are a return to normal.
Both plays share the stage at Grant Hall, with a matinee for kids followed by the bigger show in the evening. On Friday, October 29, TBA is also presenting 13 Tales of Terror, an old-fashioned ghost story experience at 10 p.m., after the lights in Grant Hall have darkened.
Meanwhile, in Juneau, Perseverance Theatre is returning to live audiences with Voyager One, a science fiction drama set in the ‘70s and the far future. “We’re trying to stay as COVID safe as possible,” says Managing Director Frank Delaney. Each of the three cast members have been vaccinated, and he says everyone in the audience must have the vaccine as well. The show runs from October 29 through November 14.
The lingering pandemic is interfering with plans to bring Voyager One to Anchorage in November, however. Delaney says COVID numbers in the municipality are too high. “We’re committed to producing in Anchorage as soon as it’s viable to bring people from out of town and out of state to Anchorage.” Audiences will at least be able to view a video-on-demand performance from Juneau.
Virtual stages have been the main outlet for Perseverance since theaters closed. The company mounted five streaming productions and at least six “community conversations,” in addition to two cabaret-style shows with limited seating, according to Delaney.
Coming Soon to a Theater…
This reporter had the privilege of performing in the last play at Cyrano’s before theaters shut down in 2020, an adaptation of Jane Austen’s Emma, alongside Maddy Klever and Kaichen McRae.
For Cyrano’s Theatre Company, the COVID-19 shutdown amounts to a lengthy intermission. Rather than opening its season, Cyrano’s is picking up where it left off with Ripcord, a comedy set in a senior living facility. Rehearsals were just about to start in spring of 2020, and after the theater closed, the actors continued with table work for eighteen months. Producing Artistic Director Teresa Pond, who is also directing Ripcord, says it’s the most rehearsal she’s ever seen. Ripcord opens November 5 and runs every weekend until the end of the month.
Because Cyrano’s uses a calendar-year season, rather than fall-to-spring, the next play on the schedule, Noel Coward’s Fallen Angels, will actually open the company’s thirtieth anniversary season, with the same line-up that had been planned for 2020. “We committed to everyone that we would keep our season, it would just be paused, and continue on as best we could,” Pond says. The theme for 2020 was “Year of the Woman,” and Pond says Cyrano’s will finish that year, however many years it takes.
The interruption gave Cyrano’s an opportunity to embark on a year-long strategic planning process. The upshot, according to Pond: “We want it to be what it is emerging as: a fully realized professional theater, more and more.” In the meantime, the company stayed busy with online events, such as seminars, readings, and workshops, while also promoting artists in the theater’s galleries.
The shutdown also gave Cyrano’s time to adjust to a post-COVID environment. Pond says, “We were looking, of course, at safety protocols and community health and all of the things that now, as a leader of an arts organization, I have to think about, that I didn’t need to know about. Don’t even get me started on air filtration! I’ve never been so excited about air filtration. I didn’t even know what that was, a year and a half ago.”
As luck would have it, the longtime set builder at Cyrano’s, Bill Heim, works in air filtration at his day job, so he was able to secure MERV 15 filters for the building (a former municipal library at Debarr Road and Bragaw Street). Pond says that it enables a continuous flow of fresh air during rehearsals and performances, without compromising indoor heating. “We’re not an outside venue,” she says, “but we’re getting darn close when it comes to air friendly for COVID.”
Like No Business I Know
TBA Theatre’s Shane Mitchell crashes this summer’s fundraiser for Anchorage Community Theatre, all in the spirit of cooperation among companies.
Pond, Fernandez, the Mitchells at TBA, and other local theater professionals kept in touch with each other during the shutdown. Pond says they formed a “collective” to make sure nobody missed any of the support funds available. Fernandez told the ACT board of directors not to expect a profit from any show and instead rely on economic recovery from the city, state, local foundations, “and the good graces of individual donors.”
Delaney says Perseverance was “very lucky” to stay afloat thanks to individual donors and various grants from private, local, and federal sources. He says Perseverance relied on the Shuttered Venue Operators grant and obtained Paycheck Protection Program loans, which have since been forgiven. Tickets sold to online events also helped keep the lights on.
Both ACT and Cyrano’s saw increases in donations, in lieu of ticket sales. Pond says she used the off-season to send video messages thanking donors and building those relationships. “We weren’t necessarily asking for funds,” she says. “We were checking in, and we were thanking them for their support. And we have had an extraordinary amount of individual donation growth.”
The Anchorage “collective” was unable to include Valley Performing Arts, due to distance. “A lot of people from Anchorage come to our shows,” says Forrester, “but we don’t have a lot of interaction with other companies in town. We’d like to change that.”
As nonprofits, arts organizations can coast on goodwill, but fulfilling their mission becomes difficult without the proverbial “butts in seats.” Organizations powered by volunteers, like ACT or TBA, need box office receipts to cover production costs, and professional or semi-pro companies like Perseverance and Cyrano’s can’t exist without paying for talent. “Show business is a business,” says Pond. It’s also a calling, and just having the opportunity to play, with and in front of other people, is its own reward.