Summit County theaters adjust in the age of coronavirus
FRISCO — On Friday, March 13, the cast and crew of the Lake Dillon Theatre Co. had two glasses of champagne in the afternoon. One celebrated the opening of “The Roommate” while the other honored the play’s premature closing.
At first, the production was tentatively postponed for performances in late April and early May. But as those dates neared with no end to the pandemic in sight, the actors were sent home and the entire season was postponed. The set still sits on the stage frozen in time.
“At the time, nobody knew how long it was going to last or what the rippling effects were going to be,” Lake Dillon Theatre Co. Artistic Director Chris Alleman said.
“The Roommate” will be the theater’s first performance once it becomes safe enough to put on a show again. The ball was already rolling on “Popcorn Falls” and “Man of La Mancha,” so those, too, will have a chance to eventually be fully produced by the company.
“It’s a fantastic show and everyone deserves to see it,” Alleman said about “The Roommate.” “The people who worked on it deserve to have an audience. That’s our plan whenever we can open.”
Despite the closure, Alleman and his team put their heads together to pivot the season to a slate of digital and outdoor programming to keep themselves and their patrons engaged. The series kicked off in April with small virtual concerts, a reading of “House of Rocks,” a podcast hosted by Alleman and Executive Director Joshua Blanchard, and more.
One of Alleman’s favorites was a four-episode campaign of Dungeons & Dragons filled with theatrical references. The role-playing game has seen a surge in popularity as actors like Vin Diesel, Joe Manganiello and Deborah Ann Woll broadcast their gaming sessions online. Yet they knew the theater couldn’t make only passive viewing experiences while competing with Netflix and cable.
So the group offered a musical theater class, lectures on women in the industry as well as a playwriting course. Kids learned how to write and perform monologues along with participating in choreography and music projects.
In June, youth theater camps began with “The Very Hungry Caterpillar” and “Moana Jr.” The outdoor camps followed health protocols, and each show was limited to a cohort of 10 students. Though there wasn’t a full set with costumes and props, Alleman said the kids still enjoyed having the opportunity to sing and dance.
The outdoor theme continues with Curbside Cabarets, a 20-minute cabaret performed in the back of a pickup truck parked in neighborhoods to a crowd of about 50 people.
“People can come out, sit on their porches or in their lawns with everybody physically distant, but people get to socially engage a little bit,” Alleman said.
Larger crowds of 125 have been able to attend concerts at the theater’s outdoor stage, too. The next one is planned for Sept. 2, and will star Tony Award nominee Beth Malone, known for her work in “Fun Home.” The concerts and cabarets are being recorded and will be posted online for those who couldn’t participate.
All the world’s a stage
Breckenridge Backstage Theatre also had a show close shortly after opening. “The Beauty Queen of Leenane” ended its second week, before it was able to recoup costs. Artistic Director Nathan Autrey decided to cancel instead of postpone and let the actors return home.
The signs of quarantine were there even before the pandemic officially shut down the county. Autrey said two ushers, who were elderly and therefore in a high-risk group, pulled out of opening night. A show was canceled the second week due to low attendance.
“It was a really, really weak opening for us,” Autrey said. “We usually do really well the opening week, and then the second week it dies down a bit and picks back up again. …. People were a little afraid to come to the theater even before we got going.”
With theater operations on pause, the staff has been let go, and Autrey recently moved to Texas. But before he left, the self-proclaimed Shakespeare buff did salvage one play. “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” was turned into a recorded reading as an homage to the bard’s shows that happened during plagues.
“He didn’t write out the whole script in one place,” Autrey said. “He gave each actor their parts individually because they had to rehearse a lot of times by themselves, away from other people, because of plagues shutting them down.”
The cast from Denver, New York, Los Angeles and beyond gathered on Zoom to donate their time and perform the script the same weekend it would have premiered on the stage.
It has since gathered over 900 views on Facebook, which lead to a few donations, but Autrey isn’t planning to do that for other productions at the moment. For one, copyrights make it complicated to broadcast works not in the public domain, but Autrey also wants to preserve the ephemeral nature of live theater.
“If you ever watched a recorded version of a play, and you’ve seen it live, it’s never the same, never as good,” he said.
Save for “Matilda the Musical,” which will star the same local children, it’ll be a whole new lineup of shows tied to a different concept when things can resume. They may be shows picked by Autrey or ones selected by a new artistic director.
“I usually think of the season as where I’m at with my life at that moment,” Autrey said. “For the next season, I’m definitely at a different place in my life and everybody’s life for that matter. It will be titles that are appropriate for the moment where we are.”
Though it doesn’t involve live actors, Mitchell Theatres also had its shares of financial ups and downs like the rest of the entertainment industry. The local Skyline Cinema 8 in Dillon reopened at the end of June after it closed during the premiere of spring titles like “Onward” and “Bloodshot.” The public is now able to see classics like “Jaws” and “The Goonies” along with new releases like “Trolls World Tour,” “The New Mutants” and “Bill & Ted Face The Music” — all for $4 a show.
Manager David Blake said the movie theater saw around 200 people a day before the pandemic and currently sees about 60. The number of staggered screenings a day has been reduced as well as the capacity in each theater. Tape on the floor guides traffic, and masks are to be worn at all times unless eating and drinking concessions.
Blake said they haven’t had to strictly enforce social distancing guidelines, as different parties tend not to sit near one another. Both he and owner Brian Mitchell are just glad to see familiar faces again as patrons become comfortable returning to the theater.
A silver lining to the pandemic is that the teams at all theaters have been able to flex their creative muscles. Autrey hopes that all productions in the future will be recorded as a back-up plan in case they are shut down again. Alleman plans to continue the theater’s new Wednesday wine gatherings, podcasts and behind-the-scenes features regardless of the pandemic.
“Just like everybody else, whether it be restaurants or stores or wherever, we’re kind of feeling our way as we go,” Mitchell said. “We’re just doing our best to manage expenses, and you just find a path through it. We will.”
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